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Charlottesville raises bus driver pay, enables collective bargaining

Monday night was a lucrative night for Charlottesville workers and prospective city employees, as the city manager announced bolstered wages for bus drivers and the City Council unanimously approved a long-discussed collective bargaining ordinance for city employees.

The bus driver pay plan announced during Monday’s City Council meeting was designed to lure drivers for Charlottesville Area Transit, or CAT, which runs municipal and school buses. The public schools division warned parents in August it expected to open school with just eight drivers instead of the needed 40.

“Let the word go out: CAT is hiring, so come on back,” said Interim City Manager Michael Rogers.

Rogers’ plan sets the minimum starting wage at $21 per hour for bus drivers and $18 for bus aides. The prior minimum advertised hourly wages were $17 and $15. Rogers also announced an immediate 12% pay increase for existing CAT employees with at least a year of service, regardless of whether they drive, maintain or service buses.

While the school division warned over the summer that higher pay won’t necessarily lure drivers, Rogers predicted that his plan will bring the system back to full employment. And then, he said, it would require some budgetary patching.

“We’re able to fund this from CAT’s budget from the vacancies that we’ve had,” Rogers explained to the council. “We will be back for some more money to fund this going forward.”

As a precursor for Charlottesville’s approved collective bargaining ordinance, the Virginia General Assembly passed enabling legislation in 2020 that took effect in 2021 to remove the state’s long-standing ban on allowing public employees to collectively bargain for pay and benefits, as well as for grievance and disciplinary processes.

Aspects of the Charlottesville plan include splitting the cost of union elections between the union and the public and letting union leaders negotiate deals to perform some union work while on the job. There will likely be several unions forming to represent different occupations, and the city would phase them into the bargaining process.

The city plan will recognize the first three unions to organize as the first phase.

Perhaps appropriately on a night when their wages were boosted by executive order, it was transit workers who were credited for leading the push toward unionization. One key collective bargaining proponent in Council Chambers Monday was John Ertl, the local head of the D.C.-based Amalgamated Transit Union.

“It’s a strong step forward for the city’s workers,” said Ertl.

Some citizens urged the City Council to exclude police officers from the proposal. Kate Fraleigh, a retired nurse, pointed out that police are the only employees empowered to arrest and kill and that they already enjoy certain employment protections such as a foundation in their name.

“They already have lots of power,” said Fraleigh. “Unions would go further to decrease police accountability.”

Fraleigh’s argument seemed to particularly resonate with two councilors, Sena Magill and Michael Payne. They both expressed concern that including police in the collective bargaining agreement might give officers a right to binding arbitration and thereby undercut the Police Civilian Oversight Board.

Mayor Lloyd Snook conceded that letting police officers participate in binding arbitration might mean that a bad cop could keep their job.

“Most of the horror stories that I’ve heard about police officers — basically you can’t fire a police officer in a big city, the saying goes — is because the unions insist on mandatory arbitration, and it’s the arbitration that overrules the police chief,” said Snook.

But in the end, Snook and the other four councilors voted for the move, which amends the city’s personnel ordinance to allow police and other workers to negotiate for binding arbitration.

The Rogers administration admits that it doesn’t know the full fiscal impact of the move but calls it “substantial.” Rogers has already budgeted for an additional hire in the current fiscal year but concedes that additional hires, legal fees and expenses will accrue.

The unknown expenses and logistics have, Rogers has written, steered him to a phasing plan that pushes the implementation of the first collective bargaining agreement into Fiscal Year 2025.

“The City Manager has been guided by the principle that the City should ‘walk before it runs,’” Rogers submitted in a recent memo to the City Council.

No citizen spoke against the concept during the public hearings City Council held on Sept. 6 or Monday night. Their Oct. 3 vote appears to make Charlottesville the smallest Virginia municipality to allow collective bargaining.

“This is a fundamental change for workers and workers’ rights in our region,” said Councilor Michael Payne, urging the area’s two other big public entities to follow Charlottesville’s lead. “Beginning today, UVa and Albemarle County are already behind the eight-ball.”


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