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Virginia Teachers Could Soon Ask For Public Bargaining Contracts

Room of legislators in semi-circle seating
The House of Delegates in session. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM)

Virginia teachers could soon be able to ask their local school boards for collective bargaining agreements, if Gov. Ralph Northam signs a bill passed this year into law. 

Under the proposal, if the majority of teachers in a district decide they want to organize, the school board would be required to at least consider the idea of collective bargaining. The bill leaves a lot of discretion to localities, permitting school boards to iron out the details of the process.

“We want to participate in the process when decisions are made,” said Democratic Del. Elizabeth Guzman, who introduced legislation this year to allow collective bargaining for both state and local employees. “Anytime we talk about salaries, anytime we talk about benefits, anytime we talk about safety conditions…you want your employees who are actually doing the job to have a voice at the table.”

The version that passed wouldn’t affect state employees, and puts the ball in the locality’s court when it comes to deciding whether or not to enter into a contract with employees. It also doesn’t repeal legislation that makes worker strikes illegal in Virginia.

Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston told reporters Tuesday that the legislation is a “game changer” for educators and support staff in public school divisions across the state. 

“The VEA is ‘all in’ on this, and this is really going to be a priority focus moving forward,” Livingston said. He added the legislation is “not about raising taxes,” but about “making decisions about how available resources are put to use,” which he says could mean anything from fairer school discipline policies, school calendars, or pay for support staff. 

“Research tells us over and over and over again that the working conditions for our teachers and support professionals are the learning conditions for our students,” Livingston said. “That’s what we’re about. Trying to create the opportunities that every student deserves in order to be successful.”

Virginia teachers haven't had collective bargaining rights since 1977, when the state Supreme Court struck down that right, according to the VEA. At that time, about one third of public school teachers in the state had contracts with their local school boards. 

Meanwhile, groups like the National Right To Work Committee are asking Northam to veto the legislation. 

“The current ban on government union monopoly bargaining passed in 1993 with wide bipartisan support in the Virginia General Assembly and was signed into law by Democratic Governor Doug Wilder,” said National Right To Work Committee President Mark Mix in a statement. “What you see in states with union monopoly bargaining is union bosses and their handpicked politicians saying, ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, and to heck with taxpayers.’ “ 

We should disclose that VEA is a sponsor of VPM News.