After much labor, city workers can bargain for better wages

9/1/2022, 6 p.m.
Labor Day has mostly marked the end of summer in Richmond, a day off for most best known for pool ...

Labor Day has mostly marked the end of summer in Richmond, a day off for most best known for pool parties and retail shopping sales.

But this year, the national holiday celebrating worker contributions to American progress will have new meaning, particularly among City Hall and School Board employees, when it arrives Monday, Sept. 5.

In this area, there still will be no parades or gatherings with speeches honoring those who toil in obscurity but are crucial to the operation of public and private organizations.

Even so, the union movement in the state’s capital city is suddenly gaining strength now that the city’s major governmental units have authorized workers to band together and collectively bargain with the school and city management over wages and work- ing conditions.

Richmond Public Schools has led the way in this region and Virginia on unions. Last December, the board voted 8-1 to make RPS the first school division in the state to allow teachers and other employees to organize. In voting in April, employees ratified the Richmond Education Association (REA) as their bargaining agent.

Nine months later, as RPS begins preparing its next budget, the bargaining is about to begin between the administration and REA, which represents each of the four bargaining units – one for teachers and other licensed employees, one for instructional assistants, one for cafeteria employees and one for bus drivers, custodians, safety personnel, office staff and others engaged in care and security services.

Superintendent Jason Kamras has notified the board that the first talks are scheduled for Monday, Sept. 12, with the REA’s teacher unit. RPS will follow with the instructional assistance unit on Monday, Sept. 19; with the care and safety unit on Tuesday, Sept. 20; and with the food and nutrition unit on Tuesday, Sept. 27.

As the result of preliminary meetings in July, the REA and unit representatives agreed to limit bargaining to compensation for regular work and to crafting definitions of and payment for additional work.

Meanwhile, unions are still a work in progress for city employees after City Hall authorized collective bargaining last month.

So far, only the the Richmond Coalition of Police (RCOP) and Local 995 of the International Association of Fire Fighters have cleared the first hurdle, getting at least 30 percent of the members of the bargaining group to agree to be represented by those organizations.

Neither group has faced competition from another labor organization, and both have submitted paperwork to City Hall.

Everything is now on hold awaiting Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s selection of a neutral labor administrator to create the rules and begin the process of holding elections for members to choose a bargaining representative.

The city has four months to hire. That could leave the process in limbo until after Thanksgiving and push the first elections for police and firefighters to separately vote for their bargaining agent. The first talks could take place by late spring or early sum- mer, with the first impact being felt in the 2023-24 city budget.

Three other bargaining units are authorized—one for labor and trade workers, one for administrative and technical staff and one for professional workers.

Currently, two unions are competing to represent those employees, who represent the bulk of the city’s more than 3,000 employees – Service Employees International Union Local 512 and Teamsters Local 522.

It is unclear whether either organization has gained the nod from 30 percent of workers in any of those units to be their exclusive representative.

Still, the unionizing process is underway. How it will affect wages and working conditions remains to be seen.

The union movement in local governments gained a big boost when Democrats in the General Assembly lifted the ban on unionizing, effective May 2021. Whether government employee unions become vigorous could depend on control of the legislature.

Republican lawmakers generally opposed the revival of the union movement. Should party members regain control of both the state House and the Senate, it is unclear whether local government authority to authorize unions would survive that change.