Fairfax County board defers vote on collective bargaining as advocates call for change

Fairfax County Federation of Teachers President Tina Williams speaks at a union rally prior to a public hearing on a proposed collective bargaining ordinance for county government workers (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Scores of people called on Fairfax County to adopt a more robust collective bargaining policy for county government workers at a Board of Supervisors public hearing on a proposed ordinance yesterday (Tuesday).

At a rally before the public hearing and at the meeting itself, labor union representatives and other speakers stated that they want more workers to be eligible to participate in collective bargaining, more ability to negotiate working conditions, and more flexibility in discussing labor issues while they’re at work.

“This is a defining moment,” Fairfax County Federation of Teachers president Tina Williams said during yesterday’s public hearing. “Fairfax County can set the standard in Virginia.”

Williams and Fairfax Education Association President Kimberly Adams were among the educational leaders who gave their support to a county ordinance, even though it would not cover school employees. Fairfax County Public Schools needs to adopt a policy separately.

Fairfax County has spent months developing collective bargaining procedures after the Virginia General Assembly broke from a 1977 state Supreme Court ruling that banned public-sector unions from collectively bargaining. The legislature approved a law in April 2020 that gives localities the authority to develop ordinances to permit collective bargaining if they choose to do so.

County leaders have expressed support for collective bargaining, which is already permitted for government workers in most states as well as D.C. Some neighboring jurisdictions, including Arlington and the City of Alexandria, adopted their own ordinances earlier this year.

With labor groups representing a wide range of workers, from firefighters and police to public works, nurses, librarians, and social workers, weighing in, the Board of Supervisors decided to defer a vote on the ordinance to its next regular meeting on Oct. 19.

Board Chairman Jeff McKay said the postponement will let supervisors to absorb the testimony and respond to speakers’ requests to take more time on the matter. Written comments will continue to be accepted as part of the public hearing.

Most speakers during the hours-long hearing came in support of an ordinance, though a few raised concerns about the implications the matter would have on taxpayers.

The county projects that the ordinance will carry $1.9 million in annual costs to handle increased workloads.

At least nine full-time equivalent employees and additional support positions will be needed to address new work involving labor relations, legal support, policy administration, contract compliance and administration, according to a county staff report.

While there was broad support for collective bargaining, labor groups and other stakeholders voiced concerns about the most recent draft of the proposed ordinance.

Tammie Wondong, president of SEIU Virginia 512 Fairfax, the Fairfax County Government Employees Union, urged the board to revise the proposed ordinance so that it includes all government workers. She cited an analysis by the Economic Policty Institute, a nonprofit funded in part by labor unions, that showed government workers in Virginia earn about 29.9% less than similar private-sector workers.

“Good employees are leaving because their needs are not met,” she said.

Dave Lyons, the executive director of Fairfax Workers Coalition, which positions itself as an “alternative” to SEIU, argued that the current ordinance will hurt people of color and those on the lower end of the payscale by allowing a countywide bargaining unit that could include both senior supervisors and their subordinates.

“This means employees who are subject to discipline, harassment, non-promotion, or any other sort of action would be hampered in their ability to achieve redress because the same purveyors of the action would be members of the same unit,” Lyons told FFXnow.

He said the coalition would prefer an approach more in line with Alexandria’s ordinance, which created separate units for different trades and for rank-and-file versus supervisory employees.

Former Braddock District Supervisor John Cook, an attorney for FWC, said the draft ordinance would violate state law by giving legislative authority to a county executive-appointed labor relations administrator, which could adversely affect employees who want more control over how they participate in collective bargaining.

Fairfax Coalition of Police President Sean Corcoran said his group supports collective bargaining but not the ordinance in its current form, suggesting that the county could have included more community engagement in drafting the ordinance.

Representatives from the Virginia Police Benevolent Association’s Fairfax chapter and the Fairfax County Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics expressed concern about language in the ordinance that they say would limit workers’ ability to discuss key issues like working conditions.

“When our employees that work 12-hour shifts don’t get enough bereavement leave because it’s ‘back in 16 hours,’ where they can’t even get two days off to grieve a lost loved one, we would like the ability to address that,” VPBA Fairfax President Ali Soheilian said.

SEIU Virginia 512 and other labor groups met at a rally before the hearing outside the Fairfax County Government Center.

“It’s time Fairfax County employees have a seat at the table,” Wondong told a group of around 100 people. “If we don’t get this right, the ordinance that we have all worked so hard to pass would be nothing but an empty gesture on a piece of paper.”

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