Our Working Lives


Originally published in the Winter 2022 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 67, printed February 3. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Winter 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Kat McNeal

On Dec. 6, Richmond became the first locality in Virginia to approve collective bargaining for its teachers and other public school employees.

Collective bargaining is a process by which workers, organized into bargaining units, are able to negotiate the terms of their work with their employer and receive a legally-binding contract.

Teachers in Virginia have not had collective bargaining rights since 1977, when the state’s Supreme Court ruled that school districts lacked the authority to enter into agreements with unions. A 1993 amendment to the Code of Virginia explicitly prohibited government entities from recognizing their employees’ unions or professional associations for the purposes of contract negotiations.

In 2020, the General Assembly passed a bill, sponsored by Delegate Elizabeth R. Guzman (D-Woodbridge) to let towns, counties and school boards pass ordinances allowing public sector collective bargaining. Notably, this bill did not lift the prohibition against public sector workers striking.

Last September, three members of the Richmond School Board – Chair Shonda Harris-Muhammad (6th District), Vice Chair Kenya Gibson (3rd District) and Stephanie Rizzi (5th District), worked with the Richmond Education Association to draw up a proposed collective bargaining resolution.

Gibson, Rizzi and Harris-Muhammad are the board’s most progressive members. All were supported in their elections by the grassroots organization Richmond for All, for which Gibson is a volunteer staff member and member of its governing board.

Their proposal moved to an ad hoc committee chaired by Harris-Muhammad. Gibson and Rizzi published the proposed resolution on Gibson’s blog, along with a compelling editorial that reviewed the history of the repression of organized labor in the South and the link between anti-labor policies and racism. (You can view the original proposal and Gibson and Rizzi’s editorial, “It’s Time to Turn the Page on Labor Relations in the South,” here.)

In committee, the document was reviewed, discussed and altered by the board’s lawyer. Among the most notable changes was limiting the number of negotiable items for the first contract period to two per party, unless expanded by mutual agreement.

While there are far more items of immediate concern to workers at the overburdened public school system, this stipulation will be lifted for the second contract negotiation, which could take place in as little as three years.

The resolution passed 8-1, with only Jonathan Young (4th District) voting no. Young, the only white man on the board and a right-libertarian-leaning Independent who previously opposed changing the names of schools honoring Confederate leaders, said collective bargaining was an unneeded “arcane, hierarchical, bureaucratic process” and that the board instead should focus on reducing the number of administrators.

To collectively bargain and secure a contract, school workers will have to certify a union to act as their bargaining agent. REA, which many educators and staff already belong to, has launched a campaign to make this happen. For details, see the Richmond Education Association Resolution FAQ here.

Categories: Our Working Lives

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