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Unions: Alexandria Collective Bargaining Proposal Not Ready for Prime Time

Alexandria’s unions want to widen the scope of the city’s proposal for a collective bargaining ordinance, and are telling City Council to allow city employees more negotiating room in regard to wages, hours worked, personnel policies, retirement and disciplinary procedures.

“This is about our voice,” said Josh Turner, president of the Alexandria Fire Fighters Inc. and International Association of Firefighters Local 2141. “We’ve struggled for a long time in having a voice and being able to bring our expertise to the table with the city to talk about really what’s best for the community.”

The city’s plan limits the scope of bargaining to wages and benefits “to get the program started,” according to a city presentation on the draft ordinance that City Council will review tonight (Tuesday). “This can expand in later amendments if it appears more expansive bargaining is warranted.”

City Council sent the city manager’s initial proposal back last month and asked that expanding the scope be investigated, and that labor groups be contacted.

Mayor Justin Wilson is aware that there are concerns, and said he hopes a balance can be struck.

“Well, we had a good conversation on this in February at our legislative meeting,” Wilson said. “I am aware that there are still concerns. There’s still lots of dialogue as we work to strike the right balance. At the moment, Alexandria is likely going to be the first jurisdiction in Virginia to adopt a collective bargaining ordinance in 45 years, so we’re all learning together. The City strongly supported the legislation that enabled collective bargaining and I believe there is substantial support on the Council. I’m confident we’ll end up in a good place.”

Per the draft ordinance, the city manager would hire a labor relations administrator to negotiate with police, fire and emergency personnel, skilled labor employees, and administrative and clerical employees. Additionally, in the event of an impasse, non-binding resolutions would be reached by a mediator, however since the resolutions are non-binding, critics say that the proposal lacks transparency.

Turner says that collective bargaining done right means spending less on turnover.

“If we create a collaborative employee environment, and we’re not losing 10 firefighters and paramedics on average a year, and then we’re not spending close to $2 million a year in turnover for firefighters,” Turner said.

The Alexandria chapter of the International Union of Police Associations agrees with the firefighters, and said that the city was unwilling to change the scope.

“To be clear: every single labor group is vehemently opposed to the draft ordinance,” wrote Marcus Downey, president of the IUPA Supervisor’s Chapter, and Ben Saks, president of the IUPA Local 5, in a letter to Council. “The City’s unwillingness to move on the scope, bargaining units or an impasse procedure is a sign to public safety employees that this ordinance is purely being created for political ambitions and not one done genuinely on behalf of the employees. City residents and visitors enjoy a clean and safe environment to live, work, and visit due in large part of the hard work of City staff. We implore you to postpone the vote and instruct staff to continue meeting with the labor groups.”

Downey and Saks continued, “From the beginning, we have argued that public safety supervisors should be included in the collective
bargaining process… Unfortunately, there has been no substantive progress on the topics most important to the labor groups, so we ask that you reject the updated proposal.”

Collective bargaining was made possible by the passage House Bill 582 last April, and Governor Ralph Northam postponed its implementation until May 2021 due to the pandemic.

Scott Treibitz, a collective bargaining expert working with Alexandria firefighters, said that Fairfax County’s collective bargaining process has been slowed down, and hopes Alexandria will follow suit.

“When people who work have a voice, a collaborative voice with their management, things are better,” Treibitz said. “Work products are usually better, efficiencies are better, money savings are better, and, in the end, if you can have a good collective bargaining relationship with your employees, the taxpayers get more efficient services.”

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