City Council reviews collective bargaining ordinance

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City Council reviews collective bargaining ordinance
Photo/Cody Mello-Klein
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By Will Schick | wschick@alextimes.com

Alexandria City Council met to review a new draft ordinance on collective bargaining for public employees during its Tuesday night legislative meeting.

Collective bargaining is the process by which labor unions negotiate their wages and working conditions with their employers. While collective bargaining is standard across the country, three states explicitly prohibit it: North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

This will soon change. Effective May 1, local governments throughout the state will be permitted, for the first time in Virginia history, to legally enter into collective bargaining agreements with labor unions and representing public employees.

As a result, Alexandria will be required to establish, at minimum, a process for recognizing and certifying organizations as “bargaining agents.” While the new state law does not require municipalities to pass new local ordinances, city staff presented a draft for its own frame-work for working with labor unions before the state law goes into effect.

By having an ordinance in place by the time the law becomes effective in May, the city said it hopes to have a process ready and in place to prepare for the shift in Virginia state law.

“If a petition shows up from a group saying they want to organize, we have 120 days to make a decision,” City Manager Mark Jinks said. “… The thought was [in developing an ordinance] to get way ahead of it.”

Currently, public employees in Alexandria have the right “to meet and confer” with the city to address any issues or concerns they have with their employment conditions.

But as Cynthia Hudson, the special counsel hired by the city to help develop its draft ordinance, pointed out, this process is not legally binding and is very distinct from collective bargaining.

“There is not the legal framework that is necessary to make ‘meet and confer’ happen because … employers don’t have to meet and confer [with their employees],” Hudson said. “And even if they do, they don’t have to do anything about what they’re asked to do.”

Collective bargaining agreements set forth the process by which negotiations between public sector employees and the government can take place and establish legally binding agreements.

Alexandria is one of 19 Virginia localities that had previously established a collective bargaining agreement with its public employees. But a 1977 ruling in the Virginia Supreme Court deemed the process to be illegal, citing the lack of explicit authority of local governments to strike such agreements on their own.

Establishing a new local ordinance for collective bargaining today, however, remains a very complicated process.

Hudson likened collective bargaining to an “elephant” and said it was best to “eat it one small bite at a time.” According to Hudson, there are many facets to consider when establishing a collective bargaining process. These considerations include everything from how to identify bargaining units and unfair labor practices to the need to hire labor relations experts and establish protocols for managing the tension between the interests of supervisors and their employees.

“Given what a big process and new process collective bargaining is to get your arms around … we submit that it is prudent, and in the city’s probably best interest as a newcomer to collective bargaining, to start narrower with the scope of what you’re doing,” Hudson said.

The draft ordinance recommends the city consider adopting four broad categories of “bargaining units” for police; fire and EMS; labor and trades; and general government. The proposal also provides guidance on how to approach negotiations having to do with wages and benefits and managing labor disputes.

“It does seem like the biggest issues fall into a couple of categories,” Mayor Justin Wilson said, “It’s the scope of bargaining, it’s whether it’s wages and benefits or beyond, and what that beyond is. It’s the number of bargaining units, which is certainly a question I’ve heard a couple of my colleagues weigh in on.” Jinks also addressed the fiscal impact of future collective bargaining agreements for the city.

According to the presentation, a 1% raise in wages and benefits for city employees would add $2.3 million in costs to the city. A 5% raise for city employees would increase expenses by up to about $11.5 million.

The presentation also indicated that if Alexandria City Public Schools employee wages were considered, costs would rise to $22 million. Additionally, Jenkins and Hudson also noted that the annual administrative costs of collective bargaining could be anywhere between $500,000 to $1 million.

Answering the broad question of how these increased costs would affect the city’s bond rating, Jinks said, “The rating agencies [generally] consider it [the increased costs to the city] a negative. But given our fiscal position, it would not be a negative that would by itself have an impact on our bond rating. We’re in good shape.”

City Council unanimously passed a motion, put forward by Councilor Canek Aguirre and seconded by Councilor Amy Jackson, to have staff return with a final version of the ordinance for adoption during the City Council public hearing on March 13.

-wschick@alextimes.com

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