Labor organizers push for stronger collective bargaining in Prince William

Worker reps say county isn’t matching other big Northern Virginia jurisdictions

By: - November 16, 2022 12:02 am

The Prince William County Board of Supervisors (Photo courtesy of Prince William Times)

Prince William County is the last big Northern Virginia jurisdiction to consider granting collective bargaining rights to public employees, but labor organizers say the county’s draft plan is so filled with holes they have major doubts about whether they can support it.

In a strongly worded letter to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors this month, union leaders pointed out the draft ordinance, prepared by the county administration with the help of an outside employment consultant, gives management the final say over “work rules, policies, procedures and standards of conduct.”

“At a minimum, staff and their outside counsel have misled the board — if not outright lied to you —  into believing we will be able to bargain over working conditions,” wrote the labor leaders from three groups representing police, firefighters and other public workers. “The list of exclusions is so broad that there would be no bargaining over working conditions.”

The letter also proposed clearer language ensuring part-time employees can be included in collective bargaining units and more authority for a neutral labor relations administrator who would handle arbitration and investigation of unfair labor practice claims.

The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation in 2020 empowering local governments to allow collective bargaining by their workers, while leaving localities free to decide specifics of what would and wouldn’t be up for negotiation. The battle in Prince William, which potentially impacts roughly 4,000 county employees, appears to be the most sharp-elbowed labor versus management dispute so far as Democratic-leaning localities look to convey pro-worker stances under the new law.

The draft ordinance in Prince William, if passed in its current form, would mostly limit collective bargaining to wages and benefits, a less extensive version of similar laws already approved by Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington counties, as well as the cities of Alexandria and Richmond.

“County staff has been excluding all labor unions from the entire process,” Katie Zaimis, president of the Prince William County Police Association, said in an interview this week. “Everything was done behind closed doors. And every draft that comes out we’ve had no input.”

A spokesperson for the county declined to comment on behalf of the county administration, which is drafting the ordinance with the help of an outside attorney, employment consultant Eric Paltell, and presenting it to the county board for approval. A hearing on the collective bargaining ordinance is scheduled for Nov. 22.

The Prince William County School Board adopted its own collective bargaining plan last month in a 7-1 vote, according to WTOP.

During a prior board discussion of the proposal last month, County Attorney Michelle Robl suggested Prince William was taking a more prudent approach than other Northern Virginia localities that have already authorized collective bargaining.

Where can public sector employees collectively bargain in Virginia?

“They’re having some growing pains with them,” Robl said. “They still don’t have a collective bargaining agreement in place. We are taking the experience of Mr. Paltell’s 30-plus years in states that have had it, along with seeing what’s happened in the other Northern Virginia jurisdictions that don’t seem to be working as smoothly as possible.”

David Broder, president of the Service Employees International Union Virginia 512 chapter, said the county’s staff has resisted the board’s request for an ordinance “that would give their employees the same rights as employees in Fairfax and Loudoun and Arlington and Alexandria.”

“This simply does not do it,” Broder said, adding that it’s taking time for other Northern Virginia jurisdictions to strike new labor agreements because it’s “very difficult in America for workers to come together and form unions.”

After the Nov. 2 letter, Broder said, none of the labor groups’ proposed changes were implemented before the ordinance was advertised for a public hearing.

“Since we sent that letter I think we’ve sadly seen the same dynamic occur, which is county staff… continue to shove workers out of this process,” Broder said.

Robl did not respond to a message left with her office Tuesday.

While discussing a recommendation for the county and labor unions to split the costs of arbitration proceedings to avoid “frivolous” labor claims, Paltell told the board his guidance was based on common practices in other states, even if it didn’t align with what other Northern Virginia jurisdictions have done under a brand-new law.

“Our client is the county,” said Paltell, who works for the Maryland-based Kollman & Saucier law firm. “We’re trying to put some kind of controls on the county’s financial exposure in these proceedings.”

Prince William Board Chair Ann Wheeler did not respond to emailed requests for comment for this story.

Several labor leaders said they hope the board will take more time to amend the ordinance before moving forward. In the Nov. 2 letter, labor groups urged the board not to follow the guidance of “union-busting outside counsel.”

The process of drafting the collective bargaining ordinance has been greatly hampered by the anti-union, unelected staff’s outright refusal to include the labor organizations in discussions,” the labor groups wrote. “Tellingly, county staff and the county attorney meet regularly with real estate developers about land use issues in the County, yet refuse to meet with unions about core workers rights issues.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]

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