Progressive Voice: Collective Bargaining Could Give Arlington’s Public Workers a Greater Voice

Progressive Voice is a bi-weekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s. 

By Keith Willis

Arlington County residents can be proud of our world class public services and of living in a county that values government’s role in making our county a great place to live. In July the Arlington County Board will have the opportunity to make our county services even better by giving our county employees a real voice on the job.

The County Board will consider a proposal allowing county employees to engage in collective bargaining, presenting an opportunity for employees and management to negotiate on things such as wages, benefits, and working conditions.

When public employees, including first responders and county employees, have a union contract, it can improve public services by reducing employee turnover and giving workers a voice in areas such as cost savings and efficiencies. As a county employee said last month before the County Board, county workers want to “offer our expert opinions on our workplace concerns.”

For Virginia, collective bargaining could help alleviate wage disparities that public employees have with their private sector counterparts, while also addressing racial and gender pay equity problems. In our community, unionized county employees could also raise wages for all workers by setting a standard for fair and equitable pay.

Over the past year, county workers have been setting the stage by joining unions and engaging in discussions with county management about what a collective bargaining ordinance could look like. Last month, the County Manager submitted his proposal to the County Board. While this proposal is strong in many respects, I believe it could be improved in three key areas.

  • The new ordinance should be broadly inclusive to maximize the number of County employees that can join their unions. Obviously, there is a group of managers and supervisors that cannot be part of the union but including lead workers such as fire station Battalion Chiefs would expand access to the benefits of collective bargaining to more employees.
  • The County Manager should lay out a policy of management neutrality. To be clear, I’m not implying the county has engaged in the anti-union activity we see from corporations like Amazon and Walmart. Furthermore, the County Manager has expressed the County management team’s neutrality on county employee organizing. However, I believe he could go further by ordering managers to allow employees the freedom to organize their unions without any management involvement or interference.
  • The County Manager has opposed allowing disciplinary actions to be a subject of negotiation. A fundamental part of a union contract is a formalized procedure in which employees have a clear and fair process for addressing grievances that balances the power between workers and management. Leaving this core element out would be a glaring omission in the collective bargaining agreements made possible by the proposal.

As for APS employees, School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen noted that “staff compensation and a plan for collective bargaining will be key areas of focus for us this coming school year. It is vital that we ensure that all staff are fairly and consistently rewarded for their great work.” The School Board is a separate governing body with oversight and management of our public school system’s approximately 6,794 full-time, part-time and hourly employees.

As a 30-year Arlington resident, I’m thrilled our County Board is leading the way on labor issues in our state. Arlington County workers had union contracts until 1977, when the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Arlington needed permission from the state legislature to enter into a collective bargaining arrangement. In 1993, the legislature reinforced this ruling by passing legislation banning the practice altogether.

This ban put us at odds with the United Nations, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Catholic Church and an array of organizations across the world that recognize collective bargaining as a human right. In 2019, the Virginia legislature overturned this ban and left it up to local governments as to whether their employees could unionize and engage in collective bargaining

I’m hopeful that the ultimate ordinance passed by the County Board will be a robust progressive bill that reflects our community values and shows that we value the voices of our county workers.

Keith Willis is a union organizer, former SEIU member, and chair of the Arlington Democrats’ Labor Caucus.