In a historic vote, the Richmond City Council on Monday approved a code amendment that gives municipal workers the right to unionize and have collective bargaining. City workers filled council chambers as the affirmative vote was cast.
The approval comes about six months after talks started and two years after Virginia lawmakers approved legislation giving collective bargaining rights to government workers. Mayor Levar Stoney and council members last week announced they’d reached an agreement that would allow employees to proceed in forming a union.
Doris Crouse-Mays, president of the Virginia AFL-CIO, during the public comment portion of the meeting before the vote said the city workers will have a voice.
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“You just need to realize the historical moment that you’re about the embark upon and how monumental this is,” said Crouse-Mays, one of several supporters who spoke Monday night.
The motion passed unanimously.
Collective bargaining is the process in which an employer and a union of workers negotiate terms and conditions of employment, including details about wages, hours, overtime, paid time off, safety and health.
Richmond Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders told the council that the move makes the city a “workplace of choice” and credited officials with striking a compromise and balance.
“It’s encouraging to see we are all united in wanting to see investment in our workforce,” he said.
About 3,000 employees are in the city’s workforce.
Larry Christian, 67, a Department of Public Works employee since 1998, said the approval is long overdue. When Christian first started working with the city as a trades helper, his starting salary was $18,000, he said.
“It’s still bad, man,” Christian told the Times-Dispatch before the vote. “We’ve tried for many years to form an organized union. That’s why I say when the people get fed up, you’re going to hear from them and that’s what happened with us.”
Historically, Richmond has had a history of poor wages, pension and health care benefits, according to research groups like The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond-based progressive think tank.
Supporters of the city unionization effort said the move will improve conditions for municipal workers. Opponents say it will strain finances and present challenges for administrators.
Christian, a lifelong Richmond resident and married father of three, said he’s spent time “in the trenches” meeting city workers across departments meeting in the library about their struggles as employees and attending city council meetings
“I’ve been down [to] City Hall every time since we’ve been talking about negotiations,” said Christian. “Every one of them were pushing to allow us to negotiate, but they kept dragging their feet.”
Before coming to a ununified agreement, Stoney and city council debated multiple, competing bills that would allow workers to petition to unionize, which led to multiple delays.
Councilmembers Reva Trammell and Kristen Nye submitted measures that would allow city workers to negotiate with the city for new labor contracts. They mayor’s administration also prepared a plan of its own.
One notable distinction from past drafts submitted to city council and the ordinance they agreed to is the list bargaining units recognized by the ordinance.
Although city workers have repeatedly advocated to be represented under one union, the ordinance recognizes five categorical groups:
- Police employees
- Fire and Emergency Services employees
- Labor and Trades employees
- Professional employees
- Administrative and Technical employees
Fire and emergency services includes uniformed employees, the fire marshals and employees of the Department of Emergency Services.
Labor and trades employees consist of roles that, “result directly in the comfort and convenience of the general public, or contribute to the maintenance of capital assets, land and infrastructure of the City.”
Professional employees are defined as an employee exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act definition of a professional employee.
Administrative and technical workers include non-supervisory office and support roles.
Certain city positions may fit the description of more than one category, which may lead to some confusion as workers determine which group they belong to.
However, if these units decided to unionize under the same organization, all three groups would come to the table as one to bargain with the city and a neutral party as outlined in the provision.
The ordinance approved Monday defines the role of a labor relations administrator to be a neutral negotiator between the city and bargaining agent.
This role is common among places where unions are prevalent. Oftentimes, a neutral party is contracted through an organization like the Association of Labor Relations Agencies.
Richmond’s administrator will be selected by an equal panel of city representatives and representatives for city workers if a union bargaining agent has not been selected before the process begins.
The administrator will be responsible for holding and conducting union elections, settling labor management disputes, issuing rules for negotiation and performing a number of administrative duties.
Once selected, the administrator will serve a four-year term and be contracted by the city.
Workers also will take part in a union election. The petition must show that at least 30% of workers are interested in joining a union. Within 45 days of when the petition is recognized by the labor relations administrator, a mail-in ballot election will be held where employees will vote.
If the organization receives a majority of votes, that bargaining agent will be recognized and brought to the collective bargaining table. That process could take time as city workers sort themselves into various units, petition and finally hold an election.
If an administrator isn’t selected within no fewer than 120 days, Richmond representatives and city workers can select an interim neutral party to administer an election. If the two parties can’t agree on a neutral representative, then they can request a list of seven arbitrators from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service or American Arbitration Association.
The earliest possible date for a union election would be the fall.
Councilwoman Ellen Robertson during the Monday meeting said the approval means employees will now have a bigger say.
“I know there will not be another budget where you voice isn’t heard,” she said.
Nye on Monday also expressed her appreciation for her colleagues, city workers and union representatives.
“It’s fair and it’s the right thing for us to do for you all to have a seat at the table and to have meaningful dialogue as we move through all the issues that are important to you,” said Nye during the discussion period.
Before the 2020 General Assembly vote, Virginia was one of a handful of states that banned public-sector bargaining. In Richmond, teachers were among the first in the city and the state to garner right to negotiate work contracts.
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