Long before Donald Trump exposed himself as a cheerleader for white supremacy, workers at the Dept. of Veterans Affairs were complaining that the Neo-Confederate running the agency didn’t care about them and was “mimicking” the racist-in-chief.
Trump picked Robert Wilkie to run the VA in 2018, despite, or because of, the former naval intelligence officer’s long-established love affair with the 19th Century traitor Jefferson Davis and the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy.
Now, two years into his tenure, VA staffers and veteran advocates alike charge that Wilkie’s top-down authoritarianism and penchant for marginalizing people of color within the organization would make the dead Confederate president proud, indeed. Not to mention Trump himself.
Wilkie’s personal behavior and participation in Confederate activities appear that he’s a white nationalist. He’s mimicking the president of the United States right now with his behavior.
“Wilkie’s personal behavior and participation in Confederate activities appear that he’s a white nationalist,” Gayle Griffin, president of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 3 told me. “He’s mimicking the president of the United States right now with his behavior. That clashes with what a leader should be—especially with the VA’s diverse population.”
The VA’s Veterans Health Administration is the largest integrated healthcare network in the country, serving some 9 million veterans annually at 1,255 facilities. Many VA employees are, themselves, military veterans still struggling to reestablish their lives following combat duty.
Racists in the Department
The white supremacist views that Trump—and, later Sec. Wilkie—brought to the VA emboldened workers who share those views, as Griffin, the first woman of color to head the union’s Milwaukee local, learned almost immediately after she became Local 3 president in 2017. Four white union stewards resigned in protest and attempted to have that election overturned. According to Griffin, the leader of the opposition complained during a 2018 grievance meeting that Griffin had gone into the Milwaukee VA’s kitchen and “gathered up the help” to fill out her slate of officers.
“It trickles down from the leadership of the agency,” Griffin says. “The atmosphere is very intimidating and hostile. It’s a lot of bullying. People are afraid. But not only the people of color—when Caucasians help me, they become targets also.”
Barbara Galle, president of AFGE Local 3669 and a registered nurse at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, is convinced that Trump installed Wilkie to “get rid of the union.” Galle says the goal is to make sure that employees are silent and servile—just like in the plantation days of the antebellum South.
'Like the Confederacy'
“It’s just like the Confederacy and going back to slavery,” Galle told me. Wilkie and his team “want [workers] to not be able to speak up—have no rights” while they can do whatever they want. “It’s outrageous,” she says.
According to Galle, people of color working at the Minneapolis VA hospital—everyone from housekeepers to emergency room nurses—are routinely “picked on” and “put under a microscope.”
“Staff are looking at it as, ‘No wonder we’re not getting proper PPE [Personal Protection Equipment]; no wonder we’re not all getting hazard pay. Look at the attitudes, the beliefs and statements coming from Wilkie.’”
Griffin says “disciplines are just off the chain,” a reference to the practice of chaining enslaved people to limit their movement as they worked cotton fields. She said the majority of frontline VA workers terminated in Minneapolis during the pandemic have been people of color.
“When people come to work, they cannot function or do their jobs effectively because they’re too busy trying to watch their backs to see if management is going to reprimand them,” Griffin says. “They don’t know what to do.”
Kevin Ellis, president of AFGE Local 2338 in Poplar Bluff, Mo., says that since Wilkie’s appointment many people of color working at the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center have been denied promotions in favor of lesser-experienced white staffers.
Whites Promoted over Others
“African-American employees have trained Caucasian employees after they came to the Department of Veteran Affairs — and when the job announcements were made available, the [white] employees that African-Americans trained actually were picked above them,” Ellis told me. “You can only imagine the morale, the sense of loss, the sense of self-worth—knowing that you trained somebody who was new to the Department of Veterans Affairs—and within seven months after you trained them, they’ve been promoted above you.”
Ellis, an Army veteran, attributes the racially-based bullying, to the Neo-Confederate atmosphere that has become “rampant” throughout the Heartland Veterans Integrated Service Network, which covers most of Missouri and Kansas and parts of Illinois, Kentucky and Arkansas.
Ellis says this de facto white supremacy policy is behind a 16-month-long investigation into his conduct and efforts to have him terminated from the Pershing center. This included a Labor Department audit of the union local, which turned up minor recordkeeping failures, but no evidence of abuse or fraud.
Name Calling on the Job
“We have a major issue in” the VA network, Ellis says. “Co-workers have been called, ‘n-----s’ and ‘black dogs.’ This is rampant. We are all dealing with these issues of just being called racial names out in the open—and no one seems to be able to stop it.”
According to Ellis, it happened to Ashley Whittaker, a veteran working as a clerk at the Pershing center. A co-worker called her the “n-word” on the job in the fall of 2017, not long after Trump’s inauguration. There were reportedly no repercussions.
Things have only gotten worse since Wilkie’s appointment.
Last month, at his Tulsa rally, Trump called VA staffers “bad people” who don’t love the veterans they serve.
Fear of reprisals have intimidated union members into not speaking up when racist managers protect whites who use racial slurs.
“We’ve got employees who say, ‘I would speak up, but I have a job, I have a family, and if I say anything about what’s happening, I’m going to get fired,’” Ellis says.
COVID Response Affected
The Vietnam Veterans of America is a national membership advocacy organization with chapters in 47 states. Rick Weidman, a co-founder, told me that the authoritarian model that exists under Wilkie “disrespects the average service providers” and is hampering the VA’s COVID-19 response.
“PPE is an example,” Weidman says. “They say, ‘we have plenty of PPE, no problem.’ But anybody at the local level who says above a whisper, that they don’t have enough PPE — they get retaliated against. That’s that authoritarian model. What it does is try and stifle worker input.”
The VA needs better organization Weidman adds—but not the brand that Wilkie and the rest of the Trump administration are pushing.
“You gotta have structure, nobody is challenging that,” he says. “But an authoritarian, top-down thing—frankly, that’s more like Russia than it is America. Like many others, I just find it anathema. You need to lead, not drive” workers.
Yvonne Evans, recording secretary for AFGE Local 933 in Detroit is a registered nurse at the John Dingell VA Medical Center. In mid-March, Evans, who is black, tested positive for COVID-19. She said trying to get help was so difficult she ended up breaking down in frustration.
“I sat here in my living room crying because I’m like, ‘How can I be a nurse who takes care of people and I can’t get anybody to take care of me?’” Evans told me.
Evans’ 71-year-old husband James is also an Army veteran. When he went down to the VA hoping to get tested for COVID-19, he was told he’d have to wait up to four hours to be seen. He ended up going to the drive-thru testing center at the Michigan State Fairgrounds where he learned he was positive.
“I have absolutely zero faith in Wilkie,” Ellis says. “We would not survive another four years of Secretary Wilkie or President Trump. We would not survive—you would see a purging of African-Americans within the VA system like you’ve never seen before.”
Wilkie’s critics are adamant that the Trump-appointee must now step down as VA secretary for the good of the agency. They have no expectation of that happening, however, so long as Trump remains in office.
“How can you represent the VA with those [Confederate] beliefs,” Galle said.
Griffin says that in an era of mass demonstrations protesting the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many other people of color, the VA just doesn’t need “that type of leadership.”
“I would like to see [Wilkie] resign,” she says. “The leadership that he is exhibiting is not good for the diverse population of the VA throughout the country.”