The Leesburg Town Council appears likely to allow its employees to petition for collective bargaining once a new state law takes effect May 1.
An amendment to the state code passed last spring gave Virginia localities the green light to allow government employees to organize and collectively bargain, although they are still prohibited from going on strike. At the council’s Monday night work session, a majority favored an option presented by town staff that would “set the table” for potential future negotiations with town employees. In that option, the council would identify which subsets of employees it would consider as bargaining units, and would limit the subject matter of negotiations to only wages and benefits.
The council had requested at a prior meeting that the town staff conduct a survey of employees to determine any support or desire for being able to collectively bargain. The three groups identified by the council as potential bargaining units were the Leesburg Police Department; the town’s labor and trades staff; and administrative and professional staff, not including the Town Manager’s or Town Attorney’s offices. Of the 214 eligible town employees within those three groups, 40% responded to the survey. That breakdown of survey respondents included 30 members of the Utilities Department; 29 members of the Leesburg Police Department; 11 public works employees; eight Town Hall staffers; five members of the Parks and Recreation Department; and four other employees who did not identify their departments. Sixty percent of those who responded to the survey expressed an interest in collective bargaining; a little more than 20% said they needed more information; and about 18% said they were not interested. The most interest came from the utilities and police departments.
Twelve respondents provided comments on why they were interested in collective bargaining, and about half of those comments mentioned pay and benefits, as well as dissatisfaction with frozen merit increases, which were put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the nine comments provided by respondents opposed to collective bargaining, concerns about union dues were cited.
Town Attorney Christopher Spera had recommended the council consider a second option, to wait until a group comes in to request collective bargaining. At that point, the council would have four months to determine what they would enact.
In his reasoning for supporting that option, Spera cited the relatively small size of the eligible town staff. It also allows “self-determination” by employees, he said.
“At this level of [survey] response rate and with the relatively low number of employees we have I don’t know that is an overwhelming mandate one way or the other. To me if what we were trying to do is determine if this is something employees are interested in then [option] 2 gives them the greatest amount of self determination,” Spera said.
He also pointed out the costs that could be borne by Leesburg if and when collective bargaining is enacted. That includes the need for outside legal counsel, experienced in labor law and relations, and potentially the need to add more staff. Some localities, he said, employ staff members whose sole job is to be the go-between for bargaining units and town government. A staff report estimated the fiscal impact of collective bargaining in fiscal year 2022 to be between $50,000 and $200,000. Loudoun County, though with a far larger staff, has budgeted $1 million solely for that purpose.
A majority of the council, however, favored the “table-setting” approach to collective bargaining, and said it was important to get in front of any potential negotiations, with determining potential bargaining units, and limiting negotiations to pay and benefits.
Council members Suzanne Fox and Kari Nacy both voiced support for a third option presented to the council一to state in advance the town’s intention to not collectively bargain. Fox also asked Spera why the council was not holding a public hearing or input session to solicit resident feedback on the matter, with the town attorney responding that the state code requirement is only to pass a measure by resolution or ordinance.
A vote on the matter is expected at the council’s meeting tonight, which begins at 7 p.m.