Collective bargaining approved for Fairfax County government workers

Fairfax County’s logo on the government center (via Machvee/Flickr)

For the first time in decades, Fairfax County workers have collective bargaining powers.

The county Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance 9-1 yesterday (Tuesday) allowing unions to negotiate for pay, benefits, working conditions, scheduling, and more. The lone opposing vote came from Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity.

Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik called it a historic day, marking the first time in 44 years that collective bargaining is allowed for county government workers.

Collective bargaining will improve the county’s ability to retain employees and result in better services for the community, Chairman Jeff McKay said after the vote.

“Approving this ordinance allows us to go to the next step to work on and establish a collective bargaining agreement, something that I know our employees have been asking for for a very long time,” McKay said.

Virginia had banned collective bargaining for government workers since the state Supreme Court ruled against the practice in 1977.

That changed last year when the General Assembly passed legislation giving local governments the option to create ordinances recognizing their employees’ labor unions and allowing collective bargaining for public workers.

The ordinance doesn’t affect the county’s 24,000-plus public school employees. The school board would have to adopt its own collective bargaining ordinance for Fairfax County Public Schools. But the ordinance could act as a model for other local governments and the county’s school board.

The new state law and Fairfax County’s ordinance still restrict workers’ ability to strike. If government employees do so, they will be fired and prohibited from working for a governmental body in Virginia for one year.

In response to the state law, Fairfax County created a collective bargaining workgroup on Sept. 29, 2020 that included elected officials, employee group representatives, and county government and school staff.

The board’s personnel committee received its first draft of the ordinance on May 25 and spent the summer working to refine it. The board held a public hearing on Oct. 5 but deferred a vote on the matter to its next regular meeting.

David Broder, president of SEIU Virginia 512, which represents over 2,000 Fairfax County general government workers, celebrated the vote as a historic victory achieved after years of advocacy.

“Our union is thrilled to usher in a new era where employees and management collaborate to solve workplace issues, where workers have a real voice to improve their pay, benefits, and working conditions, and where every constituent in this community gets the quality public services we all deserve,” Tammie Wondong, president of SEIU Virginia 512’s Fairfax chapter, said in a statement. “Together, and with meaningful collective bargaining rights, we will transform Fairfax into a place where every working family can thrive.”

Other unions for groups ranging from firefighters and police to public works employees had advocated changes to the ordinance, including at this month’s public hearing.

Since then, the county made several changes to the proposed ordinance, such as having a labor relations administrator who assists with certifying elections and other matters be nominated by unions with 300 or more dues-paying members.

The administrator will be appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the Board of Supervisors.

The approved ordinance also extends collective bargaining abilities to more temporary employees than previously proposed. Rather than issuing a blanket exclusion, the ordinance only bans workers from participating if they’re employed by the county for four consecutive months or less.

In a move to appease unions, the ordinance will also allow employees to use county electronic systems to communicate employee organizing activities and other matters.

Another revision clarifies that the county would “at all times retain exclusive rights to establish the County budget and any tax levies,” where changes are in the sole and unfettered discretion of the board of supervisors.

But David Lyons, executive director of the Fairfax Workers Coalition, said his group remains dissatisfied with the final ordinance.

“None of the substantive changes we requested were addressed,” he said. “The bargaining units still are tilted towards wealthier white employees.”

In a letter to the board, Lyons argued that the changes to the ordinance, which he said were made last minute from Friday (Oct. 15) through Tuesday, “severely erode the labor/management relationship.”

Herrity argued in a statement after the vote that the ordinance is “particularly bad and will limit the ability of the County to provide quality, flexible, cost-effective service to our residents.”

He also alleged that influential unions wrote the ordinance in back rooms, a sentiment echoed by Lyons, who suggested that “corporate” unions and one unnamed large group unfairly influenced the process.

McKay dismissed those sentiments, saying his staff welcomes communication from all and detailing how the process lasted over a year with numerous meetings to gather input, from employee town halls to sessions with labor group representatives and stakeholders.

Photo via Machvee/Flickr

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