Loudoun County supervisors late Tuesday night set the ground rules for collective bargaining, approving an ordinance that will give unions a strong voice at the table if county employees decide to organize.
Supervisors had long been on track to allow their employees to organize for collective bargaining, but spent months hammering out the details—and more than three hours at their Dec. 7 meeting still working out more details that had cropped up with the ordinance on the fly. But the rules that emerged closely resemble what union advocates have been asking for, with employees permitted to organize in a few large groups, binding arbitration to settle negotiating impasses, and an independent, contracted labor relations administrator administering and interpreting collective bargaining agreements.
County attorneys working on the new ordinance had recommended alternatives that would have kept more power in the hands of supervisors in those negotiations. Giving up absolute authority such as by hiring a third party to interpret a collective bargaining agreement and submitting to binding arbitration made some supervisors nervous.
“I do believe the board should retain the final decision-making authority. I have a lot of discomfort with a third party making the binding decision on any matter,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles).
“We will ultimately vote on the contract for whoever the [labor relations administrator] is, and then after that we have no further involvement in the process. And a lot of those decisions will significantly affect county policy, pay, those sorts of issues, and it will impact tax rates potentially,” said Supervisor Caleb E. Kershner (R-Catoctin). “I was elected by the constituents of Catoctin to weigh in on those issues.”
Supervisors also delayed implementing one part of their new policies as the county works to clearly define who is a “temporary employee.”
“Unions help women, help people of color, help marginalized communities. It helps with retention, every single time,” said County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large). “It helps with safety, it helps with safety issues, and when we talk about the cost, we never ever discuss those things We never discuss that retaining employees saves money, safety saves money.”
“Support of unions is not just about wages and benefits, it’s respect, and I think over the last 22 months we have all come to the realization of how much respect we should be giving our front-line workers,” said Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian). “It’s about dignity, it’s about health and safety, and it’s definitely about equity for women and people of color.”
“I think that we’ll find out whether or not working conditions in Loudoun County are what we believe they are from the dais here depending on the how the elections go with the unions,” said Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn). “If everybody’s hunky-dory happy, then they’re not going to form unions.”
Under the new ordinance, employees will be able to organize and negotiate in three broad groups: fire and rescue, labor and trades, and general government. To enter collective bargaining, 30% of employees in a group must sign a petition showing interest, triggering an election for an organization to serve as bargaining representative requiring a simple majority vote.
Two organizations are already in place and ready to take up that banner: the Loudoun Career Fire Fighters Association IAFF Local 3756, and the Loudoun Chapter of SEIU Virginia 512.
“We would be able to turn into petition tomorrow,” said IAFF Local 3756 President John Myers. “We have 550 members currently. It’s way more than 30%—it’s about 90%.” However, he said, the group will wait to file a petition while some other existing employment issues are resolved—filing the petition triggers a freeze on changes to employment policies.
Union representatives had asked supervisors for an even stronger ordinance, which would group employees into only two groups: fire and rescue, and other county employees. But Loudoun SEIU chapter President Julius Reynolds said he’s pleased with the result.
“That’s actually what a collective bargaining process should look like,” Reynolds said. “You don’t get everything you want, but you try to reach that happy optimum that’s productive for everybody. So, I’m not mad at that process because that’s actually how it’s supposed to work.”
The SEIU will push to be the representative in both other bargaining units.
“At the end of the day, however you want to classify workers, we are all united together,” said SEIU Virginia 512 President David Broder. “Wherever you work, whatever collar—blue collar, white collar, no collar—everybody needs a living wage. Everybody needs good benefits, everybody needs rights on the job.”
Under the laws governing collective bargaining in Virginia, while all employees of a bargaining unit may benefit from the concessions won through collective bargaining, employees who do not wish to join that union cannot be compelled to pay union dues.
Discussions on the county dais over the new ordinance were notably lacking the acrimony that often surrounds debates about unionization at other levels of government, with even the minority of supervisors opposed to collective bargaining working within the ordinance which they would ultimately oppose to help shape it. Supervisors voted 6-2-1 to pass the new ordinance, with Letourneau and Kershner opposed and Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) absent.
This article was updated Dec. 14 at 6:55 p.m. to correct a quote.