August 07, 2020

Brittany Holder
[email protected]

78 Percent of Union Veterans Affairs Employees Surveyed Say Racism is a Problem at the VA

Categories: Washington, D.C., VA


Survey Data and Firsthand Accounts from Union Employees Show Racism has Proliferated at VA Facilities Nationwide under Trump Administration

WASHINGTON -- Seventy-eight percent of employees surveyed nationwide at the Department of Veterans Affairs this month reported that racism is a moderate to serious problem at the VA, according to data collected by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National VA Council. Seventy-six percent of employees surveyed said they had experienced racially charged actions while working at the VA. 

The survey results mark the latest evidence of widespread racism and racial bias going unchecked at the VA under Secretary Robert Wilkie, who was appointed by President Donald Trump amid controversy over Wilkie’s longtime membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

In addition to allowing a culture of racism to proliferate, Wilkie has waged a sustained attack on union workers at the VA -- over 40 percent of whom identify as people of color -- by refusing to bargain in good faith over a new contract and pursuing illegal changes to the bargaining agreement. 

“It’s shocking 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” said AFGE National President Everett Kelley on today’s press call. “These survey results are shocking and unacceptable and must be addressed. 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, always had to do, because, of course, there is absolutely nothing new about racism.” He adds, “We’re fighting these battles on the national, district, and local levels.  We fight them every single day.”

Fifty-five percent of respondents reported that they had also witnessed racial discrimination against veterans while on the job. The results of the survey come as growing numbers of VA union workers have begun speaking out against racist behavior they have personally experienced and witnessed on the job:

  • AFGE Local 910 member and former VA employee and Navy veteran Charmayne Brown recently filed 18 complaints of racial discrimination against the Kansas City Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center, where she endured racial slurs and sexually suggestive language from superiors, and was repeatedly passed up for promotions. Her complaints were ignored, and instead she faced backlash for speaking out. She is one of 50 employees who are speaking out about discrimination at this facility, though many chose to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. These workers are joined by the local ACLU and NAACP in demanding that high-level VA leaders intervene. 
  • Email records document how the VA has attempted to remove Kevin Ellis, president of AFGE Local 2338 in Missouri, after he spoke out about racism at his facility. An arbitration decision affirmed Ellis’ claims about bullying and harassment, and emails (that went unanswered) that he wrote to a superior at the VA detail how coworkers of color reported being called racial slurs and subsequently experienced retaliation for speaking out.

“I have personally witnessed rampant racism at my VA facility - including hearing racial slurs, and seeing colleagues of color being denied promotions in favor of lesser-experienced white staffers,” said Kevin Ellis, President of AFGE Local 2338 in Poplar Bluff, Missouri and an Army veteran. “Things have only gotten worse since Robert Wilkie’s appointment. I feel like his ties to pro-Confederate groups have emboldened racist behavior inside the VA. I’m sad to see that fear of retaliation has intimidated many into silence, while VA leadership is so quick to protect our white colleagues.”

“I have endured racism at the VA my whole career – my whole life. I watched my grandmother go through it, and the VA will be damned before I watch my grandchildren go through it,” said Charmayne Brown of AFGE Local 910 in Kansas City. Charmayne spoke on today’s call, describing the horrific instances of racial abuse she has suffered at the hands of white VA management and colleagues. She retired last year after facing significant retaliation for speaking out, stating “I retired because I was tired of suffering these injustices every day.” Charmayne notes that she is not alone in feeling this way, adding “this is why I am now more determined than ever before to shed light on these issues.”

“It’s time for the leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs to take action and address the deep inequalities and racism that persist within the VA,” said Alma Lee, President of AFGE NVAC. “We are coming together as a union and demanding that our Black, brown, Asian and Pacific Islander colleagues be treated with respect, dignity, and be given equal opportunities. We all want the same thing – to be able to care for our veterans, families, and ourselves while remaining free from racial discrimination. It is outrageous that as federal workers, our members have been subjected to this level of injustice.”

In response to the survey results, Lee penned a letter to Secretary Wilkie calling on the VA take the following actions: 

  1. Acknowledge that racism and discrimination is widespread at VA facilities nationwide.
  2. Withdraw the contract proposal to ban staff representation in EEO interviews.
  3. Affirm that all VA workplaces must be free from bigotry, harassment, and retaliation, and take the appropriate steps to ensure that these basic rights are upheld. 
  4. Meet with AFGE leadership to discuss best practices and next steps in combating racism at the VA.

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