Most Fairfax County public employees who provide vital services in education, safety, healthcare, and sanitation like others in counties, cities, and towns across the Commonwealth, will gain a new right on May 1, 2021. It is the right to engage in collective bargaining. Passage of Virginia HB 582, introduced by House Delegate Elizabeth Guzmán (D-31), who represents parts of Fauquier and Prince William counties, opened the door to legislative action leading to the bill’s approval on April 22, 2020.The bill authorized collective bargaining with labor unions on behalf of public officers and employees. Governor Northam postponed the date on which HB 582 would become effective until May 2021 due to concerns over COVID-19.
Before the approval of HB 582, Virginia Code said no state, County, or municipality had the authority to recognize or collectively bargain with any public employees’ labor unions.
HB 582 did not define, though, how public employees engage in collective bargaining. The state left that up to individual jurisdictions to write their own rules.
ON FEB. 25, Fairfax County Supervisor and Vice Chairman Penny Gross (D-Mason District), Chair of the Fairfax County Collective Bargaining Workgroup, opened the second meeting between Fairfax County leaders and union representatives. The meeting was meant to solicit input toward the writing of collaborative labor-management policies. School Board Chair Dr. Ricardy Anderson (Mason District), School Board Member Karen Corbett Sanders (Mount Vernon), and other County leaders attended the meeting.
“This is our day to hear from our employee groups as to what you think the key discussion points need to be,” Gross said. She asked one representative from each employee organization to share its perspective on four suggested decision points – the scope of collective bargaining, the number and definition of the bargaining unit(s), the process for employees to select exclusive bargaining representatives, and the employee/labor administrative official/body to administer collective bargaining.
Dr. Anderson said she looked forward to hearing ideas and questions. “We probably will not have answers to these questions today, but it will help to determine how we move forward in this process that we’re developing together,” she said. Each group kept comments to three to five minutes.
Brad Caruthers, Fairfax County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 77, maintained that the process should be slow. “We need to do it right; obviously, other jurisdictions are embarking in the same discussions; some too rapidly,” he said. The scope certainly needed to cover pay benefits and the grievance process. For the police department, what will the bargaining units look like for rank and file – one for supervisors and then a separate unit for command.
Becca Ferrick, of Association of Fairfax Professional Educators, said that the process must also be taken “logically.” It should allow direct input from many different perspectives in terms of the bargaining scope.”We prefer more limited scope, benefits and pay, perhaps safety and health,” she said. Ferrick added that the Association would like the lowest number of bargaining units and allow specific definitions either by wage labels or levels and types or by purpose and intent. Like many others, Ferrick urged that the process for employees to select exclusive bargaining should be done by secret ballot, and the administration should be an independent, non-political counsel.
Fairfax County Professional Firefighters & Paramedics – Local 2608 President Ron Kuley echoed his “sisters and brothers” in labor. He stressed clarity on a couple of items in collective bargaining, saying it would enhance every family’s safety in the County, providing firefighters a real collective voice...for training professionals on the best way to meet the needs of residents in an emergency. Kuley reiterated that the law said they could negotiate on anything related to our employment.
“We don’t want or need proposals that are so narrow and restrictive to the process of collaborative problem-solving. They would just be counterproductive,” Kuley said.
Tammie Wondong Ware, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 512, urged that Fairfax County adopts a collective bargaining ordinance that provides bargaining over wages, benefits, and working conditions, especially in light of COVID-19. She said that workers are concerned about workplace health and safety, workloads, career advancement, and equity.
“We need a real voice and a seat at the table,” she said.
Regarding the number of bargaining units, Ware said one for general county employees, one for uniform Fire and Rescue employees, and one for police officers. She said they believed a separate ordinance would cover school board employees.
Ware noted that a limited number of bargain units would create a more manageable union election and collective bargaining process. She urged that the bargaining unit include workers who may be more senior but do not have hiring and firing authority.
Ware maintained that the County should adopt mail ballots, and once the bargaining representative is certified, the representative should have access to county employees for representation purposes.
WHEN COMMENTS CONCLUDED, Gross clarified that the law said they could not do anything until May 1. “But that doesn’t mean we have to have an ordinance in place by May 1,” she said.
Dr. Anderson said she saw a lot of common ground regarding the scope of bargaining and heartened by the consensus to take time, do this correctly rather than rushing, which may have negative consequences.
School Board member Karen Corbett Sanders said the natural resources of Fairfax County are its people.” We have gems everywhere we look because of the experience people bring to the table...It takes all of us to collectively develop and flesh out the way we are going to do this but also educate our colleagues.”
Gross said they would be in touch if a third meeting were deemed necessary, and she felt that a third meeting would be beneficial.