Loudoun County supervisors are set to approve a local ordinance authorizing county employees to unionize on Dec. 7, following a Nov. 10 public hearing.
Some major questions still remain about that ordinance, such as how many bargaining units employees will have—which could affect both the power of the union and the complexity of administering union contracts. Representatives from the two largest unions of county employees, the Loudoun Chapter of SEIU Virginia 512 and the Loudoun Career Firefighters Association, IAFF Local 3756, are pushing county supervisors to create only two bargaining units: general county employees, and fire-rescue service employees. The ordinance under consideration includes an option for up to four bargaining units, distinguishing among fire and rescue, labor and trades, professionals and specialists, and administrative and other support services.
Supervisors must also decide whether they should contract with an independent, third-party labor relations administrator with the authority to make binding decisions on topics such as certification and elections of bargaining representatives, and determining which employees and topics are eligible for collective bargaining. The other option would see the county hire a labor relations ombudsman who would facilitate conflict resolution but have no binding authority.
SEIU attorney Rachel Sandelow-Ash said the independent labor relations administrator is the standard best practice in the unionized workplaces.
And supervisors must decide, if the county government and a union are unable to reach an agreement over some issue, whether each side would submit to binding arbitration to resolve those negotiation impasses. On that, union representatives urged supervisors to agree to neutral binding arbitration; the other option would see that authority go ultimately back to the board after a fact-finding report.
The proposed ordinance does not permit striking. It holds that “any employee of the County who, in concert with two or more other such employees, strikes, slowdowns, or willfully refuses to perform the duties of their employment shall be deemed by that action to have terminated their employment and shall be ineligible for employment in any position or capacity during the next 12 months by the County.”
Union representatives also urged supervisors to edit language in the proposed ordinance to permit collective bargaining over all of wages, benefits, and working conditions, and to include as many workers as possible.
“We want the ordinance to be simple, we want it to be aligned with industry standards, and I think most importantly we want it to be inclusive,” Sandelow-Ash said.
A long line of people showed up in person or online during the public comment section of the meeting to urge supervisors to adopt an ordinance allowing for strong unions.
Juvenile Detention Center employee Jomar Unatalan said last year, he was preparing for a change to 12-hours shifts—adjusting his two kids’ schedules, arranging transportation, paying deposits—only to see that schedule change delayed.
“I need meaningful collective bargaining because the county must recognize employees with dangerous working conditions, provide resources and staff needed to stay safe., and uphold accountability when things go wrong,” Unatalan said. “For front line employees like me, it’s a matter of life and death. County employees are tired of being ignored and forgotten.”
“At times, my daughter’s school system has been forced to go virtual due to staffing shortages. Her aftercare center closed permanently. Due to county policy, I had to choose to leave my autistic daughter home alone or take leave to be with her,” said Veronica Martinez, who works in the county Department of Family Services. “COVID has changed our lives and impacted our jobs. The county has struggled to keep up. My experience highlights why we need the right to bargain over the full range of wages, benefits, and working conditions such as the impact of emergencies like COVID, paid leave, tele-work, and support with childcare.”
“All they want is to be treated with agency and dignity, and have the proper tools to do their job, and a union provides them the opportunity to not only share how things can be run, but also to protect themselves,” said Loudoun resident and IBEW Local 26 member Don Slaiman. “You know, without a union, you don’t have the right to face your accuser. You don’t have a right to stand up. The basis of unionism is really the same as the First Amendment.”
While there are still details to be hammered out in the ordinance, the county board’s Democratic majority appears committed to passing an ordinance following months of lengthy negotiations with labor organizers. At least some of those members have indicated they favor the unions’ recommendations for the ordinance.
“I am genuinely concerned. Over the last several years, I have heard from Child Protective Services members, SEIU members, that they are overburdened. I’ve heard it from mental health workers,” said Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg). “But I cannot think of a more important job for county government than protecting children. And if we are not able to protect children, I don’t know why we’re sitting up here.”
The three Republican members of the board have warned against it, and told their Democratic colleagues they would come to regret unionization. Supervisors Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) also said with fewer units could come less power for some employees, using the library system as an example.
“If they are now an eligible group, every single library employee could vote against joining the union, and they’d still be part of the union, unless we had a separate bargaining unit for those library employees who work in different facilities and have different jobs functions,” Letourneau said.
Supervisors voted 6-3 to send the ordinance to their meeting Dec. 7 for a vote.