By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]es.com
City Council voted unanimously last week to approve funding in the upcoming fiscal year budget for a collective bargaining agreement between the city and the Alexandria chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association.
Since Virginia’s bargaining provision went into effect last year, this is the first in the state to have been implemented. Collective bargaining allows the city’s public sector employees to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions with their employers.
If the good faith commitment is ultimately approved, the agreement will include pay increases for officers, sergeants and lieutenants, with officers’ starting pay increasing 11%, from $54,698 to $61,503, starting July 1, 2023. Police sergeants’ starting salary will be $69,497 and police lieutenants’ salary will be $86,288. Then, salaries would continue to increase annually through June 30, 2026.
The agreement includes specialty pay for positions that require training or experience, creation of a labor-management partnership for training access and the formation of a union committee. Police officers in other localities will be able to transfer to the Alexandria Police Department, with their experience compensated at market rate, and there will be a clear promotional process for those interested in advancing in the APD ranks.
“[We’ve] worked long and exhausting hours to build first a level of trust, then cooperation, and then a compromise to get a very strong agreement that recognizes the valued contribution of our police for our community,” City Manager Jim Parajon said.
Negotiations have been ongoing since March, taking place several times each month. Specifically, officers and city officials discussed ways to promote officer recruitment and retention. Some changes include improvements to longevity bonuses, call-back pay, court pay, language pay, specialty pay and disability benefits.
Last year, the city appointed two labor relations positions, Chief Labor Relations Officer Kevin Stokes and Labor Relations Administrator Sean Rogers, to oversee implementation of Alexandria’s collective bargaining ordinance.
At the meeting, Stokes called the discussions “productive, meaningful and substantive” and said the ultimate negotiation does not jeopardize the city’s finances.
“We were able to find common ground on all items while promoting public safety and advancing employee wages and benefits,” Stokes said. “… With a competitive starting salary, the Alexandria Police Department is better positioned to attract, recruit and hire officers from many backgrounds, including officers from unrepresented groups.”
During deliberation, city councilors showed unanimously enthusiastic support for the ordinance. Councilor Canek Aguirre said the decision-making process was laborious but rewarding at the same time.
“[I want] to commend both sides. This has been a lot of work, it has been a long time coming, we’re talking 40-plus years. It’s amazing that we’ve been able to get to this point, so I’m excited for this,” Aguirre said.
Vice Mayor Amy Jackson expressed gratitude for the previous councils that helped inch the city closer to this agreement during the past five decades. Aguirre shouted out former Councilors Mo Seifeldein and Del Pepper, and Jackson shouted out former Councilor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, for their prior work on this issue.
“It’s not just this council, it’s been on the shoulders of other councils that helped us get to this point,” Jackson said. “… This is a huge moment in history, and we all recognize that.”
The city approved its collective bargaining ordinance in April 2021, a regulation that had not existed since the 70s. Though Alexandria was one of 17 municipalities that had previously permitted collective bargaining for public employees, the Virginia Supreme Court banned the practice in 1977.
After the General Assembly passed a new law in April 2020 permitting municipalities across the state to establish collective bargaining procedures of their own starting the following year, community members, labor representatives and councilors came together to demonstrate support for passing an ordinance, not only to benefit the city but also to set an example for surrounding jurisdictions.
The road to this point has been rocky. City employees have long been calling on council to increase compensation for workers who lagged behind their regional counterparts. Though the city made some adjustments, fire and police unions said they weren’t enough. The ongoing pay issues have resulted in dire staffing shortages and hiring challenges in the police and fire departments.
During last week’s legislative meeting, Councilor John Chapman expressed hope that the new agreement will mark the start of a better working relationship between the city and its public sector employees.
“Hopefully this extends the olive branch from council to employees here to show that we fully value the work that you do, particularly for our public safety folks. The fact that you go out every day and put your life on the line for the citizens of this city does not go unnoticed, and hopefully this is the start of continuing to show that to you on a regular basis,” Chapman said.
Jackson made a motion to adopt a resolution for the tentative bargaining agreement, which Chapman seconded.
The beauty of the negotiation process, Mayor Justin Wilson said, was that all parties were able to bring ideas to the table with the goal of arriving at a mutually agreeable solution.
“[It’s] one that I think moves the needle forward and recognizes our hardworking police officers for the work that they do every day for our residents … but does so in a constructive way in partnership with the city, recognizing that we’re all in this together,” Wilson said. “I’m excited to be at this point. I think it’s an important milestone for us as a community, and we also recognize that we will be back at this again several years from now.”