The Leesburg Town Council has set the negotiating table for collective bargaining in the county seat.
The council voted 5-2 at its Tuesday meeting to allow for collective bargaining to begin in Leesburg, but only with groups of employees identified by the council as eligible bargaining units. The subject matter of negotiations would also be limited to wages and benefits.
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. The new law takes effect May 1.
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. Those employees were able to participate in a confidential survey to gauge interest in collective bargaining, and those results were shared with the council at Monday’s work session.
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 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.
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.
Councilman Zach Cummings said this issue was “personal” to him, as he hails from a proud union family.
“This is not a human resource issue. This is an issue of freedom,” he said.
Mayor Kelly Burk said collective bargaining represented a unique opportunity for eligible employees, and noted that because employees would still be prohibited from striking, negotiations between the town and the bargaining units would be more of a discussion.
At Monday’s work session, 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. Tuesday, they were the only two council members to vote against beginning collective bargaining.
Nacy said she feared that the change would put an additional fiscal burden on the shoulders of taxpayers, who are already double taxed as town and county residents.
“I would hope that instead of unionizing and relying on a third party we would hold ourselves accountable to ensure we’re fairly compensating town staff,” as well as providing adequate and affordable benefits, she said.
Fox said she believed Tuesday night’s action was “a solution in search of a problem.” She said the low survey participation did not lead her to believe there was an overwhelming desire for collective bargaining among current staff. She had also expressed concerns that there was no public hearing or input session on the potential change, and said she believed many residents would be blindsided by the council action.
“I feel like a change this significant probably shouldn’t be taken lightly without some kind of consensus. I don’t believe there is consensus among residents and taxpayers,” she said.
Leesburg’s action follows that of Loudoun County government, which recently voted to write an ordinance that would enable collective bargaining among some of its employees.