Holding McDonough Accountable to Labor

Dear Local 17 Member,

The Trump administration made union busting a top priority, with laser focus on the Department of Veterans Affairs.  In its efforts to destroy the union and eliminate hard-fought employee rights, the prior administration flagrantly violated the law and the Master Agreement.[1]  Among other anti-employee and anti-union action, VA unilaterally eliminated performance improvement plans to clear the path for hundreds of employees to be quickly terminated with few rights.  With extraordinary zeal, former Secretary Wilkie prevented union stewards from assisting employees by restricting official time and evicting locals from their offices.  After taking office, President Biden immediately reversed course by issuing several pro-labor executive orders restoring rights, articulating pro-labor policies for the federal government employees, and requiring agencies to comply with the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute (“the Statute”).  President Biden then created a task force to promote worker organizing and collective bargaining for public sector employees.  This task force issued its recommendations in February 2022, including the mandate that the federal government be a model employer that works closely with unions to solve workplace issues.  Regrettably, Secretary McDonough is actively flouting President Biden’s directives and policy goals.  In fact, Secretary McDonough is promoting many of the anti-union positions advanced under the prior administration, while AFGE and the Department are negotiating our new collective bargaining agreement. 

Secretary McDonough’s bargaining team insists on taking many of the same anti-union and anti-employee positions advanced by the Trump administration including:

  • Elimination of performance improvement plans paving the way for employees to be terminated without requiring management to give them a reasonable opportunity to succeed
  • Elimination of existing local agreements and Memoranda of Understanding, erasing many rights we painstakingly secured for employees
  • Creating a new 30% cap on official time, representing only a negligible and cosmetic improvement over the Trump proposed of 25% cap

AFGE was also surprised to learn from the VA representatives at the bargaining table that Secretary McDonough’s VA plans to seek statutory authority to move VA’s entire Title 5 workforce into Title 38, which was designed for healthcare workers.  While the specifics of this legislative goal remain unclear, it threatens a significant further erosion of collective bargaining rights due to the Department’s expansive interpretation of the bargaining exceptions granted in 38 U.S.C. §7422 for matters related to “professional conduct or competence.”  As a practical matter, VA’s position has meant that even routine workplace problems such as incorrect paychecks are no longer grievable for Title 38 workers. 

AFGE Local 17 has also learned that hundreds of employees at VA Central Office/Headquarters have been, and continue to be, improperly coded outside of our bargaining unit, in violation of federal law.[2]  Determining which positions should be excluded from any bargaining unit is set forth in the Statute.[3]  Department employees charged with classifying positions wield enormous power over federal employees.  Classifiers are, in effect, gatekeepers over which employees can and cannot enjoy the many rights under our collective bargaining agreement and the right to union representation.  These rights impact all aspects of employees’ working conditions.   Unfortunately, most Labor Relations Specialists and HR personnel we encounter do not understand these limited bargaining unit exclusions and therefore offer no assistance when asked to rectify the miscoding errors.  Furthermore, continued requests by Local 17 to VA’s Human Capital Office to meaningfully address the issue of misclassification have been met with resistance and comedy-level bureaucratic obstruction.  Local 17 presented several ideas to address the problem.  All were soundly rejected.  Secretary McDonough, however, is ultimately responsible because he sets the tone for labor-management relations. 

Many AFGE leaders are not surprised by Secretary McDonough’s anti-union positions.   Two days after having been sworn in, President Biden effectively restored official time under our collective bargaining agreement by issuing executive order 14003.[4]  Official time is essential to protect workers’ rights – your rights! –  and its authority comes from Congress as well as executive order 14003 and our Master Agreement.  It took Secretary McDonough six weeks to implement that order, and he did so only after being questioned about his noncompliance by Congressman Conor Lamb during a Congressional hearing.  Despite this pattern of anti-union behavior, Secretary McDonough continues to tout his support for unions and the work we do for VA employees.

For example, in January 2022, Secretary McDonough attended Local 17’s event honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In his opening remarks, Secretary McDonough applauded the labor movement’s many contributions to our nation by promoting democracy and ensuring a fair and equitable work environment for all American workers.  Many of you expressed to me that you were personally moved by his remarks.  I too was delighted by his remarks because I believed he was sincere.  But his course of behavior both before and after January 2022 is inconsistent with his words that day.  Secretary McDonough has publicly proclaimed his support for organized labor and collective bargaining, but he has not put these words into action.  Rather, he has ignored the Statute, an executive order, and collective bargaining agreements, and he appears to be advocating for restricting collective bargaining by turning all VA employees into Title 38 employees.  Credible, effective leaders are consistent.  They align their words with their actions and make sure that their subordinates do the same. 

During a recent meeting with Secretary McDonough, AFGE National President Everett Kelley recommended that both sides agree to roll over the 2011 Obama-era Master Agreement for the next three years.  President Kelley said that Secretary McDonough was respectful but noncommittal.  We cannot help but be concerned that this is just the latest example of Secretary McDonough saying that he supports unions in public, while continuing the anti-worker policies and positions of the Trump era behind closed doors.  AFGE and Local 17 remain ready to put into action the principles and values which they publicly espouse – reinstating the 2011 agreement and working with Department officials to address the widespread errors in bargaining unit status codes at VA Central Office.  All eyes are on Secretary McDonough to see if he can be a leader who lives up to his words and, more importantly, those of President Biden under whom he serves. 



Douglas E. Massey, Esq.


AFGE Local 17

[1] Master Agreement Between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the American Federation of Government Employees (2011) (“Master Agreement”).

[2] See 5 U.S.C. §7112. 

[3] 5 U.S.C. §7112(b).

[4] Executive Order 14003 of January 22, 2021, Protecting the Federal Workforce, 86 FR 7231 (January 27, 2021)


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