Local Collective Bargaining Off to Slow Start

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Although the alarm bells have sounded repeatedly on this blog, there has not been a rush to establish public employee bargaining in Virginia. Today, about a year and a half after the General Assembly enacted the authorizing law, and six months after it went into effect, only three jurisdictions have enacted ordinances authorizing collective bargaining, with another jurisdiction, Loudoun County, scheduled to vote on an ordinance on November 10, which seems likely to pass. In contrast, at least three jurisdictions have officially said “no” to collective bargaining.

Furthermore, none of the four collective bargaining ordinances, either adopted or pending to date, include teachers. School boards oversee the schools and will be the ones to consider collective bargaining by their employees, including teachers. So far, no local group of teachers has been authorized to engage in collective bargaining, nor has any group officially requested to do so.

The localities are all in Northern Virginia. In addition to the pending vote in Loudoun, the city of Alexandria and the counties of Fairfax and Arlington have approved a collective bargaining ordinance. One city, Portsmouth, went as far as to have an ordinance drafted by staff, but then backed away when it came to adopting it.

There is no central listing of the status of collective bargaining in localities. For the preparation of this article, I contacted both the Virginia Association of Counties (VACO) and the Virginia Municipal League (VML), asking which of their members had approved collective bargaining or were considering it. Dean Lynch, the VACO executive director responded, saying that his organization was not tracking the actions of localities with respect to collective bargaining. No one from VML responded. I was surprised. I had thought that for such a new, controversial policy issue, both organizations would be keeping abreast of how their members were responding.

Due to the lack of a central point of information, I was limited to an internet search. Therefore, there could be a locality that I have overlooked.

There are two means whereby collective bargaining can get on the agenda of a local governing body. First, the governing body itself can take the initiative by choosing to consider it, directing the staff to draft an ordinance, and then voting on the ordinance. (In the case of school boards, the instrument would be a resolution.) That was the process followed in the four localities that have either adopted a collective bargaining ordinance or have one pending.

If a jurisdiction does not take up the issue on its own initiative, its employees can force the issue. As provided by statute, if a majority of the employees “in a unit considered by such employees appropriate for the purposes of collective bargaining” request the board or council to consider it, the governing body has 120 days to vote on a collective bargaining ordinance (or resolution).

This latter approach was followed in Portsmouth and Prince William County.  On May 1, the first day the law was effective, firefighter and dispatchers presented the Portsmouth city council with a petition, signed by 90% of the eligible personnel, requesting permission to bargain collectively. In mid-September, first responders (police and fire department personnel) submitted similar petitions to the Prince William County Board of Supervisors.

The Portsmouth city council has had an on- and off-again attitude toward collective bargaining. In September, 2020, months before the state collective bargaining statute took effect, the council passed a resolution, unanimously, declaring that its employees would be allowed to engage in collective bargaining.  However, in mid-August of this year, when considering the draft collective bargaining ordinance for firefighters, in response to a petition from that group, the council voted not to authorize firefighters, emergency dispatchers, or any other city workers to bargain collectively. The council’s about-face was in reaction to the estimated cost of $2 million provided by the city’s chief financial officer.

In addition to the jurisdictions already mentioned, there has been some activity in a few other jurisdictions:

  • Virginia Beach: The city council was briefed on the issue in mid-September. The city manager projected that the approval of collective bargaining would result in about $400,000 in annual administrative costs. No action seems to have been taken since that briefing.
  • Charlottesville: In mid-August, the city council voted not to approve a collective bargaining ordinance submitted by firefighters, but directed the city manager to draft a general collective bargaining ordinance. (It is not clear from media reports whether the firefighter’s request had been formally adopted by a majority of the employees of that unit.)
  • Winchester and Clarke County: These two jurisdictions have given preemptive notice they will not participate in collective bargaining.

I have not heard nor read of any activity in the Richmond area related to collective bargaining.

Despite the lack of much formal action, an Internet search makes it clear that the issue is bubbling beneath the surface, especially with regard to firefighters, law enforcement, and teachers. This is not surprising because these groups are the ones most organized. Perhaps it was expected that teachers would have been more active in seeking collective bargaining authorizations than they have been.  However, in perusing material on the Internet, I got the impression that teachers have been so busy coping with the ramifications of COVID and school closings that they have had the time or energy needed to organize petitions for submission to their local school boards for collective bargaining.

Over the next year or so, there are likely to be more petitions submitted by teachers and other local employees to school boards, city and town councils, and county boards of supervisors. But, as demonstrated by Portsmouth, those governing bodies are not required to enact collective bargaining ordinances.

My Soapbox

In advocating for collective bargaining, Phyllis Randall, chairwoman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, emphasized that the county has not been “paying our employees what they were worth by a long shot in the district.” If that is what she and the majority of the board members believe, why not just give county employees healthy raises and avoid the hassle and expense of dealing with an employees’ union authorized to engage in collective bargaining?

In a report to the Board, Loudoun County staff set out the projected fiscal impact of authorizing collective bargaining. The board has already authorized eight positions and $300,000 for contractual services and labor relations administrators. The report indicated that an additional four positions would be needed in the future.

I do not have access to the salary scale used by Loudoun County, but, using a conservative estimate of $100,000, including fringes, for each position, that would amount to an annual cost of at least $1.2 million for those twelve positions. (A board briefing by the Arlington county manager cited an estimated cost of $1.4 million for Loudoun.) If that $300,000 for contractual services is also an annual cost, that would be at least $1.5 million annually for administrative costs tied to collective bargaining. That amount of money could give a lot of employees a healthy raise, especially the lowest paid ones.