The Portsmouth City Council voted 5-2 against allowing collective bargaining for city employees. In a Tuesday Council meeting, some members said that although they would like to support unionizing efforts, the high cost of implementing collective bargaining didn’t make sense.
“It was something we had all hoped would be good for the city last year when the city council passed a resolution to move forward,” Council Member Lisa Lucas-Burke said. “After hearing the information from our CFO regarding the financial cost that would be associated, I think that until we get more information and more funding to be able to carry this out it’s going to be pretty difficult for us to carry that through. My heart was there to get collective bargaining for our unions, for the departments that were interested in it, but with the information that was since provided we have to respond to that in that manner.”
In 2020 the General Assembly passed legislation allowing local governments to decide if they will extend collective bargaining rights to their citizens. The legislation went into effect May 1. In March 2020, a Kollman and Saucier, P.A. legislative update said, “Virginia has long had a statutory prohibition on collective bargaining for state and local employees, making it one of only three states in the country to have such a bar (the others are North and South Carolina).”
If a locality does not already have a statute permitting or banning collective bargaining, and a group of employees requests recognition as a collective bargaining unit, the law requires the locality to enact a statute within 120 days. In May, the Portsmouth Professional Firefighters Union (PPFU) requested formal collective bargaining permission, according to The Virginian-Pilot.
“The city workforce are the subject matter experts and deserve the same rights and benefits that municipal employees in 45 other states have. We are asking for a fair and formal structure through collective bargaining to be able to better advocate for not only the city employees, but the citizens we serve. Modern day public sector collective bargaining is a shared commitment and creates a roadmap for fair and effective governance,” a PPFU advocacy letter states.
The city is required to respond to that specific request by August 29.
In a July 27 public work session, Portsmouth CFO Mimi Terry said costs of increased salaries and benefits for unionized employees, new positions for administering the program, and compensation for contracts including legal advisors would cost the city $2 million annually. She said there could be more costs and instead recommended that the city pursue alternate options including improved communications and equity among employees, and developing a plan that addresses wage compression, organizational structure, and workplace conditions.
“Administration is doing a deep dive into all issues concerning the workforce. Collective bargaining is not needed,” she said.
On Tuesday, Council Member Paul Battle said, “That [$2 million] could be funding that we could use to give the folk applying for raises.”
But other council members argued against passing the ordinance, noting that it wasn’t just a response to the PPFU request, but a broad ban on collective bargaining. Council Member Mark Whitaker said that he didn’t support the PPFU request, but said, “I believe that collective bargaining unionization is something that’s been efficient. My problem with the language here is that I think it’s overarching and it says here that the city will not recognize any labor union.”
“If we’re looking at one group versus another group, it potentially creates an inequitable situation. So if we’re just going to take it away from the firefighters to have that option and create it for [others], to me that creates the same inequity,” Mayor Shannon Glover said.
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