The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors will consider a new ordinance that would permit the county to engage in collective bargaining discussions with labor unions and public employee associations following a vote on April 20.
The ordinance could lead to increased wages and improved benefits for county employees, such as firefighters, maintenance workers, mental health nurses and librarians.
County staff are expected to present the ordinance on May 18 after the board voted 6-3 last week to move forward. Supervisors Caleb Kershner (R-Catoctin), Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) and Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) voted against the motion made by Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large).
“I worked in county government for years and a lot of things happened that I didn’t complain about, because there was no structure to have that discussion about really serious things,” Randall said. “So just because there’s not a cascading of complaints, doesn’t mean there’s not lots of serious issues. And by the way, there are complaints — quite a bit of complaints not to mention.”
Beginning May 1, Virginia counties, cities and towns will be permitted to enter into collective bargaining agreements with labor unions as a bargaining agent for public employees following legislation passed in March by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
Constitutional officers and their employees are excluded from coverage.
Jeanette Green, director of human resources for Loudoun County, said on April 20 that county staff believes the board will receive a certification that county employees will be represented by a bargaining unit. The notice could come on or shortly after the law takes effect May 1.
In the event of such a certification, she said the board will be required to take a vote within 120 days to adopt or reject an ordinance or resolution that would allow collective bargaining for those deemed appropriate by the governing body.
The board authorized eight new full-time positions for collective bargaining support, according to an April 20 staff report. All of the positions and $300,000 in recurring contractual costs to support and administer a bargaining structure are fully funded in the fiscal 2022 budget.
Should the board vote not to adopt a local ordinance or resolution authorizing collective bargaining, these resources could be reallocated to other uses.
The traditional collective bargaining model, which the board voted upon, would require the highest level of support costs, including all of the resources allocated in the fiscal 2022 budget, and the potential for additional staffing and/or operating support costs necessary in future years.
Four additional full-time positions are estimated to be needed in fiscal 2023, according to the April 20 staff report.
Letourneau said the board has addressed employee pay increases, benefits and the classification system without a collective bargaining agreement at least over the past two terms. He questioned what else is left for the board to address.
As the board’s finance committee chairman, Letourneau said he has fiscal concerns with the proposal recommending the funds should be spent on labor relations and investment.
“I believe we can engage our employees,” he said. “I believe we should engage our employees and have conversations as was just said, but I don’t believe we have to lock ourselves into a relationship that by its very nature can be contentious.”
Sixty eight percent of Virginia voters said they support allowing collective bargaining rights for public employees, according to a Dec. 10, 2020 study by The Wason Center at Christopher Newport University. Twenty five percent said they oppose it.
Sandy Sullivan, president of the Loudoun Education Association, said the organization supports collective bargaining. She added that the opportunity will allow employees to provide feedback and change.
The Loudoun County Chapter SEIU Virginia 512, a labor group representing county employees, said it also supports the effort, but urged the board to reject the three ordinance proposals, including the traditional collective bargaining option. In a statement, SEIU said the proposals deny workers the right to collectively bargain over wages, benefits, and working conditions.
Julius Reynolds, chair of the Loudoun County Chapter of SEIU Virginia 512, said collective bargaining is a valuable tool to build productive and mutually beneficial labor management relationships to improve the delivery of public services and the quality of work made for county employees.
“The pandemic has demonstrated that public employees carry significant responsibility for essential services, and through collective bargaining we can work together with the county to make improvements,” Reynolds said.
Randall said county staff have received sample ordinances from SEIU, the International Association of Fire Fighters and from the City of Alexandria, but the ordinance on which the board will consider has not been provided.
Buffington and Kershner — both of whom said they prefer the meet-and-confer model — voted against the motion.
Kershner said he’s concerned about the costs, potential grievances and controversies that may arise.
Buffington said he’s worried about potential drawbacks that could surface once the ordinance is adopted.
“We will see what happens,” Buffington said. “I hope that it turns out the way the majority of this board currently wants to, but I’m concerned that it won’t.”Vice Chairman Koran Saines (D-Sterling) said the county has a number of unions connected to the county. He said he feels confident negotiations will go well despite fears and urged his colleagues to speak with union members.
“Let’s not operate in fear and say, ‘oh, the unions are going to come here and disrupt things,’” Saines said. “These are our employees. This is where they work.”