Our Working Lives


Originally published in the Summer 2022 edition of The Virginia Defender, issue 69, printed July 27. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Summer 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Kat McNeal

Richmond city workers and supporters cheer the vote by city council to approve collective bargaining rights for public sector workers. Photo by Kat McNeal

After more than seven months of work and advocacy by city workers, city council members and unions, Richmond City Council on July 25 unanimously passed a public sector collective bargaining ordinance. Richmond is now the fifth locality in the state to adopt such an ordinance and the first outside Northern Virginia.

Public sector workers in Virginia always have had the right to join unions and professional associations, as a matter of the Constitutionally-protected right to free association. But the primary benefit of workplace organizing is the ability to collectively bargain. Collective bargaining is a formal process in which unionized workers, represented by a negotiating team, meet with representatives of their employer to press for their interests. They can negotiate pay, benefits, workplace conditions and other issues of concern. The process results in a legally binding contract.

That’s an area where public employees in Virginia have had trouble. State employees haven’t been allowed to engage in collective bargaining since 1946, and employees of local governments lost the ability in the 1970s. At that time, 19 local governments and school boards had collective bargaining agreements with their unionized employees. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder signed a law in 1993 that codified the prohibitions.

In 2020, the General Assembly passed a bill that changed things, once again allowing local governments and school boards the authority to choose to negotiate with employee unions.

Richmond’s new rule (see the full text of the ordinance here) is a variation of the draft first proposed last December by Councilmember Reva Trammel (8th District). Kristen Nye (4th District) signed on as cosponsor early in the process. Mayor Levar Stoney, whose office around the same time proposed a substantially weaker ordinance, withdrew his own legislation and signed on to the council paper as a patron.

The ordinance stipulates that the City will deal with its workers in five bargaining units, each of which can be represented by a separate union. Those units will consist of city employees in the broad categories of police; fire and emergency services; labor and trades; professional; and administrative/technical. Eligibility for membership in a bargaining unit can’t require a worker to join a union.

Like the bargaining rule passed by the Richmond School Board last year, the ordinance echoes the state law’s ban on strikes.

The legislation has received strong support from city workers and organized labor. True to form, the city council meeting saw a crowd of some 120 supporters, many in organizational T-shirts showing their allegiance to a variety of unions: American Federation of Government Employees, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 666, Richmond Education Association and United Campus Workers.

The largest contingent wore the electric purple T-shirts of the Service Employees International Union. SEIU Local 512, which represents public employees in Fairfax and Loudon counties as well as home healthcare workers throughout the state, has been campaigning since January to organize city workers. The local was one of four unions that worked closely with council members and the city attorney on the ordinance. The others were the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 322, Richmond Coalition of Police and Richmond Firefighters Association IAFF Local L-0955.

These central players were far from the only organizations present. The meeting’s public comment period drew messages of support from the Richmond Branch NAACP, Democratic Socialists of America, Virginia AFL-CIO and the Falls of the James Group of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter.

The council decision marks a major victory for workers in the state’s capital, one that may soon be repeated across the Commonwealth. Charlottesville, Virginia Beach and Norfolk are all seeing local campaigns for their own public sector collective bargaining ordinances.

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