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County supervisors take first steps toward collective bargaining for public-employee unions

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Collective bargaining unions outside Board of Supervisors chambers

County employees representing local firefighters, police and teachers unions gathered outside the Prince William County Board of Supervisors chambers during the board’s May 4 meeting.

After a new Virginia law took effect May 1 allowing public employees to collectively bargain for the first time in 40 years, Prince William firefighters and police unions have urged county officials to take action to allow them to negotiate for higher wages and better benefits and work conditions. 

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors responded by directing county staff to investigate creating a work group to draft a collective bargaining ordinance. The move came during a Tuesday, May 10, work session at Buckhall Fire Station – marking the first step toward allowing county employees to negotiate their contracts with the county executive.

A collective bargaining ordinance is estimated to cost the county around $2 million per year, largely to pay for attorneys, payroll and human resources employees, according to county officials. 

What remains unclear at this time is whether county employees, including labor organizers, will be included in the work group, a major sticking point for union firefighters and police who say an ordinance created by county management could result in a watered-down agreement. 

“We're asking for a work group where labor is at the table negotiating what the ordinance would look like,” said Joe Mirable, spokesman for the Prince William Professional Firefighters union.

A new law approved by the Virginia General Assembly in 2020 allows counties and cities to pass local ordinances to establish collective bargaining rights if they choose. The City of Alexandria was the first Virginia locale to approve a collective bargaining ordinance on April 17, and Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington counties are in the process of creating local ordinances.

If county supervisors choose not to adopt the ordinance, individual bargaining units like local police and fire unions could still force the board to act. Under the law, if more than 50% of the bargaining unit demands a contract, county supervisors must vote up or down to allow it within 120 days.

At least half of the eight board members, including at-large Chair Ann Wheeler (D), Andrea Bailey, D-Potomac, Margaret Franklin, D-Woodbridge, and Kenny Boddye, D-Occoquan, have announced their explicit support for creating a collective bargaining ordinance for county employees. 

“It will be complicated. It will be complex... I think we can do it if we decide to,” Franklin said. 

Republican Supervisors Yesli Vega, R-Coles, Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, and Jeanine Lawson, R-Brenstville, recommended caution over concerns about the cost of implementing an ordinance and its potential impact the county’s triple, AAA bond rating. 

“Let’s slow walk this at a minimum,” said Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville. 

Supervisor Victor Angry, D-Neabsco, also raised concerns about the impact of collective bargaining on the county. Angry said Wednesday in a text message he wants to have a better understanding of the issue before making a decision. 

Eric Beard, president of the Prince William police association, said in an earlier interview that the police association supports a local collective bargaining ordinance because it could result in higher police pay and less turnover. The association represents more than 700 Prince William police employees. 

“It's going to be a win-win for everybody because it's going to help us keep our people here. Training new people, that's a huge expense. We're going to be able to help the community because we're going to have a more experienced workforce,” Beard said. 

Beard said collective bargaining could end up saving the county money in the long run “because we won't have to spend so much money bringing in new people over and over again.” 

County Executive Chris Martino said Tuesday his recommendation is that the board not pursue a collective bargaining ordinance, and instead create a formal meet and confer agreement.

The county currently utilizes an informal meet and confer arrangement, which allows employees to negotiate salaries and work benefits with county management. Deputy County Executive Michelle Casciato said the current informal system “has worked well,” but added that the “the decision making is not equal.” 

“It is one-sided,” Casciato said. 

Prince William County teachers are also pushing for a collective bargaining agreement with the school division, but the agreement would be between the teacher’s union and the school board. The school board has not publicly discussed whether they will support the creation of an ordinance. 

Maggie Hansford, president of the Prince William Education Association, said collective bargaining will benefit both educators and students in the county. 

“It helps retain the best teachers. It helps bring in the best teachers. And it builds a great education system for our students,” Hansford said. “Teachers want to be a part of the decision-making process when it comes to educating our students.” 

Reach Daniel Berti at dberti@fauquier.com

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