Virginia General Assembly Passes Bill Authorizing Public Sector Collective Bargaining

As the 2020 Session came to a close this weekend, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation authorizing  local governments to enact laws giving their employees the right to collectively bargain.  If, as expected, it is signed by Governor Northam, employees of Virginia counties, cities, towns and school boards will gain the opportunity to require their employing government to hold a vote on whether or not to enact collective bargaining legislation.

Virginia has long had a statutory prohibition on collective bargaining for state and local employees, making it one of only three states in the country to have such a bar (the others are North and South Carolina).  The recent shift to Democratic control of the General Assembly presented an opportunity for organized labor and other advocates of collective bargaining for government workers to eliminate this bar.

Although supporters of collective bargaining were unsuccessful in their efforts to enact a state-wide mandate authorizing employees to choose union representation, the version of the legislation passed by the General Assembly accomplishes much of what they sought. The bill authorizes any locality (including school boards) to pass a law giving its employees the right to seek union representation and engage in collective bargaining.  Moreover, even when a locality does not enact such a law, employees and labor organizations can force the issue by presenting the employer with proof that a majority of employees  in an appropriate bargaining unit wish to be represented by a union.  Typically, a bargaining unit consists of employees in a specific department, such as public works or fire/EMS personnel below a certain rank. Although the statute does not specify,  evidence of majority support is usually shown by a petition or authorization cards signed by employees.

Under the bill, once a local government is presented with evidence that the majority of employees in an appropriate unit are seeking union representation, the locality must hold a vote to adopt or not adopt collective bargaining legislation within 120 days.  While the locality would not be required to adopt such a law,  unions and worker advocates could certainly try to put political pressure on legislators to do so.

Assuming the law is signed by the Governor, it will mark the beginning of a new era in Virginia local government. As those of us (like myself) who have spent their careers negotiating with public sector unions know, labor negotiations in the government arena can be tricky.  Unlike the private sector, where only company owners and executives make decisions about worker pay and benefits, public employee compensation is subject to the budget process. Moreover, issues such as heath care, pensions, and retiree medical benefits can create legacy obligations years after they are agreed to and continue to influence future budget cycles.

To date, the Loudon County Board of Supervisors and the Fairfax County School Board have expressed their support for local collective bargaining. It will be interesting to see how many other localities soon follow suit.


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