With no collective bargaining, public workers find a voice

With no collective bargaining, public workers find a voice

As city workers fight back against a proposed hike in their pension contributions, they have few tools beyond persuasiveness and public opinion at their disposal. 

In a state where collective bargaining is banned, the most municipal workers can hope for is a sympathetic ear on the city council and broad public support, said Brenda DSylva of the Alexandria Government Employees Association. 

Recently, they tried just that. With officials pitching a proposal that would force public workers hired before 2010 to make a 1 percent retirement contribution, employees voiced their opposition during a March 7 public hearing. 

Workers hired after 2010 already pay a portion of their pension costs, and police officers and firefighters, on a separate retirement plan than civilian workers, pay 8 percent. Coupled with increased health care contributions, about 50 percent of city workers will see their paycheck shrink in fiscal year 2012. 

This is all we have, the public hearing, said DSylva. We have to appeal the goodness of people, to the citizens.

DSylva has lined up meetings with Alexandrias top elected officials as well. She has met with Councilwoman Del Pepper and plans to sit down with Mayor Bill Euille. Other than swaying the city council, DSylva is looking for support from the community.

If taxpayers come out against the proposed pension hike, officials will take notice, she said.

But dont expect any Wisconsin-style unrest. If the goal is scoring points with the public, the last thing DSylva or her colleagues want is to alienate residents by striking or taking over City Hall. 

Getting citizens aware is probably our biggest avenue to get change, because theyre the taxpayers and theyre the voters, she said. Most of our jobs are for the public. We dont want to harm the public in an attempt to get whats equal for us.

Even without collective bargaining, Alexandrias public employees have reached compensation compromises with officials as recently as a few weeks ago. After staunchly opposing a move by the Alexandria School Board to extend the school year and workday for teachers without extra pay, educators saw the administration meet them halfway. 

Following weeks of back-and-forth dialogue and a few contentious public hearings, Superintendent Morton Sherman rolled out a new plan, including raises for most of Alexandria City Public Schools staff.

But it doesnt happen often, said Ryan Staab, president of the Alexandria Police Association.

For the most part its been a struggle for us for many years to get the pay and compensation that the employees deserve, he said. Without collective bargaining, its extremely difficult We call it collective begging.

A push in Washington to bequeath all public safety employees with collective bargaining failed a year ago, he said, and efforts to change Virginias stance have never gained much steam.

As pro-labor protestors in Wisconsin made headlines across the country, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell touted Virginias ban on collective bargaining. He told PBS Margaret Warner that the change brought on by Democratic lawmakers in the 1990s was critical to the commonwealths economic success.

Like DSylva, Staab is relying on his powers of persuasion and the goodwill of the community at large. While the police association has sued the city in the past, litigation remains an open avenue for the group, it would damage the departments reputation, he said. 

The only thing we can do is ask the city council and the city manager for any concessions and they either agree or dont, Staab said.