A giant step for collective bargaining in Virginia

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 In 2018, the anti-poverty group Oxfam America set out to identify the best and worst places to work in the U.S. The group evaluated all 50 states and the District of Columbia on their ability to require a living wage, to protect workers with benefits like paid sick leave, and to unionize. Virginia came in dead last.

a group of three black people stand with a white woman

One year later, a statewide push led by educators and allies succeeded in turning Virginia blue. Our AFT affiliates in Fairfax County, Hampton and Norfolk all stood ready to advocate for a new law, H.B. 582, which would allow state and local public sector employees—such as teachers, nurses and firefighters—to engage in collective bargaining.

In a move that some once thought was impossible, the Virginia House of Delegates has now passed H.B. 582. This legislation would:

  • Repeal the prohibition against collective bargaining by public sector workers;
  • Establish a Public Employee Relations Board to designate bargaining units and provide for union elections; and
  • Require employers and unions certified as exclusive bargaining agents “to meet at reasonable times to negotiate in good faith” on wages, hours and working conditions.

The House passed the bill on Feb. 6, voting 54-45, with all but one Democrat voting for it and all Republicans voting against it.

In the run-up to the House vote, AFT leaders and allies championed the bill. Watch here as state Delegate Jeion Ward, president of the Hampton Federation of Teachers and a member of the state AFL-CIO executive council, testifies about the great work the AFT has done for African American children through the power of collective bargaining. Ward’s early career as a classroom teaching assistant allowed her to see this power firsthand.

“Today is historic,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said. “Public employees across the commonwealth will finally have a voice at work, and the ability to come together and bargain collectively for the things that actually make a difference in their lives and the lives of the people they serve.”

On Feb. 11, the collective bargaining legislation “crossed over” to the Senate for consideration, along with a number of other Democratic bills that once were routinely blocked, such as increases in the minimum wage and a prohibition on school lunch shaming.

“This bill would give us the ability to bargain collectively for the critical resources our schools need, which often aren’t covered in our state budget,” says Fairfax County Federation of Teachers President Tina Williams. “As we celebrate Black History Month, the timing of these discussions is particularly important when we think about Martin Luther King Jr.’s role with the sanitation workers.”

“Collective bargaining means being able to negotiate for smaller class sizes, more staff to help special needs students, and up-to-date school buildings with working heat and pipes that don’t leak,” adds Thomas Calhoun, president of the Norfolk Federation of Teachers. “Essentially, this bill would provide us a direct path to advocate for our students’ well-being and, in turn, the well-being of our Virginia families and the communities where they live and work.”

The legislation already has had one hearing in the state Senate, where, if approved, it will go to Gov. Ralph Northam for his signature.

On the horizon: ‘Right-to-work’ repeal

A second bill for Virginia workers died in the House of Delegates but gained community support so fast that its sponsors hope for a better outcome in coming sessions. H.B. 153 would make Virginia the first state in the nation to repeal its so-called right-to-work law, a Jim Crow-era measure first adopted in Texas during the 1940s.

The Virginia AFL-CIO began the year by asking every Democratic member of the House to sign on as a co-patron of H.B. 153, introduced by Delegate Lee Carter, a former Marine and staunch unionist. Early allies in the Virginia Coalition to Repeal “Right to Work” included local chapters of the NAACP, Virginia Justice Democrats and environmental groups. The number of allies for repeal exploded from a handful of groups to 55 in a matter of weeks.

Even though H.B. 153 didn’t make it to the Senate, the bill already has made amazing progress. An early signal of the possibility of repealing right-to-work legislation came in 2016, when Virginia voters refused, by a hefty margin, to enshrine “right to work” in the state constitution.

For now, public sector employees across Virginia are celebrating the possibility of collective bargaining soon, and working hard to make it happen.

[Annette Licitra]