It took more than five years. But now the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and First Executive Vice President of AFGE National VA Council have a tentative new master collective bargaining agreement. For details, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Mary Jean Burke, the first executive vice president of AFGE National VA Council.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin So this must feel like a big red letter day. This is one of your biggest bargaining units, correct?

Mary Jean Burke Yeah. Over 280,000 people fall under this contract. It’s probably the one of the largest contracts in America.

Tom Temin I was going to say that’s bigger than like, Ford Motor Company has unionized employees.

Mary Jean Burke Yeah. If all those people were dues paying, that’d be great. But they fall under the contract regardless.

Tom Temin Got it. Now, this agreement would start when? And what would it replace? Because you had a couple of overlapping old agreements and pieces kind of pieced together until now.

Mary Jean Burke Well, basically what happened was, after the Trump administration we entered into what we call a global settlement period, where we had a limited reopener. So we were continuing on with the 2011 master agreement with a tentative reopener of 12 articles, basically. And then, the parties kind of slog through those articles and we weren’t having a lot of progress. And then, I think, through the efforts of both parties, the agency kind of just wanted to boil it down to say, hey, we’ve got hiring problems, can you just focus on that? And we come to an agreement that we just kind of made changes in one article, and the rest of the articles rolled over basically, from the 2011 agreement. So a good deal for both sides and we’re moving forward.

Tom Temin Now does the new agreement then look a lot like the 2011 agreement that kind of expired and then you had some disagreements over some important clauses in the Trump administration. And there was an arbitration council that looked at those and sided with the administration. That’s all out the window then now, correct?

Mary Jean Burke Well, basically not exactly. So what we call is every contract has a duration, and as they come up on that duration, they decide whether they want to reopen the contracts partially or all of it. And then we also have the decision whether we want to open the contract or not. Generally, unions don’t open contracts unless they have a really bad contract. This is a good contract, the 2011 contract has some good provisions in it. So basically, when they decided to do this limited reopener we went through that since the Biden administration. And so we weren’t moving quickly through that. So the parties came together and accelerated, just focused on that one article dealing with what we call merit promotion, which helps the agency hire folks. And we need more folks considerably, Tom. So I think it was a good deal for both people and it got us through our disputes. And that’s what’s going out for ratification, everything except that Article 23 Merit Promotion.

Tom Temin Got it. And so what should members know that’s good in this contract generally, do you think?

Mary Jean Burke Generally, I think everything that is already there except 23. Now, the 23 basically has a shortened duration for vacancy announcements that people can apply for. So that’s a change when it comes to area of consideration. If they want to go outside, obviously, they can go outside, people can apply like they’re an external applicant as well. Then you get veterans preference. But those are the changes. The agency really was looking to ramp up acceleration, as you know, probably by doing interviews with other places or federal agencies. Time to hire is very big with [Office of Personnel Management (OPM)] and the federal workers, just generally. And so they thought that would get them to their goal. And we need a lot more people. And our internal president say, bring them on, we need more people. We’re looking at an older retirement age and we want to be around. We have to make some changes as well.

Tom Temin Right. So this will bring in people more easily.

Mary Jean Burke Yeah, exactly.

Tom Temin All right. We’re speaking with M.J. Burke. She’s first executive vice president of the National VA counsel of the American Federation of Government Employees. What happens now? This is an agreement between the negotiators and VA leadership. Got to be ratified, right?

Mary Jean Burke Right. It’s an accelerated ratification process or what I know of accelerate. So in the next 60 days, we have 60 days basically for that to go out to them, to hold their special meetings, to send in the votes of their members on this article. But for the most part, the 2011 agreement rolls over. And so that was like the huge caveat basically, for enticing us to ratify. So I’m anticipating positive outcomes for this. This is a good contract, generally speaking. There are vestiges in that contract that’s applicable to all workers, and it still allows local tailoring for a local union to have hours of work if they want to have, defined seniority if they want to have it locally different from one place to another. And so that really gives local precedence a maneuverability as well. And so that’s what we’re looking forward to. And we think we’re not going to have a problem with ratification.

Tom Temin And VA employees would be as other federal employees, in terms of probation periods, procedures for discipline and dismissal that the Trump administration sought to change.

Mary Jean Burke Yeah, I think for the most part, I think the agency, we have a different, just to get down in the weeds a little bit with your Tom, on that one. But for nurses and doctors, they have a little longer probationary period than what we call Title Five, a wage grade, generally speaking. And I think you’re referencing what we call 714 actions, not 713 actions, which is the accountability piece for supervisors and managers. The 714 for actions, that you were referencing or I think you were referencing from the Trump administration. The administration has taken the view that they thought they didn’t need it. There was some litigation around making sure that they followed the collective bargaining agreement regarding what we call PIP’s, performance improvement plans. And not just firing people at will, unless, like it’s egregious kind of behavior. So like due process rights kind of thing.

Tom Temin It’ll feel like Title Five to Title Five employees and Title 38 to Title 38 employees.

Mary Jean Burke Right, Exactly. So it follows the same legal standards and legal burdens as it did prior to the Trump administration.

Tom Temin And what do you think took so long for the Biden administration to come round? Because the Trump administration had its ways, but you would have thought that, gosh, Denis McDonough (D-Minn.) would have gotten this done in the first month.

Mary Jean Burke I think, if you’re just asking me, I think some of it is mentality. Even though they talk a lot of were pro-labor kind of thing, when you get across from agency officials in the HR realm and the attorneys of the HR realm, they don’t think really operationally as much, I think, or that’s my perspective. And I think sometimes when you get operations to operations, I think things go through. And when you enter a lot of legal realms, things get gunked up a lot longer. So we got it done now. And so I’m pleased and kind of surprised. We had some logjams there, but we made it through it.