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Collective bargaining with public employees begins in Virginia > Virginia

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Some public workers in Virginia have entered union contract negotiations over wages, benefits and other working conditions for the first time in more than four decades, the result of a 2020 state law that helped ignite the labor movement in a long-standing anti-union state.

On Tuesday, the Alexandria City Council agreed to fund the first collective bargaining agreement since a 1977 Supreme Court ruling banning those union contracts. Among other things, the deal with city police employees will increase starting salaries from $54,698 to $61,504 and provide time-off for certain holidays.

Firefighters and paramedics in nearby Fairfax County began contract negotiations last week when they voted overwhelmingly to unionize, while other localities and school boards — mostly in Northern Virginia — have either passed collective bargaining regulations that form the basis for such talks , or these are included.

“This is an extraordinary moment,” said David E. Broder, chairman of the Service Employees International Union, which represents Fairfax and Loudoun general employees. “Workers across Virginia are organizing every day to win union rights and union elections.”

Virginia’s labor movement has long been anemic by the state’s nearly 75-year-old “Right to Work” statute, which allows workers to choose not to pay union dues even if they’re covered by a union contract — which it is for those unions difficult to remain financially stable.

The movement was further weakened in 1977 when the state ruled that collective agreements Arlington County had entered into with its employees were unenforceable because the General Assembly had not authorized municipalities to enter into employment contracts with public employees. Under Virginia’s Dillon Rule, the state legislature has authority over all matters not specifically delegated to the cities or counties.

These decisions left public employee unions to lobby county and school boards for changes in pay and benefits, which were essentially shadow bargaining and non-binding agreements.

That changed after the 2020 General Assembly passed legislation that effectively overturned the 1977 court ruling — and a 1993 state law codifying the decision — by empowering local governments and school boards to pass collective bargaining ordinances.

Del’s. Law introduced by Elizabeth R. Guzman (D-Prince William) does not apply to government employees.

It gives public sector workers more say over how much they earn and how long they work, as local officials take those costs into account when approving budgets, union leaders say.

“Collective bargaining makes us an absolute partner in these decisions,” said Robert Young, president of the International Association of Firefighters’ Local 2068, which represents approximately 1,500 current and retired Fairfax County firefighters and paramedics in talks with the county that are expected to begin in January.

“Now, as part of the process, they have to actually discuss these things with us and get our input and feedback,” Young said. Currently, “They can change my work schedule, they can change my pay grade, they can change anything related to how I promote or advance my career.”

Local officials have generally supported collective bargaining despite the potential tax implications.

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson (D) announced the deal his city has officially entered into with its police force, which will cost $16.3 million over three years.

“This is an exciting move and a historic move,” Wilson said Tuesday night, before the council unanimously passed a resolution funding the deal. “When we passed this regulation, we did it because it’s important to give employees a voice.”

In some cases, negotiations can get strained in a faltering local economy since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left several jurisdictions understaffed in some departments as employees either retire early or relocate elsewhere.

In Fairfax, firefighters and paramedics plan to push for higher wages and changes to the county’s “holdover” policy, which requires them to work extra time after a 24-hour shift if the station is understaffed to detach them.

That policy has become a bigger problem in recent years, with the county’s fire department having about 50 vacancies while some employees at the department are taking advantage of pandemic leave offered by the county, making it harder to fill shifts.

“Every day, I would say, someone doesn’t go home at the end of their shift,” Young said. “And they have to work at least 12 extra hours.”

Fairfax County executive Bryan J. Hill said the fire department is working to hire more firefighters to fill these vacancies, even as more of those vacancies become vacant due to early retirements.

“If we’re able to get our vacancy rate to zero, holdovers won’t be an issue,” Hill said, adding that the district doesn’t yet know what the tax implications of collective bargaining will be because official talks have not yet started would have .

The start of collective bargaining for public employees in Virginia sparked the broader Washington-area labor movement, in which workers at Starbucks coffee shops or independent bookstores have recently organized while working to influence policy decisions affecting their workers, broder , concern said.

“This is an extraordinary organizing wave,” Broder said, noting that private sector employers have worked to stem the effort. “But it’s still a very difficult process.”

Guzman said public employees in Northern Virginia are now in a position to push for statewide workplace changes because almost every jurisdiction will have a collective bargaining regulation — a prospect that has given local officials worried about costs pause could give.

“This is going to be a learning curve for all places,” Guzman said. “Of course there will be fear. Of course there will be resistance, because this is something completely new.”

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