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Richmond employees speak against mayor’s stricter collective bargaining proposal

Building with layered floors
Richmond City Hall. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Two proposals to give Richmond city employees the right to collectively bargain have been advanced to City Council. These opposing plans, one from the mayor and another from a majority of council members, differ substantially, according to union activists and city employees, who say the mayor’s proposal is too restrictive.

Public employees in Virginia can now collectively bargain after the passage of a new law in 2020 that gives local governments the option to grant their employees these rights. However, the law specifies that localities are under no obligation to grant their employees collective bargaining rights, meaning the decision about whether a union of public employees can form in Richmond all depends on how City Council votes this month.

It’s also up to localities to decide the scope of their employees’ bargaining rights under Virginia’s new law. In contrast to the proposal advanced by six City Council members, the mayor’s proposal has greater limitations on the types of grievances employees can bargain over.

In the mayor’s proposal, employees are only able to bargain over their wages as well as benefits related to their paid and unpaid leave and their healthcare plans.

Phill Sheppard is an employee of the Richmond Public Library. He and his colleagues told City Council earlier this week that while those rights are important, they don’t cover the wide range of complaints they want the city government to address.

“We want to be able to bargain over the full range of wages, benefits and working conditions so that we can stabilize the workforce in this city and begin improving public services,” Sheppard said.

In contrast, the proposal from council members Reva Trammell, Kristen Nye, Ellen Robertson, Katherine Jordan, Ann-Frances Lambert and Stephanie Lynch gives employees the right to negotiate their wages, healthcare benefits, unpaid and paid leave, working hours, vacation and holiday time, retirement plans and other workplace conditions.

Dozens of Richmond city workers testified in opposition to the mayor’s more restrictive plan during a council meeting on Monday. However, the majority of speakers said the main issue they have within city government is staffing shortages. Under both plans, the city would retain exclusive rights to hire and assign members of staff. That’s a recurring problem, according to Richmond Public Library employees like Linda Argonaut-Brown, who reported that staffing shortages are so severe they threaten workers’ access to basic needs.

“I'm really tired of inadequate staffing,” Argonaut-Brown said. “Richmond Public Library. management doesn't take care of people. You need to go to the bathroom? You've got to wait.”

These concerns were echoed by employees of Richmond’s Social Services Department, including social worker Felicia Boney.

“We need your support. We are working under the gun. Social Services is short staff members. We have workers who have case loads of 2,000 to 3,000 cases. They are working under the gun. There's not enough hours in the day to get the work done,” Boney said. “We need your support in order to be the best employees that we can be. We need resources.”

Employees and union experts say in addition to its limited scope, the mayor’s proposal weakens the power of public employees by lumping them all together into one collective union. In contrast, the council members’ proposal creates three separate bargaining units: one for police, one for firefighters and one for general city employees.

Kate Robertson-Young, a lawyer with the Service Employees International Union, says there are benefits to both plans, but they think the council's proposal is ultimately better for workers.

“We think that one unit for police, one unit for firefighters and one unit for general city workers is what workers want. There are also other reasons, however, why we would support one unit for general city workers in many other places in the public sector. That is the norm, a wall-to-wall unit of all city workers,” Robertson-Young said. “It also creates arbitrary and unnecessary divisions among workers in the workplace. That is counter to the whole purpose of forming a union and collective bargaining.”

Police officers in Richmond already have a union called the Richmond Coalition of Police, which advocates for members and provides them with legal representation. But some officers and representatives of RCOP, including president Brenden Levy, told City Council they would still benefit from gaining the official right to collectively bargain.

“I strongly believe collective bargaining would bring equitable working conditions to our city employees. I strongly believe that every city employee has the right to collectively bargain. I strongly believe every city employee has the right to unionize. And I strongly believe every city employee needs their voice heard,” Levy said. “We should not have to wait three days to turn the heat back on in a precinct. We shouldn't have to have black mold just painted over in a precinct.”

Council member Lynch is a former social services employee. Like her fellow sponsors, she praised city employees for speaking out about the need for broader collective bargaining rights and committed to securing them.

“When I was working at the Virginia Department of Social Services, I can only imagine the fear that I would have … coming down and speaking out,” Lynch said. “There's just no excuse for us not to put the time and the effort into our city staff. And I know that unionizing and coming together as a group is a way to do that, so I look forward to this opportunity.”

Trammell agreed and told city employees earlier this week that she expects her proposal to pass when it’s considered again by City Council.

“I know that my colleagues support all of you who are workers because we all know that you're the backbone of the city. You all are the backbone, no matter what position you have,” Trammell said.

In a statement from the city’s Office of Strategic Communications and Civic Engagement, which worked with the mayor to develop his proposal, the administration said they plan to work with City Council to review the best options available for their employees. However, they said those considerations have to be balanced out with the potential financial impact of increasing employees’ pay and benefits on taxpayers.

“To further advance our efforts, the mayor’s proposed 2023 budget includes an increase to the minimum wage for city employees to $17 an hour, one of the highest regionally, a 5% raise for all general employees and a new public-safety sworn step pay plan that elevates salaries with an average increase of 18%,” said Petula Burks, a spokesperson with the office. “As such, collective bargaining options must consider the impacts to all employees and the taxpayers of Richmond equally.”

However, those raises, according to employees, aren’t enough to make up for the years the city ignored their needs and demands, including calls for better pay. Argonaut-Brown, who is in her 70s, says that after 37 years working for the city, she’s still only paid $18.50 an hour.

“Even the village idiot can see that the city is not taking care of the employees,” Argonaut-Brown said.

City Council plans to meet again on Monday, May 9 to discuss which proposal granting employees collective bargaining rights they will choose. If city employees vote to form a union, the City Council will ultimately still need to approve future contracts between employees and the city before they can take effect.