The VA’s Problem With Systemic Racism

“Systemic racism is as real as unicorns.”

That’s a public tweet from a federal government official — specifically, a senior Human Resources officer at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Milwaukee, Wis. It was posted in June, right as protests in response to the murder of George Floyd spread around the world.

As someone who worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs for 11 years, and now represents 2,000 VA workers as the president of AFGE Local 3 in Milwaukee, I can say that this kind of comment from management is not uncommon.

In fact, systemic racism is not only real: It pervades the VA.

In a recent survey of union members conducted by the AFGE National Veterans Affairs Council, more than 78 percent of VA workers said racism is a problem at the VA. A majority of those surveyed reported that they had witnessed racial discrimination against veterans while working at the VA.

In Milwaukee, VA facilities are rife with racial bias and discrimination. VA management has overlooked cases of racial bias and harassment of Black employees, and allowed retaliation against those who speak out about the discrimination they’ve experienced.

As the survey results would suggest, instances of discrimination and a broader culture of racial bias at the VA extend beyond Milwuakee. In Georgia, Black VA workers at the Carl Vinson Medical Center recently learned that one of their white coworkers — who has access to patient and employee files — moonlights as the host of a white nationalist podcast.

In Kansas City, Black VA workers have spoken out about a pervasive culture of racism at their facility, where they were asked by a white manager to dress up as historical black characters, including slaves, for a “Living Museum.”

It’s hardly surprising that these issues would persist in an environment like the VA, when its top leadership in Washington, D.C., sets a tone of permissiveness. Secretary Robert Wilkie is a former member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and has spoken glowingly about Confederate President Jefferson Davis, once referring to him as a “martyr to ‘The Lost Cause’” and an “exceptional man in an exceptional age.”

How are Black VA workers supposed to trust the VA to take issues of racism seriously when Wilkie himself has praised the men who fought to preserve the institution of slavery?

As VA workers across the country — over 40 percent of whom are Black and people of color — have grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, VA leadership has treated them like they are expendable, dismissing their union’s efforts to address shortages of personal protective equipment, inadequate staffing and training and inconsistencies in policies around leave, telework and hazard pay.

Instead of listening to employees, the VA has waged a war against the union in an effort to undermine workers’ ability to speak out and defend their rights. The VA has tried to scuttle the negotiations over a new contract by refusing to bargain in good faith and proposing illegal changes to the current bargaining agreement.

The union, which represents 270,000 VA workers, is effectively the only way that VA workers have been able to seek justice for the racism they experience or witness on the job. In addition to working informally to advocate for employees, AFGE NVAC files grievances on behalf of workers who feel they were victims of racial bias in promotions, pay and disciplinary action.

That’s why it’s so important that VA workers secure a fair collective bargaining agreement. If VA leadership wants to address the racism employees face on a daily basis and ensure veterans get the care they deserve, then they should start by treating their employees with respect and coming to the table to negotiate a new contract.

At the VA, racism and anti-unionism go hand-in-hand. So while I’m not sure about unicorns, I can say with certainty that systemic racism in America is real — and it’s alive and well at the VA.

Gayle Griffin is the first African American to be elected president of AFGE Local 3 in Milwaukee, Wis., after serving as a certified nursing assistant at the VA for 11 years.

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