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With no city manager and HR director, collective bargaining for city employees stalls

The City of Charlottesville has not made any progress toward drafting an ordinance that would outline collective bargaining rights to all employees, giving them the ability to negotiate for higher salaries and other aspects related to their working conditions.

In August, the City Council directed the city manager to research information about collective bargaining and how much money would be needed from supporting the human resources department to paying employees more, if the contracts call for that. State law changed in May to allow public employees such as firefighters and teachers to form a union and collectively bargain a contract.

Former City Manager Chip Boyles resigned Oct. 12, and the city has been without a full-time director of human resources for more than a year. Both vacancies have complicated efforts related to collective bargaining.

“We’re just in a place where a major policy initiative like this is just very difficult to launch right at this moment,” City Attorney Lisa Robertson told councilors at Monday’s meeting.

Robertson said a human resources director would be a key city official involved with collective bargaining from how to put together an ordinance to how to execute the plan.

Local public employees have been barred from collective bargaining for decades until the state law changed.

Following that change, local governments and school boards can recognize a labor union or employee association through an ordinance or resolution, but they don’t have to. The ordinance would outline a group of employees who can be represented by a union, the process for them to be certified as a union, and which topics would be subject to negotiation in a contract, among other provisions.

City Councilors have been broadly supportive of collective bargaining and reiterated that support at Monday’s meeting.

“I want to see it happen, recognizing like with everything, it’s a lot harder when there’s no city manager, human resources director particularly for this,” Councilor Michael Payne said.

Payne added that he wants to get a sense of the funding needed, so it can be included in the upcoming budget. The budget development process for the coming fiscal year already is underway.

“The goal is to get it done for the upcoming fiscal year and not push it back a year,” he said.

Councilor Heather Hill said collective bargaining is something the city needs to be exploring and determining what resources are needed to do that exploration.

Mayor Nikuyah Walker said she was supportive and would want to be less restrictive in terms of which employees could benefit from collective bargaining.

“If we’re going to allow it, we should know what it means,” she said. “Who wants us to consider this? We should have those discussions.”

Walker added that the human resources department is important for addressing employees’ compensation issues and other challenges.

“I think if we were doing those things better in the first place, as I’ve said before, that we would have less need for things like this,” Walker said. “So a HR director doing a lot of the work that we need to change that department is going to be vital for this step to succeed.”

To force a vote, a union representing a group of employees needs the support of a majority — more than 50% — in the bargaining unit. At that point, the governing body has 120 days to vote on a resolution.

The city’s firefighters were the first group locally to declare their wish to collective bargain and propose an ordinance. City Council formally rejected that proposal at its Aug. 16 meeting when it opted for the citywide approach.

More recently, a union representing Charlottesville Area Transit employees sent City Council its own proposed ordinance that would give them the ability to start negotiating. The transit employees would be represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1220, which is based in Richmond. The city has until March 1 to respond to that proposal.

“We’re just in a holding pattern for our ordinance since there’s no city manager,” said Matt Ray with CAT. “My concern is how long do they draw this out.”

Ray said they want to get started with collective bargaining in order to create a grievance process and address a range of policies and practices such as how holidays are staffed. Pay and the cost of health insurance are big issues as well.

A full-time CAT driver starts at $16.97, according to a city job posting. However, Ray said people who have been in the department for 30 years don’t make $20 an hour.

The union is proposing to include all employees from the operators or drivers to supervisors to school bus drivers.

“This is not rocket science,” Ray said of collective bargaining. “A union is one thing every one of the councilors should support. … Other than money, I don’t understand what their big issue is.”


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