City Council wants more time to study, consider collective bargaining

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 5/12/2022, 6 p.m.
City Council hit the pause button Monday on authorizing collective bargaining for city employees.

City Council hit the pause button Monday on authorizing collective bargaining for city employees.

A week after six members signed onto an ordinance that would have cleared the way for employees to begin the unionizing process, members began pulling back after being briefed Monday on the complexities and potential impacts.

City Council President Cynthia I. Newbille, 7th District, indicated that the council will need at least one more session and potentially several more meetings to consider the issue before any ordinance could move to the floor for a vote.

The temporary halt comes as the union process moves forward for employees of Richmond Public Schools.

While all members of council and Mayor Levar M. Stoney have endorsed the concept of allowing collective bargaining for city employees, agreement on how many employees would be allowed to organize and the details of what a union could bargain about remain unsettled.

At this point, there are two competing ordinances, Mayor Stoney’s proposal to create a pilot program limiting collective bargaining to labor and trades employees until after he leaves office in 2024, and a City Council-backed plan that would open the door for all employees to become union members. The City Council plan would create three bargaining units, one for police, one for firefighters and one for other city workers.

Councilwoman Reva M. Trammell, 8th District, who has joined with Councilwoman Kristen Nye, 4th District, in advancing the broader ordinance, expressed frustration at the apparent reversal.

“What has changed?” she asked in accusing her colleagues of making up excuses for not moving faster to endorse collective bargaining for all employees.

She said city employees speak at her district meetings, call her on the phone and leave messages in her mailbox “about the horrible conditions” they face and the need for a union to address the situation. She said many are Black employees who describe what they see as a hostile management that will not listen to their concerns.

Lincoln Saunders, the city’s chief administrative officer, emphasized during a briefing that rushing into authorizing all employees to unionize could result in restrictions or elimina- tion of management’s ability to hire, fire, promote and reward employees, adjust work schedules and make staffing decisions based on changes in priorities.

He said Mayor Stoney’s administration is focused on protect- ing “management’s rights” in seeking to improve government efficiency. And he urged the council to consider phasing in unionization to give the administration time to create policies and procedures, hire a labor relations staff and prepare the internal management to deal with the changes.

His comments hit home with Councilwoman Ann-Frances Lambert, 3rd District, who had her name removed as a co-patron of the Trammell-Nye ordinance.

“I removed my name from the paper because there are numerous questions that have to be answered, and it’s a lot to wade through. The Trammell-Nye proposal does not address some concerns that I have about one of the proposed bargaining units,” she stated in response to a Free Press query.

While Ms. Lambert, a former city employee, stated that she supports collective bargaining, she stated that “more discussions need to be held” to iron out some of the problems and concerns. She also stated the two ordinances now before council might “not be the only options we have” for authorizing employee unions.

Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson, 6th District, is a co-patron of the ordinance, but made it clear that she was not ready to vote for the Trammell-Nye proposal. She said she wants to ensure that city workers have an opportunity to better understand what unionization would mean so each could decide whether it would be good or bad.

Other members were also chary about moving forward. Councilman Michael J. Jones, 9th District, who is planning to run for a seat in the House of Delegates, is hoping that a compromise can be worked out between the competing papers.

“I don’t want to vote for the lesser of two evils,” Dr. Jones said. He warned colleagues to be cautious about moving too quickly to pass something that would bring regrets later. “Once we go down this road, there is no turning back.”

Another looming consideration for council members is the role the council would play. Final approval of any union contracts, and the final say over any spending that would result from collective bargaining agreements, would need to win the approval of the governing body.

Councilman Andreas D. Addison, 1st District, said that the council needs to hear from representatives of localities that already have approved collective bargaining to find out how it is working.

The upshot: Collective bargaining is now on hold, along with another big issue on the council’s agenda—creation of a civilian review board to review complaints against police officers.