Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-31st, who represents constituents in Prince William and Fauquier counties, is sponsoring a bill to end the ban on collective bargaining for Virginia’s public workers, a proposal that has received the endorsement of several Virginia unions, including those representing teachers and firefighters.
Virginia, along with North Carolina and South Carolina, are the only three states in the U.S. that bar employees of municipal, county and state government agencies and state colleges and universities from collectively bargaining for workplace improvements.
The Virginia Education Association, a union of more than 40,000 teachers and school support professionals, is focusing its efforts on Guzman’s bill this General Assembly session, according to VEA Communications & Public Affairs Director John O’Neil.
“We believe Delegate Guzman’s bill will be good for students, good for schools, good for communities, and good for those working in our public schools. It would allow us to negotiate for things like lower class size and resources that help students,” O’Neil said in an email.
The Prince William Education Association, the largest local teachers’ union, is part of the VEA.
A coalition of labor unions representing thousands of workers held a press conference Thursday calling for the Virginia lawmakers to pass the bill. During the press conference, a teacher, a firefighter and an engineer discussed how collective bargaining could allow them to better advocate for the communities they serve.
Kelly Walker, a Virginia Beach high school government teacher, said having the ability to collectively bargain could advance the goal of having smaller class sizes in public schools.
“I personally have taught over 165 students where I didn't have enough seats in my classroom for every student to have a desk. As you can imagine, that causes a lot of stress and challenges as we move forward to try to ensure that every student has a healthy and positive learning environment,” Walker said. “A better working environment for teachers translates to a better learning environment for our students. It is time teachers have a seat at the table.”
Prince William County Firefighter Joe Mirabile also spoke at the press conference. Mirabile lives in the Coles District and has served as a firefighter in Prince William County for 13 years.
“Firefighters should have the right to bargain for their work conditions, equipment and staffing levels,” Mirabile said. “Firefighters are the subject matter experts in our profession. We should be at the table using that knowledge to be better able to serve the citizens we swore to protect.”
Guzman’s bill has received the backing of Virginia Professional Fire Fighters, an association of local unions representing over 8,000 members across the Commonwealth of Virginia.
"Allowing teachers to negotiate for smaller class sizes or emergency responders to negotiate for better equipment is a better bargain for both the workers and the communities they serve,” Guzman said in an emailed statement.
Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-2nd, who represents constituents in Prince William County, is also in favor of ending the ban on collective bargaining for public employees. Foy said after the press conference that improving conditions for working families is one of her top priorities.
“Virginia is number one for businesses, but we also need to be number one for workers, and the way that we do that is by increasing wages, implementing more worker protections and ensuring that public sector employees have the ability to negotiate for better pay, job protections and safety,” Foy said. “I think it’s a false narrative to say that you have to exploit workers, treat them poorly and underpay them in order to have a thriving economy.”
The Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations has also backed the bill. The AFL-CIO is a federation of national and international labor unions representing millions of workers in the United States and internationally.
Destiny LeVere, communications director of the Virginia AFL-CIO, said in an email that collective bargaining for emergency responders like firefighters would enable the negotiation of for more up-to-date equipment, and would mean more individual attention for students in public schools.
LeVere also said the state’s collective bargaining ban was originally intended to exclude the African American working class and women from having equal rights in the workplace and is a “vestige of slavery and Jim Crow laws and attitudes.”
“Changing this law in Virginia is long overdue and presents the chance to turn the page on the era of discrimination and give all workers equal rights,” LeVere said.
The bill, HB582 has not yet been referred to a House Committee for consideration.
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