Fairfax County board debates scope and terms of collective bargaining ordinance for public employees

The Fairfax County seal adorned on the Fairfax County Government Center (via Machvee/Flickr)

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is working its way toward letting public workers collectively bargain in the wake of a statewide change in 2020 to lift a decades-old restriction.

A board’s personnel committee met yesterday (Tuesday) to discuss a draft ordinance that would let Fairfax County workers make union contracts with the county government, giving them the power to negotiate pay and other benefits.

“I think we’re moving in a good direction,” Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust said after sharing concerns that the proposed ordinance might exempt too many employees from collective bargaining.

While managers, supervisors, volunteers, and other workers are slated to be excluded under the draft ordinance, the board is looking at where temporary workers such as summer lifeguards and seasonal park workers as well as non-merit employees should fall.

The proposed ordinance would serve as the framework for what can and can’t be done through collective bargaining. Once approved, it would allow workers to vote to form a bargaining unit, and employees who don’t want to be involved wouldn’t have to pay dues but could still receive the benefits of the change, Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross said.

The draft discussed Tuesday calls for collective bargaining agreements that would last three years or longer, with separate units for general government employees, police, and fire and emergency services. It also bans strikes and spells out numerous other issues.

The county’s ordinance would be separate from Fairfax County Public Schools, which has over 24,000 employees.

Gross, who chairs the personnel and reorganization committee that’s overseeing the development of the draft, said she expects the board will pass an ordinance, which could happen this year.

SEIU Virginia 512, a union that already includes over 2,000 members in Fairfax County from dues-paying maintenance workers and nurses to librarians and social workers, welcomed the board’s overall support.

But union president David Broder says the ordinance still falls short in several areas. Namely, he says it “artificially narrows” the scope of bargaining, excludes working conditions among the topics that can be negotiated, and could potentially leave thousands of workers out of the collective bargaining process.

“We’ve learned during the pandemic…that being able to bargain over working conditions is critical,” Broder said, noting the importance of safe and clean work sites, personal protective equipment availability, and scheduling.

Lee District Supervisor Rodney Lusk shared concerns about working conditions for public works and sanitation workers, expressing support for change.

Collective bargaining agreements could involve some 10,000 workers, Gross told Reston Now, and the board is gathering more information on non-merit employees to help with its determinations.

“We have one opportunity to get this right, which is why we’re taking a little extra time to work on the ordinance,” Gross said.

In 1977, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that public-sector collective bargaining agreements weren’t permitted and existing ones were invalid, noting the state legislature could change that.

The General Assembly and governor approved legislation last year that gave localities the authority to develop ordinances for recognizing labor unions and permitting collective bargaining. That measure took effect on May 1.

The personnel committee will meet again on July 20, and the board expects to have a public hearing in October.

via Machvee/Flickr

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