Unionized VA workers walked out of the VA Hospital in Des Moines with picket signs Wednesday afternoon to protest the federal government’s attempt to privatize veteran healthcare services and to fight for fair contracts.
More than 50 people, including hospital workers, retired workers, members of the Iowa Federation of Labor and presidential campaigns staffers chanted. “What do we want? Fair contracts! When do we want it? Now!” They held signs that said “We’re for workers rights” and “I stand with government workers.”
Gregg James, the national vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees, said the picket line in Des Moines was part of a nationwide protest. He said the VA Hospitals are down 50,000 employees across the country, and the government is trying to take away the union’s collective bargaining rights through executive orders.
“It’s never been a problem in the past, but with this administration, somehow we are the enemy,” James said. “We’re in contract negotiations and they’re trying a bad-faith push on our contract negotiations to an impasse panel that is all Donald Trump appointees and we’ve been losing.”
AFGE local treasurer Nicole Lage said she joined in the protest because the national organization has proposed to cut 28 articles out of its master agreement.
“It is going from over 300 pages down to 98 pages,” Lage said. “They’re cutting out telework. They’re cutting out flex-in-and-out schedules. No compressed tours. They’re taking away our rights for our annual leave and sick leave and leaving it up to a supervisor’s discretion, and that’s not right. We earned that.”
“I have worked for the VA for 20 years,” Lage said. “I’ve been through one hospital closing. I didn’t have a family then. I have a family now and I’m going to fight until the end.”
Lage said she’d like to see more people contracting Congress and telling their representatives to negotiate fairly.
“They are not negotiating fairly. They had people in there that couldn’t make decisions. Now they have a mediator in there negotiating and they’re not negotiating fairly,” Lage said. “Trump is signing these executive orders and he has just destroyed unions. That’s what he’s trying to do.”
James said he wants the American public to see what’s going on because most people don’t understand that up to 40 percent of federal workers are veterans.
“Everybody wants to protect the veterans, but they don’t realize the federal workers are the veterans,” James said. “That’s why civil service was invented. To give a vet a job. But today, we want to privatize it and give the fine work the VA does to the private health care companies like Health Net and other folks like that.”
Many members of Congress are claiming they aren’t trying to privatize the system, but that’s what the Mission Act is doing and it’s taking away quality care from veterans, he said.
“I’m a veteran myself and more than 70 percent of the veterans like the care they get at the VA facilities,” James said. “These programs like the Mission Act are just starving these facilities to be able to do the mission they’ve been doing for so many years.”
Several staffers representing presidential candidates ― a few of whom serve in Congress — joined the picket line Wednesday. Those who were represented included Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg and Julian Castro.
Buttigieg sent a letter to the AFGE, which said, “This administration’s ongoing attempts to privatize veterans’ health care and hamstring workers are a national shame. VA Secretary Wilkie should have the interests of workers and veterans at heart, not corporations who will exploit taxpayer dollars for profit.”
Ken Stephen, who has worked in the linen department at the hospital for nearly 7 years, said he was happy to see all of the support AFGE workers have received.
“We need all the support we can get so we can stick together to get a good contract,” Stephen said. “We need support, but we’ve always got hope … It’s always about hope.”
by Paige Godden