VA Called Out for Systematic Racism

Categories: VA, The Insider

Racism and discrimination have always been used by employers to weaken unions and slow social progress. The Department of Veterans Affairs is no different. 

According to AFGE’s internal survey, 3 out of every 4 VA staff have directly experienced racism at work and 65% of VA staff believe racism makes their job harder. 

During an AFGE webinar on July 22, AFGE members discussed their experiences of racism in the VA. AFGE Local 342 President Marcellus Shields, for example, discussed how Black employees were passed over for promotion and how all managers at his facility are white. AFGE Local 3669 President Barb Galle shared how Black nurses were terminated for doing the same thing their white counterparts did. AFGE Local 2338 President Kevin Ellis shared how he and his wife were targeted and how managers tried to remove them. 

“We are in a battle for our very existence,” said Shields. At his VA facility in Wilmington, Del., that has 250 members, Shields said there are 64 discrimination cases filed.  

“As union people, it’s our duty to end [racism],” Galle said. 

How racism plays out in today’s VA 

In his opening remarks, AFGE President Everett Kelley said fighting systemic racism at the VA or any other federal agency is nothing new for AFGE. In fact, it’s been a central part of what we’ve always done and always had to do.  

“It’s shocking, however, that in 2020 not only are we still having to contend with racism at an agency of the federal government, but that it’s getting worse,” he added.  

There are numerous ways the VA is empowering racists and racism:  

  • The most obvious thing is the new law – the VA Accountability Act – which gave the VA the ability to fire almost at will. And the people they fire the most are not managers but the disabled veterans with at the lowest grades who are overwhelmingly Black and Brown.  
  • The VA is trying to eliminate every part of our union contract that allows us to challenge racism in hiring, firing, assignments and promotions. 
  • They’re trying to take away our ability to represent our members in EEO matters so that victims of discrimination have to go out and pay a private lawyer if they want to pursue an EEO claim. Many people cannot afford a private lawyer. They want and need their union, and the agency knows that. So they’re trying to take away that ability to challenge racist management. 
  • They’re also trying to take VA employees out of Title 5 and make everybody Title 38, which gives the VA almost total discretion in hiring and pay – a perfect way to empower racism, to avoid hiring Blacks and Hispanics. 
  • They give lower pay, worse assignments, and no career development to Black and Hispanic employees.  

The fact that the VA is headed by Secretary Robert Wilkie doesn’t help either. Wilkie in 2009 and in 1995 gave a speech to a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, praising Jefferson Davis, the president of the confederacy – calling him an exceptional man in an exceptional age. Wilkie was also at one point a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  

AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee said she’s been around the VA for many years and she has never seen a more anti-union, toxic, and hostile VA Secretary than Wilkie.  

“Secretary Wilkie has both failed to prioritize the safety of all VA staff during this pandemic and has shown a complete lack of respect for the rights of VA staff,” Lee said. “No worker anywhere, and especially no VA staff member, should ever face any form of harassment, discrimination, or bigotry on the job.”  


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