VA Nurses: One Step Closer to Restored Bargaining Rights


February 19, 2009 – Katrina Blomdahl, writer-researcher for RNs Working Together, says the organization applauds moves to return bargaining rights to Veterans Affairs nurses. RNs Working Together is a coalition of 10 AFL-CIO unions representing more than 200,000 registered nurses nationally.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, reached out to right a serious wrong when they recently introduced crucial legislation (S. 362 and H.R. 949) to restore the collective bargaining rights of VA health care professionals, including registered nurses.

For the past several years, health care professionals have been scrambling to meet soaring patient care demands from two wars and an aging population. Meanwhile, the professionals who provide the hands-on care to our veterans have seen their ability to have an effective voice in the workplace eroded by the Bush administration, intensifying the shortage in VA hospitals. The legislation sponsored by Rockefeller and Filner aims to reverse that trend.

Says J. David Cox, a registered nurse and the national secretary-treasurer of the federal government union, AFGE:

This critical legislation will go a along way to ensure that the VA is a model employer who can compete for the best nurses and other health care professionals to care for our veterans.

The change will come as a welcome relief to the health care professionals – including  registered nurses, physicians, physician assistants, dentists, podiatrists, optometrists and expanded duty dental assistants – who were singled out by the Bush administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for more limited bargaining rights.

Ann Converso, RN, president of the United American Nurses (UAN), puts it this way:

These important bills restore to nurses and other VA health care workers the ability to forcefully advocate for our patients with the protection of our union and the collective bargaining process behind us.

In 1991, Congress enacted 38 USC Section 7422 to provide VA registered nurses with the same collective bargaining rights as other federal employees. Congress carved out some exceptions—most importantly, excluding the right to bargain collectively over disputes related to “direct patient care.” While the legislative history makes clear that Congress viewed “direct patient care” narrowly to mean medical procedures, not issues such as nurse compressed work schedules, the Bush administration used this exclusion as a wedge to separate health care workers from their rights.

Cox notes that:

Congress outlined its intent to afford VA employees the same collective bargaining rights as other federal employees, but unfortunately for the VA workforce and the veterans they care for, the VA’s current human resources policy has acted contrary to that intent.

The new legislation would amend Section 7422 and put an end to years of unequal rights for front-line VA health care professionals appointed under Title 38.

But the thorny questions still remain. Why did the VA single out Title 38 health care professionals and provide them with fewer rights than other VA health care professionals and doctors and nurses in military hospitals in the first place?

It comes down to the cash squeeze. Wrestling rights away from nurses and other front-liners allows managers to demand prolonged overtime and enormous patient caseloads, instead of using the increased appropriations provided by Congress to hire additional staff or offer competitive pay and schedules to make the VA a real employer of choice.

Our military veterans deserve a health care workforce that has a voice in their working conditions and in the delivery of care. And taxpayers deserve to have the precious health care dollars appropriated for the VA go to health care, rather than wasteful and harmful efforts that undermine the rights that workers need and deserve.

It’s time for policies that support our nurses and our veterans. That’s why, as the largest organization of working registered nurses in the United States, RNs Working Together applauds Rep. Filner and Sen. Rockefeller for their effort to restore collective bargaining rights to these workers.

When VA nurses have a meaningful voice in their workplace, and the full opportunity to advocate for their patients, then we’ll know for sure that our nation’s veterans are getting the safe, quality care that every patient deserves.

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