By TIM ROWDEN
Under attack from the Trump administration and the top brass at the VA, members of the American Federation of Government Employees Locals 96, 2192 and 3354 gathered outside the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at 915 N. Grand Blvd. in St. Louis Sept. 12 for the second rally in less than a week to demand a fair contract, adequate PPE, and an end to racial discrimination and harassment against more than 270,000 Department of Veterans Affairs workers.
An earlier rally took place on Labor Day outside the Charles F. Prevedel Federal Building in the 9700 block of Page Avenue, attended by Democratic congressional candidate Cori Bush and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner.
Bush also attended the Sept. 12 rally, calling out the lack of proper PPE for workers during the pandemic, widely reported discrimination against workers and efforts to privatize and outsource veterans’ healthcare.
“You are heroes, the people you serve are heroes,” Bush told AFGE members. “They want to throw the flag up and say you need to honor this; you need to be real patriots. But they don’t honor us, the people who do the real work, the patriots, the ones who stood up for us, whether they’re the workers or they’re the patients.
“The Trump Administration and VA Secretary Robert Wilke are opening the barn door for substandard care. They’re opening the door to privatization and outsourcing. That is sickening.”
GOAL: FAIR CONTRACT
“We’re asking for a fair contract,” AFGE Local 96 President Jonay McCall said. “Right now we’re in impasse negotiation. We need that fair contract because it ties right in to why we’re standing out here today.
“We’re asking for PPE gear every day, but they say only certain areas of the hospital can be covered,” she said. “They think that the coronavirus is only in a certain area of the hospital, like it’s actually contained. And we all know that it is a virus that is out everywhere.
“We’re asking for the VA executive board to hold themselves accountable for what’s going on at the VA. Every day we walk through the hallways and we’re meeting veterans every single day, and we’re holding on to do what we were hired for. They hired us to work and make sure we’re keeping the veterans safe. They’re supposed to keep us safe, but they’re not keeping us safe right now.”
Harry Wadlington, secretary/treasurer of AFGE Local 96, said the VA and Trump administration are slow-walking efforts to negotiate a new contract and governing by executive orders in an attempt to bust the union.
“It’s outright union busting. But guess what? AFGE Local 96, we’re still 1,200 strong. AFGE nationwide, we’re still 20,000 strong.
“They’re coming at us hard,” Wadlington said. “We’ve got executive orders undermining the veterans and trying to push veterans into the private sector. We’ve got 50,000 vacancies they won’t fill. They’re undermining civil rights. They want to take a robust agreement between the VA and the union, AFGE, and reduce that thing down to a pamphlet. It’s outright union busting. If this is really about the veterans, how about you fill the vacancies?”
‘TIRED OF BEING TOLD TO BE QUIET’
VA employee Sameka “Sam” Stevens said she works with some 200 different patients every day, but when there is a problem, she is told to be quiet about it.
“I am tired of being told to be quiet,” she said. “I come in here and deal with these veterans every day with love, with compassion, with care, regardless as to how I’m treated by them or the higher ups. Enough is enough. I’m tired of it. I work too hard, too well to be treated the way that I’m treated.”
‘OUR CONTRACT IS OUR LIVELIHOOD’
Keena Smith president AFGE Local 2192, which represents workers in the Veterans Benefit Administration, noted more than 80 percent of the employees in VA facilities are veterans themselves.
“This is the payback that we are getting for serving our country. We’ve done our part and we wanted to come back and give to those who followed behind us.
“We’re tired of discrimination,” Smith said. “We’re tired of racism. We’re tired of not having a fair contract.
“We have 73 articles in our contract, and they’ve only negotiated 13 of them,” she said. “Our veterans depend on us, and we depend on that contract. Our contract is our livelihood. “
‘NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE WHAT’S HAPPENING’
“I’ve been working for the federal government for 25 years,” said Wil Grant, president AFGE Local 3354, which represents USDA employees. “In 25 years I’ve never seen anything like what’s happening the past four years.”
Smith said he and his fellow presidents have traveled to Washington on numerous occasions to speak with Missouri’s Senators Josh Hawley and Ann Wagner and local representatives about what’s happening at the VA, only to be shunted to their office staff.
“All they care about now is their interests. They could care less about us. We’ve got executive orders but contract, no legal bargaining. Every bit is a fight. We need PPE, but they have no plans. No plans to help us inside these buildings, and no one, no one in this administration has tried to help. No one. Josh Hawley will not listen, he won’t listen. Ann Wagner will never listen.
“They send staffers in front of us, that shows you how much they care.”