OVERLAND — For a lot of Americans, Labor Day means not going to work, but a crowd of about 50 could be found at Page and Spencer avenues. And they were not resting.
Members of several local union groups, including the American Federation of Government Employees, stood in solidarity with nationwide protests in other states to demand a fair contract for more than 270,000 Department of Veterans Affairs workers. Democratic congressional candidate Cori Bush and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner attended to show their support.
Bush told the crowd that she wished they had more power in numbers. She later told the Post-Dispatch how important it is to her to show up at protests like this one.
"It's people's lives, it's their livelihood, it's their families," she said. "We have to advocate, even if we're not directly affected. Even though I don't work at the federal building and I'm not a part of AFGE, these are our people."
Gardner encouraged the workers and thanked them for showing up.
"Equality for workers in this COVID-19 pandemic is crucial," Gardner later told the Post-Dispatch. "We have to keep the essential workers going, and make sure their workplace is fair."
Examples of workers protected by the AFGE include nurses, correctional officers, police officers, Census workers and more.
After the two spoke, they posed for pictures with protesters.
Keena Smith, president of Local 2192 of AFGE, said members are hoping to send a message to Robert Wilkie, current secretary of Veterans Affairs. The unions want him to return to the negotiating table to bargain in good faith with the National VA Council.
The current contract covering VA workers expires Dec. 31. Smith said the VA negotiated on only 11 of 68 articles for a new collective bargaining agreement.
"We would lose our telework, reasonable accommodations, pay increases," Smith said. "We would lose all of the provisions we fought for."
Union members hit the streets in the past few months, after the VA eliminated hazard pay. The workers continue to deal with shortages of personal protective equipment, according to a statement from the union. In a pandemic, Smith said, it's critical that workers are provided what they need to stay safe and healthy on the job.
The Department of Veterans Affairs claim the AFGE's comments lack credibility.
"VA St. Louis Health Care System employees have provided life-saving care to more than 334 COVID patients while adhering to safety practices," VA press secretary Christina Noel said in an email.
The union is hoping that an impasse panel will send the VA back to the table.
Noel's email said the AFGE has consistently fought for the status quo and opposed attempts to make the VA work better for veterans and their families.
"It's no surprise AFGE has taken the same approach with its refusal to accept commonsense improvements to its collective bargaining agreement," Noel's email said.
Bush's father also attended the protest. Errol Bush, 66, is retired, but said he was there "just to support labor." He attends protests with his daughter often.
In his working life, he belonged to Local 88 of United Food and Commercial Workers, more commonly known as the meat cutters union, for 25 years. Union membership increased his quality of life, gave him access to better healthcare and allowed him to enter the middle class, he said.
Though the economy is supported by more service-sector jobs than it used to be, Bush hopes unions can still engage with voters about why unions are important.
"They need to spread the word about what unions have done for our community, and for our country," he said.
Labor Day protests, calling for the same re-negotiations, occurred in about a dozen other states, according to the release.
This story has been updated to include a statement from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
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