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Submission For The Record of National Nurses United

Thank you for the opportunity to comment for the record on H.R. 5543, a bill to improve the collective bargaining rights and procedures for certain employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs.  National Nurses United, the nation’s largest nurse union, represents nurses at 22 VA facilities throughout the United States.   However, this bill is incredibly important not just to our nurses who work at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), but to our entire 155,000 national membership.  Denying the most basic protections to one nurse is an injustice to all nurses.

We thank Chairman Filner for introducing this important legislation, and for his work on the broader legislation, H.R. 949.   We appreciate your commitment to fair treatment for all VA health care workers.  It’s simply unacceptable that nurses would be treated as second-class citizens for the purposes of collective bargaining. 

This bill fixes one way in which nurses collective bargaining rights are different than the rights of other clinicians at the VA and other federally employed nurses by allowing them to bargain over pay issues not related to the setting of base pay.

One need only look to the disparate treatment of nurses at a newly merged VA/Navy Hospital in Chicago to see how irrational it is to apply more restrictive collective bargaining rights on the VA nurses who are working side by side with the Navy nurses.  It begs the question of what the difference is between the care given to active duty members of the United States Navy and veterans. Members of the armed services of the United States should and do receive excellent health care, and they get it from nurses with collective bargaining rights that all nurses should have, at a minimum.

National Nurses United is confident that if private employers and other federal employers can negotiate with nurses without the restrictions in 38 U.S.C. 7422, it should be well within the capacity of the VA to manage basic collective bargaining rights for its nurses. 

We appreciate the formation of a working group to address the grievances that nurses have had with the Department’s interpretation of section 7422.  We hope that this workgroup will help to demonstrate the reality that when leadership of any organization is willing to bring workers to the table, everybody wins.  However, such a working group can only hope to resolve worker complaints about the system as long as the Administration decides to honor their end of the bargain.  Without a legislative solution, any future Administration can roll back such an agreement with impunity. 

The collective bargaining process is entirely consistent with the concept of “patient centered medicine”.  Nurses, as the front line workers in the health care system, have a right and a duty to be patient advocates.  As such, they are quite motivated and well qualified to advocate for the highest quality care available for the heroic men and women who have laid their lives and health on the line in defense of our nation. 

Delivering the best quality care means providing nurses and other health care workers the support that they need so that they can spend their time advocating for patients.  When that’s not the case, everyone loses.  For example, a nurse in Buffalo, New York recently volunteered to give up home and family time to work through the weekend to provide flu shots to veterans.  Her contract clearly stated that she was to be paid premium pay for those overtime hours.  However, in addition to never receiving the compensation she was entitled to, she was told that she could also not file a grievance through her union for that overtime pay, because of the exemptions in section 7422.  Most rational observers would make the determination that the pay exemptions in 7422 would only apply to the setting of salary levels, not filing grievances over violations of an existing employment contract.

Passing H.R. 5543 would mean that a nurse like the one in Buffalo would be able to focus on taking care of patients rather than arguing with the boss over her paycheck.  That is good for nurses and the heroes they heal.

We ask that the Committee work to pass H.R. 5543 to ensure that hard-working front line nurses at the VA are treated fairly – not only in comparison with other government nurses and VA clinicians – but with the respect due any worker.  Nurses choose to devote their careers to helping the sick and the wounded, and to preventing illness.   This is not a choice made out of greed, cynicism, or self-concern.  Once made, this choice leads a practicing nurse to bear witness to pain and suffering, but also hope and triumph the likes of which are nearly impossible to describe in a few pages of Congressional testimony.  It is simply remarkable that anyone would choose to characterize their desire for adequate representation for themselves and their patients as self-interested and harmful to patient care.  That is why the broader bargaining rights in H.R. 949 have the support of the Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Vietnam Veterans of America.   If the veterans who have come to rely on VA nurses can back our rights to advocate for ourselves and our patients, then so should the VA, and so should Congress.