City of Charlottesville employees may get the chance to unionize soon.
The City Council voted unanimously Monday night to direct city staff to develop a collective bargaining ordinance for city employees.
A change in the Code of Virginia that took effect May 1 allows municipalities to enter into collective bargaining agreements with their employees.
Greg Wright, a captain with the Charlottesville Fire Department and third-term president of the Charlottesville Professional Firefighters Association, submitted an email to city councilors on March 6 informing them of the upcoming change in the state code and asking them to adopt an ordinance to allow collective bargaining for city employees.
“I humbly ask that you, and all the members of Council support this Amendment. Empowering ALL City employees to participate in traditional collective bargaining is something that I hope you consider as important as we do,” he wrote.
Previously, the state code prohibited governing bodies from recognizing any labor union or other employee association as a bargaining agent of any public officers or employees, or to collectively bargain or enter into any collective bargaining contract with any such union or association or its agents with respect to any matter relating to them or their employment or service. These ordinances may not include provisions that restrict the governing body’s authority to establish the budget or appropriate funds.
According to the state code, the City Council was supposed to either adopt the code or take an on-the-record vote to adopt an ordinance to allow collective bargaining within 120 days of Wright’s request. However, 163 days passed between Wright’s letter and Monday’s vote.
On Monday, the council voted against the proposed ordinance that Wright submitted, but voted in favor of directing City Manager Chip Boyles and staff to develop a collective bargaining ordinance instead, per Boyles’ recommendation.
“Most governing bodies studied the topic over a course of several months, put together financial proposals and use outside consultants in developing an implementation plan,” Boyles said. “City Council and the city manager’s office have a number of decisions to make as to what procedures might best fit the city administration, the city’s workforce, how many bargaining units may be authorized and what departments should and could be included.”
Loudoun County and the city of Alexandria, both in Northern Virginia, have adopted collective bargaining ordinances under the change in state code.
However, Boyles said, “You don’t want to take an ordinance from another community where their employees may have different priorities. We want this to fit the employees of the city of Charlottesville. Some communities, it’s more about paying benefits, other communities it’s about grievances, in other communities the priority is working conditions. We want whatever fits our employees the best and develop a plan that will exhibit that.”
Boyles said the plan is to present an ordinance to the City Council in September.
During the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting, city employees urged the council to vote to allow collective bargaining.
Mary Pettis has worked as a bus driver for the city for 35 years. She said she had to move to Waynesboro because she can no longer afford to live in the city.
“I’m here to ask that you all allow us to have a union because I feel that it’ll help us get more things that we need,” Pettis said. “I have three jobs because I don’t make enough money just driving the bus, and I’m a single parent, and I’m not the only driver who has had to do these things. So I feel like a union would speak for us and give us a voice to come together and to do better and to be able to be successful.”
Pettis said she loves her job, but would like more financial support, which is why she supports unionizing.
“I love driving, I love my passengers. I just need more from it financially,” she said.
Wright also spoke during public comment, reiterating his support of collective bargaining.
“Unfortunately, this is the reality that we live in as community members and city employees. We just want to sit at the table as the professionals that we are regardless of our occupation and see this enshrined in city code to … ensure that there’s always a chance for all city employees to be recognized in that matter,” he said.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker voiced her disappointment that the city has not done enough to make living in Charlottesville affordable for people like Pettis.
“It shouldn’t take collective bargaining, and we should figure out as a city how to take care of people. I fully support [collective bargaining], but it shouldn’t come down to who can organize and who can’t,” she said.
Councilor Sena Magill said she supports collective bargaining.
“I just want to make sure we’re doing this right. I do want to take a little bit longer on this, but I do think it’s something that we need to be making sure we do,” she said.
Councilor Lloyd Snook said the city did not act as quickly on the change in the state code due to a lack of a permanent city attorney at the time, as well as other changes within City Hall, but it hadn’t been ignored.
“I don’t want Mr. Wright and the firefighters to think that their letter from five months ago went ignored,” Snook said. “Particularly with COVID, it’s just been a very busy time for the central staff in the city government, and I hope that we will be able to move with reasonable dispatch from here on out.”