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The Board of Supervisors approved a new collective bargaining ordinance October 19, paving the way for county employees to decide if they want a union to negotiate benefits on their behalf. The vote was 9-1, with the sole no vote coming from Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity. 

The ordinance organizes county employees into three “units” of police, fire, and emergency medical services, and general government, with some exceptions. Temporary employees, or those who are hired for a position that lasts for four consecutive months or less, are excluded from the ordinance, as are other categories like supervisors, seasonal and confidential employees, and interns.  

Employees of Fairfax County Public Schools are not included in this ordinance. A collective bargaining agreement for FCPS must be approved by a resolution from the school board, though it would be subject to the county’s budget process to fund. 

The ordinance sets forth a framework for formal negotiations to take place between management and unions who have been elected by employees to represent their unit, though some restrictions exist on union activity. Striking, for example, is prohibited for public sector employees under Virginia law. As a “right-to-work” state, workers in Virginia are also not required to pay dues to unions who negotiate on their behalf.

Approval of the ordinance comes on the heels of legislation recently passed by the General Assembly that ended a 44-year statewide ban on public sector collective bargaining. Prior to this change, Virginia was one of only three states, along with North and South Carolina, that prohibited collective bargaining for public employees. 

The new ordinance signifies a “historic moment that shows working people and the labor movement are on the rise,” said David Broder, president of SEIU Virginia 512, a union that represents county employees. The effects of the pandemic have contributed to a greater interest in collective bargaining, Broder reasoned, since it would provide more leverage to employees to negotiate workplace conditions and job security. 

The county commissioned a workgroup led by supervisors Penelope Gross and James Walkinshaw in early 2021 to study the drafting and implementation of the ordinance. The workgroup included representatives from the school board, labor groups, and senior county staff who held several public meetings throughout the year. 

“When we started this process, we all saw the need for additional meetings,” said Tammie Wondong, Fairfax chapter president for SEIU Virginia 512, who worked with the group. The board previously deferred action on the ordinance to resolve lingering concerns with draft provisions, prompting the vote on Tuesday. “A lot of work has gone on to address concerns and several of the changes proposed by employee groups have been considered in the updated draft,” Gross wrote in an email. 

After it passed, Broder and Wondong said they were mostly pleased with the outcome. “This ordinance covers nearly all employees, as it should,” Broder said. 

Not everyone was on board. “It’s no secret I don’t support public sector collective bargaining because I think it would be bad for Fairfax County residents and employees,” Herrity said before the vote. After the meeting, he released a statement decrying the drafting process for lacking transparency, describing the ordinance’s passage as a “dark day for Fairfax County.”

“In terms of process, his assertions are just completely unfounded and untrue,” Walkinshaw said of Herrity. “We had three meetings of the full workgroup and an open-door policy for anyone that wanted to meet to discuss the issues in greater detail.”  

During the meeting, several supervisors such as Chairman Jeff McKay took aim at Herrity, whom he slammed for spreading “misinformation” about the ordinance. McKay cited a newsletter from Herrity that forewarned the implementation of “rubber rooms,” a reference to New York City’s policy of sequestering teachers who await the resolution of misconduct cases with full pay, and accused Herrity of employing “scare tactics.”

Opponents of public sector collective bargaining cite a greater tax burden on residents and the influence of unions as a reason to reject the move. National Right to Work Committee President Mark Mix wrote in a statement that “monopoly bargaining will let special interest union bosses impose costly and inefficient work rules on public services to the detriment of taxpayers and the citizens who rely on those services.” 

Walkinshaw noted that public sector collective bargaining is the rule rather than the exception across the country. “Texas has public sector collective bargaining,” Walkinshaw said. He added that implementation costs would be minimal – about $1 million was set aside in the county budget for administrative costs – and that cost-savings measures could be identified by workers “who can then bring that to management’s attention during the bargaining process.” 

Unions are now revving up to recruit more workers in anticipation of an election. Union elections are governed by the National Labor Relations Board, which sets a high standard for success: at least 30 percent of employees in a bargaining unit must sign a petition to trigger an election. The union that wins a majority vote in an ensuing election would then be formally recognized to bargain on behalf of a unit. Alternatively, a union can be voluntarily recognized if a majority of workers express support for it. 

Workers could also reject union representation outright. 

Collective bargaining is tied to the county’s budget process, meaning that the earliest possibility for a collective bargaining agreement appears to be for the FY 2024 budget, Gross wrote. 

 

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