Ray Winsbush lost both of his legs in Vietnam. Since 1995, the 74-year-old veteran has been going to the Tibor Rubin VA Medical Center in Long Beach, Calif., for his medical care. But when he heard about the Department of Veterans Affairs’ plan to send more veterans to private-sector hospitals and eventually privatize the VA, he was worried.
Before he became a patient at the VA hospital, he received his treatment at private hospitals and was not a fan. So when he heard VA employees were holding a rally to protest an anti-worker labor-management contract aimed at driving out VA employees and eventually privatizing the VA, he had to show up.
“I’m out here to support them and to make sure they do not go privatized,” Winbush told reporters. “All of the healthcare I was getting on the outside, it wasn’t as good as what the VA has given to me.”
Winsbush was joined by other veterans, L.A. County Federation of Labor President Rusty Hicks, Pastor Steve Neal, Mayor Robert Garcia, other community leaders, and concerned citizens at the June 5 rally in Long Beach, one of the 68 rallies and events held by AFGE and VA employees nationwide to protest the anti-worker contract, which covers 260,000 VA employees across the country. Seventy locals held events around the country.
The Long Beach VA Hospital was the site for the first round of contract negotiations between our union and the VA on May 28-June 7. The next round will be in Washington, D.C.
“Management gave us proposals showing their intent to go after employees, cripple the VA, eliminate our union and privatize the VA,” said AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee, who is also our union’s chief negotiator.
AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. was at the Long Beach rally, urging people to show up every Wednesday to protest VA management’s union busting and privatization.
“If we’re going to win this fight, it’s going to be won in the streets,” he said.
AFGE VA members across the country stood together and received tremendous support from veterans and allies.
In Philadelphia, the employees of the VA regional office and insurance center, members and nonmembers of AFGE Local 940, walked outside to share a moment of silence for the attacks on their rights as employees serving veterans. Seventy-five employees gathered to hear about the attacks they face and bowed their heads together. After the shared moment, they chatted and rallied in support of our bargaining team.
“Employees standing together is the back bone of what makes union strong,” said Local 940 President Jim Rihel. “Only together can we fight back against the unprecedented attack we face today.”
For our rally in Fresno, Calif., AFGE VA Local 2654 employees were joined by Fresno-Madera-Tulare-Kings Central Labor Council, Communications Workers of America, SEIU, Carpenters United, Central Valley Partnership, Valley Forward, and the other union members who came out to stand with us and say no to union-busting and privatization.
In Portland, Oregon, joining our rally were Veterans for Peace, Physicians with Social Responsibilities, Oregon AFL-CIO, Portland Jobs with Justice, Healthcare for All Oregon, Bernie PDX, Portland DSA, and former state senator and veteran Robert Boyer.
In Gainesville, Fla., VA employees at the Malcom Randall Medical Center took to the streets and were joined by allies like Jeremiah Tattersall, field director for North Florida Central Labor Council, who criticized the VA for refusing to fill 400 vacancies at the VA in Gainesville. AFGE Local 229 President Muriel Newman told reporters she was worried about the VA’s plans to eliminate employee grievance filing ability.
“We are concerned about the grievance procedure where employees have the right to speak to management through the union on any kind of abuse of power or mismanagement," she said.
In Washington, D.C., Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) and Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) wore red to show solidarity with VA employees.
Many lawmakers and leaders tweeted in support of our union and VA employees: Sen. Jacky Rosen, Rep. Susan Wild, Rep. Jason Crow, Rep. David Trone, Rep. Andy Levin, Rep. Linda Sanchez, Rep. Debbie Dingell, Rep. Jamie Raskin, Rep. Mark Takano, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, Rep. Frank Pallone, Rep. Dina Titus, Rep. Jennifer Wexton, Rep. Ro Khanna, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, and San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher.
Also tweeting in solidarity with us were the AFL-CIO and several state federations, AFL-CIO Richard Trumka, AFSCME, CWA, Teamsters, IFTPE, BCTGM, and other unions and allies.
The MISSION Act: rushing to privatize
The VA rushed to launch its expanded privatization program under the controversial MISSION Act on June 6, a move that will potentially harm veterans as more veterans will be pushed out of the VA with no system in place to track how long it takes them to receive care in the private sector or measure the quality of care received – even though the VA’s own clinicians are held to strict timelines and exacting quality standards.
“This is a clear double standard that is designed to push veterans out of the VA, no matter the consequences, and to starve the VA of the resources it needs to continue providing the high-quality care veterans expect and deserve,” AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. said.
The push to privatize more of the VA comes as the department quietly released data showing a marked increase in the number of vacancies inside the agency. There were 50,201 vacancies as of May 31, up from nearly 49,000 at the end of 2018 and around 35,000 at the end of 2017.
In addition to doctors and nurses, there are significant shortages of mental health clinicians and VHA police officers – critical positions that the VA needs to fill to help combat a rise in veteran suicides and to protect both patients and employees.
“The vast majority of veterans want to get their care at the VA, where the medical staff is trained to address their unique and specialized needs, and where one-third of employees are veterans themselves,” AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee said. “Yet by allowing vacancies inside the VA to steadily rise, and rushing through reforms that will push more veterans to the private sector, it’s clear that this administration is ignoring the will of veterans in a blind pursuit to privatize the VA.”
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