By Will Schick | [email protected]
City Council unanimously passed a historic collective bargaining ordinance at a public hearing on Saturday.
The newly passed ordinance will mark the first time the city will grant its public sector employees the legal right to collectively bargain. Collective bargaining, which is the legal process by which employees negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions with their employers, has long been outlawed for government workers in the city and the state.
Under the new ordinance, city employees will be allowed to enter into binding legal negotiations with the city over wages and benefits as well as other conditions of their employment, including procedures for resolving grievances, provisions for workplace safety and scheduling.
Prior to the passage of this new ordinance, Alexandria was one of 17 municipalities which had previously permitted collective bargaining for its public sector employees. However, the Virginia Supreme Court banned the practice in 1977, citing the lack of explicit authority for local governments to establish such procedures on their own.
The legal process, which is widely accepted as a common labor practice across the country, is prohibited in only three states: North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
The General Assembly passed a new law last year, that goes into effect on May 1, permitting for the first time in Virginia history municipalities across the state to establish collective bargaining procedures of their own. Alexandria’s new ordinance comes amid this change in state law.
Both labor union representatives and members of council said they believe the new ordinance will be used as a model for surrounding jurisdictions that have yet to pass collective bargaining ordinances of their own.
“When it comes to it, Alexandria is not afraid to lead and be the first and set precedent not only for ourselves and the region but for the Commonwealth as a whole,” Councilor Mo Seifeldein said.
Robert Hollingsworth, the executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 20, also hailed the passage of the new ordinance.
“Alexandria should be a model for … public sector collective bargaining and for what public sector collective bargaining in Virginia looks like,” Hollingsworth said. “We commend the mayor and the City Council for hearing our concerns. And we look forward to working with them on [a procedure] that serves as the leading example for cities and counties across the Commonwealth.”
James Rodriguez, an Alexandria resident and Arlington County employee, said that the city should be “proud” of this ordinance, adding that “if something positive for the public employees occurs in Alexandria, we can expect a similar response in Arlington.”
The ordinance comes after months of deliberation and debate amongst council, city staff and local labor unions over whether to provide public sector employees the full scope of rights permitted by the new state law.
To the chagrin of many workers and labor union representatives, city staff had initially proposed granting city workers the right to negotiate solely over wages and benefits, excluding negotiations over working conditions from the scope of the ordinance.
Cynthia Hudson, the legal counsel hired by the city to help draft the ordinance, said initially that limiting the scope of the ordinance was important because a more expansive collective bargaining agreement could become overly complex.
“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 during a legislative meeting held on Feb. 9.
While the ordinance passed on Saturday will grant city workers the full right to negotiate over wages, benefits and working conditions with their employer, some labor union representatives and city workers say it still falls short of what is needed.
During the hearing, Barbara Aboagye, a city employee who works in a 24-hour care facility, called on council to extend the rights offered by the new ordinance to other workers.
“I ask City Council to … consider including probationary, temporary and seasonal employees into the ordinance to ensure that these employees have the same access to the rights and benefits that regular employees enjoy when they are working,” Aboagye said.
Steven Kreisberg, a labor union representative, echoed Aboagye’s concerns and said that there was no reason to exclude probationary employees from the scope of rights offered by the ordinance.
“We believe [probationary employees] ought to be included in the bargaining unit. However, they should be excluded from the right to appeal a disciplinary action or termination since that’s the whole point of a probationary status. But there’s no reason they should be excluded from the other aspects of the collective bargaining unit, things like break time or scheduling, safety equipment,” Kreisberg said.
Luis Velez Torres, an Arlington County public service employee, said that while he was happy to see the scope of the ordinance includes the right for city workers to negotiate over wages, benefits and working conditions, it does not include measures for reviewing the city’s discipline processes.
“I noticed that a transparent discipline procedure is missing from this ordinance. A fair and transparent discipline procedure gives public service employees like me and those that serve Alexandria a sense of security and well-being. I urge you to consider it in this ordinance,” Torres said.
Before the final vote, Councilor Canek Aguirre briefly praised the work of all those involved in drafting this ordinance, stating that the ordinance is a testament to the hard work of council, city staff and the very workers who will benefit the most from the ordinance.
“I feel that we’ve been grappling with a lot of in-depth issues that have generational impacts, and I think it’s important to recognize that because we’ve been not just dealing with the pandemic but also with the daily trials and tribulations of still running a city and still trying to move things forward,” Aguirre said.
After approximately two hours of deliberation, Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker put forward a motion to approve the amendment, which was seconded by Councilor John Chapman. Council unanimously approved the ordinance, 7-0.