Some county government employees are already getting ready to ask the Board of Supervisors authorize unionization, according to the president of the Service Employees International Union Virginia 512 that counts more than 200 Loudoun County employees among its members.
Under state law, state and local governments are not allowed to recognize any union or collective bargaining. But with a new state law signed in April and going into effect in May 2021, localities may elect to recognize collective bargaining representatives, allowing unions to negotiate on behalf of employees. Employees of constitutional officers, in Loudoun including the sheriff, commonwealth’s attorney, treasurer, commissioner of the revenue and clerk of the Circuit Court, are excluded.
Loudoun supervisors have already voted to allow unions with more than 100 Loudoun members to hold open houses twice a year in several government buildings. But County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said the ball will be in employees’ court once the new law goes into effect.
Under the new state law, public employees will also be able to force a vote on whether to allow unions. If a majority of eligible employees in a certain class ask the local governing body for a vote, that body has 120 days to hold a vote on whether to allow collective bargaining, although nothing can force the local board to approve collective bargaining.
SEIU Virginia 512 President David Broder said workers are already organizing to ask the county board for that vote after May 1, and that his phone has been “pretty routinely ringing off the hook.”
“Our members play a critical role in advocating for budgets that invest in good jobs and invest in quality services,” SEIU Virginia 512 President David Broder said. The chapter covers both Loudoun and Fairfax, and Broder said it has also played a role in the pandemic response, including partnering with the Board of Supervisors to make sure frontline workers have the protective equipment they need. They’ve also pushed to make sure workers have job flexibility such as telework or flexible schedules care for both the public they serve and their own families and selves.
“We know that during a pandemic there are tough choices to be made, and I think from that angle, it’s really critical just for the success of the county that workers have a seat at the table, because nobody knows better than frontline workers which services are needed and where we can be flexible,” Broder said.
Randall said the new law has some problems, in that it excludes state employees and constitutional officers.
“There are some departments where you would have a county employee and a state employee working side by side, like in the Health Department or court services,” Randall said. That would mean people working in the same office—sometimes with similar job titles—would be under different rules for negotiating their employment contracts.
Broder said that battle is still being fought.
“The legislation to repeal the ban on collective bargaining this year I think was among the most historic pieces of legislation that the General Assembly passed this year, at the same time recognizing that it’s an incremental step,” Broder said. But, he said, collective bargaining “is a fundamental human right,” and he said he expects expanding on that right to be a political campaign issue in 2021.
And Randall pointed to her own family’s experience with unions, including for her grandfather, a Pullman porter, and her father, a United States Postal Service employee.
“The whole question about unions is very, very valid, you can let anything get out of control, so they’re valid questions,” Randall said. “I don’t know how much it will cost. Those will all be things we have to take a look at. I know that before we did the compensation and classification study, we had some pretty unhappy employees in Loudoun County just because of the pay, and we were losing employees at such a rate it cost us money to retrain people.”
The possibility of unionization has already impacted other considerations, such as discussions by county supervisors about whether they should take over governance of the public library system. County Administrator Tim Hemstreet told the board’s finance committee on Oct. 13 that having a separate Library Board of Trustees, but funding coming largely from the Board of Supervisors, could complicate matters if library staff unionize.
It also comes after supervisors approved an overhaul of the county’s pay scales and job descriptions, facing concerns that Loudoun’s public employees were underpaid and overworked when compared with other Northern Virginia jurisdictions. Firefighters, too, have also seen pay bumps to bring them in line with other jurisdictions, and are particularly expensive to replace.