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Charlottesville City Council reviews proposed collective bargaining ordinance

Charlottesville is one step closer to allowing city employees to unionize after reviewing a proposed collective bargaining ordinance at Monday’s City Council work session.

While the proposed ordinance would allow city employees to organize, it would come with restrictions, including loss of employment for participating in a strike against the city.

The ordinance authorizes collective bargaining for wages and salaries, working conditions, and non-health and non-welfare benefits, such as leave and holidays. It does not allow bargaining on the subjects of health and welfare benefits, core personnel rules and decisions, and budget matters.

It would apply to a police department bargaining unit, a fire department bargaining unit and a transit bargaining unit for those respective city employees.

It also states that employees who participate in strikes will be considered as quitting their jobs, making them ineligible for employment in any position or capacity for the city during the next year.

The proposed ordinance was prepared by Interim City Manager Michael C. Rogers alongside city-hired consulting firm Venable LLP. The city hired the Washington, D.C. firm on a $685,000 contract to help with constructing the ordinance.

“This is a moderate approach to collective bargaining. It’s a ‘walk before you run’ model,” said Robin Burroughs, of Venable.

Burroughs said the fire, police and transit departments were chosen to start with because all three units work directly with the public, and fire department and transit employees have already been vocal about bargaining. Other departments may be included later. Temporary, part-time and seasonal employees are not included.

The ordinance includes a requirement for a labor relations administrator who would be employed by the city on a four-year contract. This individual would serve as a neutral party for handling collective bargaining, labor disputes and union elections.

Each union would be able to elect its own representative.

The ordinance has been a long time coming. The city council voted to direct city staff to create a collective bargaining ordinance for city employees a year ago in August 2021. A change in the Code of Virginia that took effect May 2021 allows municipalities to enter into collective bargaining agreements with their employees.

The state law prohibits collective bargaining in regards to budget decisions and also prohibits strikes.

A few other Virginia cities and counties have adopted collective bargaining ordinances, including the cities of Alexandria and Richmond and Loudoun County, Fairfax County, and Arlington County.

Other jurisdictions chose to reject collective bargaining, including Prince Edward County, Isle of Wight County, and the cities of Radford and Portsmouth.

Greg Wright, then a captain with the Charlottesville Fire Department and president of the Charlottesville Professional Firefighters Association, submitted an email to city councilors in March 2021 informing them of the upcoming change in the state code and asking them to adopt an ordinance to allow collective bargaining for city employees.

Previously, the state code prohibited governing bodies from recognizing any labor union or other employee association as a bargaining agent. It also prohibited collective bargaining or entering into any collective bargaining contract with any union, association or agents in any matter relating to their jobs.

Burroughs said the team working on the ordinance reviewed proposed ordinances presented by the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Charlottesville Professional Firefighters Association but rejected some key elements of these proposals.

“The union proposals had very broad subjects of bargaining with little discretion left to the City Manager and the City Council,” Burroughs said.

Burroughs said the ordinance can’t conflict with the state law, and the city manager has to maintain delegated authority.

“It is important to us that the city manager retain the prerogative to terminate employees,” Burroughs said. “Ultimately it shouldn’t be the unions who are deciding who gets to work. It should be the city who gets to decide who’s hired, who is fired and who is on the street.”

Vice-Mayor Juandiego Wade voiced concern about prioritizing the first three unions over other potential employee unions.

“We don’t want to seem like we’re negotiating with one union or department …. How is that addressed?” Wade said. “We want to treat everyone like they’re equally important.”

Rogers said the goal is to start slow and then other unions can be added later.

“We want to start slow within our capacity,” Rogers said. “That does not mean that other employee units or any possible units are not important.”

Councilor Sena Magill said the city needs to work to clarify what is defined as temporary, part-time and seasonal employment as those employees are not included in collective bargaining. She said the city has often had temporary employees in place for longer than intended while the city rebuilds some of its departments after dozens of departures over the past few years.

Councilor Michael Payne voiced several concerns over the proposed ordinance, saying parts of it are weak. He specifically said he would like for benefits to be part of bargaining.

If City Council votes to adopt the ordinance, it will go into effect Jan. 1, 2023. There will be a public hearing about the proposed ordinance at the next City Council meeting Sept. 6.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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