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Labor Day: State of the unions in Alexandria

With Labor Day coming up on Monday, a couple of the leading unions and labor organizing groups in Alexandria say they’ve seen substantial gains but there’s still work to be done.

Collective bargaining for public safety agencies was one of the leading issues early in late 2021 and early 2022. Labor activists were also critical of the city’s involvement in financing the development of the Hotel Heron in Old Town, saying the city should leverage its position to ensure better wages and treatment of employees.

In recent years, Alexandria labor activists have also worked with human rights advocates in protests against evictions and poor living conditions.

NoVa Labor

The Northern Virginia Labor Federation (NoVA Labor) is an umbrella organization that encompasses unions in all segments of the economy. Virginia Diamond, President of the NoVA Labor, said the organization includes 55 different labor organizations and 70,000 members across the state.

Diamond said union organizing is on the rise as Virginia’s workforce grapples with the economic impact of the pandemic.

“This year NoVA Labor has seen a great upsurge in union organizing,” Diamond said. “This is a result of the impact of the pandemic on workers, as well as a generational revolt against an economy that offers young workers little hope for the future.”

Alexandria in particular has been at the forefront of union organizing in Virginia, Diamond said.

“Alexandria is a progressive community that values equity and economic justice, so there is widespread support for unions,” Diamond said. “When the General Assembly adopted a statute enabling localities to allow public employees to engage in collective bargaining, Alexandria was the first locality in Virginia to adopt such an ordinance.”

Diamond said one of the major labor concerns is wage theft and exploitation in the construction industry.

“Soon the City will address this problem by adopting a prevailing wage and using community benefit agreements, also known as project labor agreements,” Diamond said.

Beyond combatting wage theft, Diamond said one of the critical pieces of labor reform is offering low-income communities in Alexandria better access to higher-paying trades and careers.

“Building trades unions are reaching out to low-income communities in Alexandria to offer free paid apprenticeships leading to middle-class careers in the skilled trades,” Diamond said. “The Alexandria Democrats Labor Caucus, headed by Russ Davis and Sean Casey, bring together union members and friends of labor to publicize and educate the community on issues affecting workers.”

Diamond said a driving force behind union organizing is the dire levels of income inequality.

“Income inequality is at a level of the Gilded Age, and unionization in the private economy is at only 6%, down from 34% four decades ago,” Diamond said. “Income inequality is a grave concern to Alexandrians, and the most important vehicle for addressing this inequality is unionization. Just as factory workers in the 1930’s and ’40’s organized and built the middle class, workers in the service economy are now organizing to rebuild the middle class.”

Diamond said she’s encouraged by union victories at companies like Starbucks, Amazon, Apple, Chipotle, REI and Trader Joe’s:

The popularity of unions is now at 71%, higher than any time since the 1960’s. The resurgent labor movement is just getting started. Hopefully over the next year we will see the first union hotel, the first union Starbucks, and the first union health care facilities in Alexandria. With the support of the Alexandria community and city leaders, workers will achieve the dignity, respect and living standards that they deserve. Good jobs are union jobs, and good union jobs will enable workers to afford to continue to live in this community.

ATU Local 689

One of the major labor wins in Alexandria was the unionization of DASH operators in 2019. Alphonza Clements, who has been a DASH driver for eight years, was one of the leading advocates for DASH drivers to join regional transit workers’ Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689.

“There were some uphill challenges from the company: people on the management side didn’t want us to have a union,” Clements said. “We were grossly underpaid. We became a union and the union made some changes. We got equal pay with those around us… and we got lifestyle changes for the drivers.”

ATU Local 689 was able to get benefits like 401ks for drivers and was able to install some employment protections for drivers, Clements said.

“Once, you could be fired and you’d have no recourse,” Clements said. “Now, operators have rights and due process in discipline, stuff like that, so there has to be just cause for being fired. Those were some of the major changes that ATU Local 689 brought about.”

Clements also said getting ATU Local 689 also created an attitude change both among operators and management. Clements said before unionization, management would hand down carte blanche changes, but now operators feel like they have a seat at the table during the discussion of changes.

That new working relationship between DASH leadership and ATU Local 689 was tested during the pandemic, but Clements said learned to be flexible to keep the bus system running.

“It was a lot of adjustment for the management and for us to be flexible,” Clements said. “We weren’t trying to be rigid, nothing like that, we have language in our contract that certain things had to take place at a certain time — but we knew to be flexible.”

Now, Clements said the main fights are to hold onto what ATU Local 689 has achieved and to help other public servants get the same.

“The Alexandria Fire Department, when they saw we became a union, we wanted to support them on the right to become union and bargain for equal pay,” Clements said. “We wanted to aid them in their mission for bargaining for equal pay and equal rights. That’s one of the ways ATU 689 impacted Virginia: it influenced the Fire Department to become a union to fight for a fair and equal contract.”

Clements said labor organizing can be as much of a boon to the employer as it is for drivers.

“At one time, DASH paid grossly behind other people, like Fairfax Connector and ART, but we bargained up to equal pay,” Clements said. “That’s why they had a high turnover rate. The turnover rate went down considerably, to help DASH retain its workforce because of the wages they were offering. A wise man once told me, ‘if you want to know if you’re looking at a good employer, look at the turnover rate.’ DASH turnover [is significantly different] before the union and after.”

Overall, Clements said he’s happy to see morale boosted in recent years.

Being a public servent is a hard job. Sometimes we’re the first people someone sees, so we’re going to get it even if we didn’t have anything to do with it. It’s a hard job and the fact is that we were grossly underpaid for years. The union came in and made it better for us as a whole — it pumps up the morale when you’re out servicing the area that you’re being compensated for the work you do. Before when we were unionized, the morale was real low, but now the morale is higher.

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