Prince William Board of County Supervisors

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors during their Dec. 7 meeting in the board chambers at the James J. McCoart Administrative Building.

Prince William County public employees could soon be allowed to collectively bargain for wages, benefits and working conditions after county supervisors approved a resolution Tuesday directing staff to begin drafting a collective bargaining ordinance. 

The county board  voted 5-2-1 to approve the resolution. The board’s five Democratic members voted in favor; Supervisors Yesli Vega, R-Coles, and Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, voted against it; and Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, was absent. 

Prince William County supervisors had until Jan. 5 to decide whether they would proceed with a collective bargaining ordinance after the county's police and fire unions submitted paperwork in September triggering a four-month deadline for the board to take an up-or-down vote. 

The board and county staff will now begin drafting the ordinance with work sessions tentatively planned for January and February. It is not yet known when it will return to the board for a final vote. If an ordinance is adopted by the board, it could potentially impact thousands of Prince William County workers, including police officers, firefighters, administrative and maintenance workers.

“This is just the beginning of the process of work sessions and trying to determine what we want to do. I think we're really lucky that four counties around us have gone through this process and we can take from the best of that,” said at-large board Chair Ann Wheeler (D). Fairfax County, Arlington County, Loudoun County and the City of Alexandria have already enacted collective bargaining ordinances.

Adopting the ordinance would cost an estimated $1.7 million per year in administrative costs, largely to pay for attorneys, payroll and more human resources employees, according to Deputy County Executive Michelle Casciato.

new Virginia law that took effect May 1 allows local governments to enter collective bargaining agreements with workers for the first time since the commonwealth banned the practice in 1977. The bill was carried by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-31st, who represents eastern Prince William and Fauquier counties.

In a statement following the board’s approval, Guzman commended the board “for taking this critical step toward granting their employees the freedom to collectively bargain.” 

“Our local government workers have for nearly two years labored on the frontlines of this pandemic to keep our county running and to ensure our community members are cared for,” Guzman said. “... We are still battling this pandemic, and for too long our frontline workers have been asked to sacrifice without meaningful recognition. It is not enough to clap for these heroes; they deserve the freedom to form a union and bargain collectively for a fair contract.”

The supervisors' vote will not immediately affect Prince William County schools employees, however. They must win collective bargaining rights from the Prince William County School Board, which has not yet taken up the issue.

David Broder, president of Service Employees International Union Virginia 512, a union that represents Fairfax County and Loudoun County employees, said in a statement that Prince William County “has an opportunity to join Fairfax, Loudoun, Arlington and Alexandria and become a real champion for working families in the commonwealth.” 

Democratic supervisors have been generally supportive of enacting collective bargaining for county employees since they began discussing the issue in May. 

Supervisor Kenny Boddye, D-Occoquan, said Tuesday that allowing workers to collectively bargain could improve staff retention and allow more of the county’s workforce to live and work in Prince William County, where housing costs are among the highest in the state. 

“We have folks that live in this community [who] want to serve the community, but they simply do not make enough to do that, so they work in Fairfax, Arlington,  Alexandria, sometimes DC and Maryland, because they’re able to put food on their table by going somewhere else,” Boddye said. 

Supervisor Victor Angry, D-Neabsco, expressed concerns over how much collective bargaining will cost and raised concerns about the impact of collective bargaining on the county’s volunteer fire departments. But ultimately, he said he would support creating a collective bargaining ordinance to help county employees on the low end of the pay scale. 

“I have this beautiful lady in my office who cleans our office every day. She reminds me so much of my mother. And she is the hardest working lady I know. And the better opportunities that this provides, provides opportunity for people like her,” Angry said. 

Lawson and Vega, who voted against the move, said they disagreed with the annual cost estimates for collective bargaining provided by county staff and questioned the need for collective bargaining for county employees. 

“What is the reason for collective bargaining? What are you seeking to get that you don't already get?” Vega said, noting that county taxpayers would be “subsidiz[ing] the already great benefits of 5,000 employees.” 

Lawson said she was “disappointed” that collective bargaining is moving forward, and that cost estimates “will absolutely rise and they will rise exponentially if this continues to go further down the road.” 

Wheeler pushed back on the characterization of collective bargaining as being overly expensive, noting that dozens of states have long allowed collective bargaining for public sector workers. 

“To say that to institute collective bargaining, the whole sky is going to fall and everything's going to go to hell in a hand basket, I think is just a scare tactic,” Wheeler said. “This, for Prince William County, is a step in the right direction.” 

Reach Daniel Berti at dberti@fauquier.com

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