Collective bargaining discussion continues

Collective bargaining discussion continues
Photo/Cody Mello-Klein

By Will Schick |

City Council, staff and the community engaged in another prolonged discussion about a proposed draft ordinance on collective bargaining during Tuesday’s legislative meeting. Council ultimately voted unanimously to defer further discussion to a later date.

The decision to defer discussion on collective bargaining comes amid concerns from both labor unions and council that the scope of the current ordinance is not expansive enough and does not meet the needs of both the city and its workers.The current ordinance proposes allowing for specific categories, or bargaining units, of city workers to negotiate wages and benefits with the city but does not allow for them to negotiate working conditions.

During the public testimony portion of the meeting, U.S. Representative Don Beyer (D-VA) was one of over a half-dozen members of the public to urge City Council not to rush an ordinance until it is ready.

“I know that some of the labor leaders have been critical of the first draft of the collective bargaining agreement. I’m not an expert, but I would encourage you to try to find a way to make sure you don’t just win the battle, but you actually win the war,” Beyer said.

Beyer also said it did not make much sense to put forth a collective bargaining agreement that did not satisfy the needs of either those who were for or against the ordinance.

“In other words, it would be a terrible thing to have a very weak collective bargaining agreement that makes the people opposed to collective bargaining for public employees mad, but also doesn’t make the people served by the collective bargaining happy,” Beyer said.

Josh Turner, local firefighter and president of Alexandria Fire Fighters, Inc. Local 2141, said the current ordinance was too limited in scope and did not meet the needs of the city’s workers.

“I ask that instead of passing the narrow version of the collective bargaining proposed by the city’s administration, you demand that the city pass an ordinance that provides its employees a real voice and a seat at the table,” Turner said.

Firefighters on duty in Alexandria.

Nelva Hernandez, a resident and city employee who works with elderly and disabled clients, echoed Turner’s statement.

“I’m asking that you … reconsider the collective bargaining ordinance that you currently have … because it incorrectly assumes that the only thing that city employees care about is money. In terms of wages and benefits, we care about a whole lot of other things,” Hernandez said.

Cynthia Hudson, the legal counsel hired by the city to draft the ordinance, said city staff organized its approach to collective bargaining around three basic principles: an incremental approach to collective bargaining; the use of accurate and precise language in the ordinance; and the preservation of the city’s ability to remain responsive to public needs.

“To the extent that it involves a give and take with another party or other parties, which are massively more experienced at doing this, we don’t think that is a small consideration,” Hudson said.

According to Hudson, there were five main areas of disagreement between city staff and labor unions. These disagreements included differing opinions on the scope of bargaining; the number of proposed bargaining units; the exclusion of public safety supervisors from bargaining units; union involvement in selecting an initial labor relations administrator; and the process for resolving bargaining impasses.

Several members of the council expressed concern with each of these disagreements and the ordinance as a whole.

Councilor Mo Seifeldein asked for clarification on how the draft ordinance would resolve bargaining impasses. According to the draft ordinance, the process for resolving bargaining impasses involves using non-binding mediation.

“I think if we were to take the unions’ [interpretation of] it, really is this nothing more than a glamorized ‘meet and confer’?” Seifeldein asked, alluding to the fact that “meet and confer” meetings are not legally binding and would not require the city to accept the outcomes presented by third-party mediators.

Hudson said that by its very nature, collective bargaining is “grounded on obligations on both sides of good faith in the bargaining process.”

“Indeed, failure to negotiate in good faith is universally a prohibited practice or an unfair labor practice …” Hudson said.

According to Hudson, union representatives said they would be amenable to non-binding mediation, should the proposed impasse resolutions be presented to the City Council for ultimate decision.

Hudson added that staff decided to reject it because it took away authority from the city manager, who works as the City Council’s representative on matters related to administration.

During the discussion, Mayor Justin Wilson asked Hudson to clarify how the scope of the ordinance could grow over time to include negotiations on matters outside of wages and benefits.

“Can you describe a kind of scenario where this would kind of grow organically over time? It seems like in my conversations with union groups, it seems like that is a fundamental area of disagreement,” Wilson said.

Hudson said there was no prohibition on discussing matters outside of wages and benefits, and that the labor unions and the city could always come to a “mutual agreement” over items not explicitly covered in the ordinance.

Councilor Canek Aguirre questioned the number of public employees the draft ordinance is expected to cover.

“I don’t know if staff ever got back to us on this one … but I did ask a question of why essentially half of our staff is not going to be included under collective bargaining?” Aguirre said.

Hudson responded by saying that the employees excluded from the scope of this proposed ordinance are generally excluded from collective bargaining due to various policy reasons.

Drawing on her prior experience in a teacher’s union, Councilor Amy Jackson expressed concern about how the draft ordinance would ensure it preserved incentives for managers and supervisors left out of the bargaining process.

Jackson added that the ordinance should address a way to strike a compromise for those supervisors who would be left out of the proposal.

“If we’re not going to put them all together, we need to figure out a compromise so that there’s not some sort of suppressed salary,” Jackson said.

Councilor Chapman said he wanted the city to become more flexible in its approach to negotiation on all disagreements between staff and labor unions, except for staff’s stance on labor management disputes, and encouraged staff to continue working on the ordinance.

“Open up the areas up for negotiation. Take this back, and have that conversation,” Chapman said.

Council ultimately voted 7-0 to defer conversation on the ordinance to special legislative meeting. Aguirre clarified that there was no obligation to make a final decision on anything at the next special legislative session, tentatively scheduled for March 17.

“We don’t have to pass something at the next special session. If we decide whatever the discussion goes at that special session, then we’ll decide it from there,” Aguirre said.