The right to bargain

The right to bargain

By Will Schick |

The city will be discussing a proposed draft ordinance on collective bargaining on March 9 that, if passed, would bring the labor practice to Alexandria for the first time.

Collective bargaining is the legal process by which public sector employees negotiate their wages, benefits and working conditions with their government employers. While collective bargaining agreements are ubiquitous throughout the country and permitted in 47 states, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia have long outlawed the practice.

Last year, however, the Virginia state legislature passed a law allowing local governments and municipalities to establish collective bargaining ordinances.

If approved, the new proposed city ordinance will mark the first time that public sector employees in Alexandria will have the legal right to participate in collective bargaining.

Alexandria’s proposed ordinance is much more limited in scope than those currently on the books in Washington D.C. and Maryland. It allows only for legally binding negotiations over wages and benefits. The proposed ordinance does not include negotiations about working conditions, such as how workplace hours and schedules are assigned and how the city manages its handling of grievances and discipline.

While neighboring counties such as Fairfax and Prince William have expressed strong support for collective bargaining, they have not yet determined the scope of their ordinances. Along with Alexandria, Arlington was one of 17 municipalities to back collective bargaining before it was banned in Virginia Supreme Court in 1977. Many local union members said they believe Arlington and other surrounding municipalities in the state will look to Alexandria as a model.

Mark Jinks (Courtesy photo)

According to City Manager Mark Jinks, limiting the ordinance’s scope is important because it allows the city government to ensure there are no delays in the delivery of its essential services.

“The public holds City Council responsible for the delivery of services and having a detailed contract which limits the ability to be responsive … can interfere with, at times, the effective delivery of services that City Council is held responsible for,” Jinks said.

Others, however, argue that a sole focus on wages and benefits misses the mark.

Scott Treibitz, a public relations consultant with 35 years of experience working with public employee unions, said that limiting the scope of the ordinance to negotiations over wages and benefits defeats the purpose of collective bargaining.

“This is called ‘collective bargaining’ … [in other words] it’s collaborative bargaining. How do we work with a certain set of funds to develop the best kinds of policies out there that are going to serve our citizens?” Treibitz said.

Josh Turner, a local firefighter and president of Alexandria Fire Fighters, Inc. Local 2141, a union representing firefighters and other first-responders in the city, echoed Treibitz’ stance. Turner added that he believes widening the scope of the ordinance could address issues around scheduling and leave that local firefighters have had to contend with in the past.

Firefighters and first-responders at work in Alexandria. Courtesy photo.

“People don’t always get in the fire department the importance of scheduling and how people get leave,” Turner said.

Turner said two of his colleagues missed Christmas one year because of an unanticipated shift in their schedules, which for bureaucratic reasons resulted in them no longer having enough leave for the holiday.

“When you switch a shift, it throws your life kind of up and down,” Turner said. “We work a nine-day rotation, and you can plan out your year. And I think for us as a union, that’s part of the conversation when we talk about working conditions. That’s a practical application of it where, ‘Hey, we want to work on this to make it better.’”

Turner explained that expanding the scope of collective bargaining to include negotiations over working conditions could help them persuade the city government to make much-needed changes.“We’ve approached administrations past, we’ve approached the city about some of these issues, and sometimes we don’t necessarily hear [back],” Turner said.

According to Jinks, conversations between employee associations and the city over workplace conditions hardly ever happen.

“Over the six years I’ve been city manager … wages and benefits is 99% of what [had been] raised,” Jinks said.

Jinks also said there was no need to change how city employees address concerns over their workplace conditions. There are currently ways for city employees to do this via employee advisory committees and through a city-employee engagement process, according to Jinks.

However, as Cynthia Hudson, the special counsel hired by the city to help draft this ordinance, said in a City Council public hearing in February, the current process is not legally binding.

According to Hudson, in cases like this, “[Local governments] don’t have to do what they’re asked to do. It’s very different from collective bargaining.”

Another disagreement between labor unions and the city has to do with the proposed number of bargaining units.

The draft ordinance recommends the city organize bargaining units into four broad categories: police, fire and EMS, labor and trades and general government. The proposed ordinance does not include provisions for teachers as the School Board determines their wages, benefits and working conditions.

Some unions, however, said they believed organizing bargaining units into these four broad categories can be problematic because they don’t always represent the interests of unified groups.

(Photo/Missy Schrott)

Namita Waghray, the communications coordinator for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees for Virginia, said that “ultimately, there needs to be bargaining units that are defined by like work and job titles.”

Waghray added that this was part of an ongoing conversation with the city and that the type and number of bargaining units needed has yet to be determined.

“We don’t know what that looks like right now,” Waghray said, “And part of that is negotiating and discussing with the city what that would look like.”

Jinks said, however, that negotiating with more than four bargaining units could become burdensome for a city the size of Alexandria.

“We’re not a government with 50,000 employees or 30,000 employees. We[’ve] got 2,500 permanent full-time employees,” Jinks said.

In either case, the city projects that the proposed new ordinance will increase costs. According to a presentation given during last month’s public hearing, if passed, the ordinance will lead to a rise in wages and benefits for city workers.

The presentation projected that a 1% raise in wages and benefits would result in $2.3 million in added costs to the city, while a 5% raise would increase expenses up to $11.5 million.

Jinks said that while the dollar amounts within the fiscal impact statements were “hypothetical,” there will be a definite increase in costs to the city.

Jinks said that the city would either have to raise taxes, reduce services or “squeeze and become more efficient” to fund the increase in wages and benefits.

Treibitz said that this was precisely the problem with limiting the ordinance to negotiations over wages and benefits.

“They’ve created their own self-fulfilling prophecy. ‘We’re only going to talk about wages and benefits, and wages and benefits are going to go up.’ Well, of course,” Treibitz said.

Treibitz added that there were other ways that workers could help the city identify areas where they could reduce overall costs.

“Firefighters are very willing to offset wages with retirement … and with some other kinds of cost factors,” Treibitz said as an example.

Turner also said that the government could find savings in other ways if it expanded the ordinance to include negotiations over working conditions. “We lose, on average, about 10 firefighters and paramedics a year to various jurisdictions, most of which go across the river to areas that have [expansive collective bargaining agreements],” Turner said.

Turner added that it costs approximately $185,000 to recruit and train a new firefighter, a cost that, when compounded, soars into millions of dollars. Turner also said that in 11 years, he had worked with three different full-time fire chiefs, which he said was also reflective of this retention problem — one that unleashes a chain of other expensive issues.

“We were spending a ton of money on workers compensation claims from people who were doing a lot of extra work,” Turner said. “We have overworked members. I think as of last week, I had a member who was close to 500 hours of overtime because we’re a minimally staffed department. And [even] when there’s not somebody to fill that spot, somebody’s got to fill it.”

Jinks, however, said that retention for police and fire is not a problem within the city.

“Our turnover for police and fire is not a major issue. … While I have been manager, I think we have raised police and/or fire pay at least three times,” Jinks said.

Jinks also added that, broadly speaking, “… turnover is way down. So, while we’d like a situation where nobody leaves, that is not feasible.”

Some within the community, however, do not believe there should be a collective bargaining at all. Frank Fannon, a Republican who served on City Council from 2009 to 2012, is opposed entirely to the practice of collective bargaining. Fannon said he didn’t think Alexandria needed to consider a collective bargaining.

“All [collective bargaining] does is empower the city employees, and the City Council ends up handicapping themselves in negotiation with city employees in relation to wages and benefits,” Fannon said.

Fannon also added that he believed the city already treats its employees well and gives them all the benefits they need.

“… They don’t need to negotiate. We treat the city employees very well here in Alexandria. Not many employees, you know, turn over because of income issues where they’re not being treated well,” Fannon said.

The General Assembly has already approved collective bargaining, the debate in Alexandria has moved beyond whether the practice should be allowed to whether the current draft ordinance is expansive enough.

As Alexandria debates this new draft ordinance on collective bargaining, neighboring cities and municipalities across the state will be watching to see the outcome.

“We know that Arlington County is watching what’s happening. Our members are talking about it,” Waghray said.