Charlottesville got its first glimpse at a potential collective bargaining ordinance for city employees during Monday’s City Council work session, but many city employees affected by the ordinance say it’s not strong enough.
Several city employees and community members spoke about the proposed ordinance during the public comment portion of Monday night’s city council meeting, following the work session where the ordinance was presented.
The proposed ordinance was prepared by Interim City Manager Michael C. Rogers and city-hired consulting firm Venable LLP. The city hired the Washington, D.C. firm on a $685,000 contract for help writing the ordinance.
“Collective bargaining in the public sector is fundamentally about collective problem solving and working together,” said John Ertl, a representative of the Amalgamated Transit Union and a Charlottesville resident. “It is therefore sensible that we take into consideration frontline workers’ feedback as we craft the ordinance.”
Ertl said that he’s reviewed several jurisdictions’ collective bargaining ordinances, and in his view, the one Charlottesville is putting forward is the weakest.
“This may be new to Charlottesville, but it’s certainly not new,” he said.
A key issue for several employees is that the draft ordinance does not include binding arbitration. They also want stronger procedures for discipline and filing grievances, including allowing employees to have a union representative present in disciplinary proceedings.
“If you see collective bargaining as a fundamental right and a positive good rather than as a privilege that you have the power to dispense or not, then you will see the efforts to limit or restrict it are antithetical to the spirit of worker empowerment,” said David Koenig, a Charlottesville City Schools teacher and co-chair of the organizing committee for the teachers union.
Koenig specifically asked city council to amend the ordinance to include bargaining on benefits and disciplinary procedures and include binding arbitration. Several other city employees voiced the same requests.
While collective bargaining for teachers and school employees will be handled separately by the Charlottesville School Board, Koenig said the teachers’ union is standing in solidarity with city employees, and the decision of city council will set a precedent that could have an impact on the board’s decision.
Daniel Summers, a 10-year CAT employee, concurred.
“What’s needed for us to move forward as a stronger transit system is bargaining rights. We need someone to speak on the drivers’ behalf when issues occur,” he said.
Another common concern voiced by employees was that the ordinance would not allow employees to collectively bargain over benefits, including health insurance.
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.
While the state law prohibits collective bargaining in regards to budget matters, it does not dictate how jurisdictions handle collective bargaining for health and welfare benefits.
George Davis, a seven-year CAT employee, said he wants to keep working for the city, but the rising cost of benefits has become a hardship as pay has stayed the same.
“We just want the union to guarantee the right to be able to keep what we already have,” Davis said. “I love my job.”
Another issue raised by city employees is the proposed ordinance only focusing on three unions at this time. Rogers and consultants with Venable said they chose to focus on transit workers, firefighters and police officers in this initial ordinance because transit workers and firefighters voiced interest in collective bargaining.
Police officers were included because of their work with the public. Some speakers suggested the creation of a generalized union for employees that don’t fit under those three departments.
There will be a public hearing about the proposed ordinance at the next city council meeting Sept. 6 with a possible vote to amend or adopt the ordinance at a subsequent meeting. If city council votes to adopt the ordinance, it will go into effect Jan. 1, 2023.