How public-sector workers are building power in Virginia

Until recently, the Commonwealth of Virginia was one of three states in the country with a state prohibition on local public-sector bargaining. In 2020, a coalition of labor advocates and public-sector unions representing thousands of working families across Virginia joined together as the “Stronger Communities, A Better Bargain” coalition and successfully lobbied the Virginia General Assembly to approve legislation (H.B. 582/S.B. 939) repealing the prohibition on local public-sector bargaining.

The repeal permits local governments to bargain collectively with their employees upon the approval of a collective bargaining ordinance or resolution. Since the repeal took effect in May 2021, multiple Virginia localities have seen remarkable organizing efforts by and for public-sector workers to pass strong collective bargaining ordinances.

Alongside these efforts, we at The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis (TCI) have provided timely and accessible research on how collective bargaining helps close disparities in pay and benefits for public employees in specific communities.

Here is a snapshot of these efforts within the last year.

Why collective bargaining matters for local government workers and communities in Virginia

Collective bargaining is critical for economic equity and improved public services in Virginia. Local public employees in Virginia experience one of the largest pay penalties in the country. These workers are typically paid 29.9% less than their private-sector peers with similar levels of education, age, and hours worked. Pension and health care benefits do not make up for these pay penalties. In Virginia specifically, the estimated total compensation penalty for local employees compared to their private-sector peers is 28.0%.

Collective bargaining is critical for economic equity between the public and private sector. Public-sector collective bargaining tends to boost pay by 5% to 8%,and the fair and clear standards provided by unionization particularly help Black and Latinx workers. Women would also particularly benefit from collective bargaining, as they make up the majority of local government workers (especially in Virginia). TCI’s ongoing research continues to find that public-sector workers across the Commonwealth stand to benefit from collective bargaining.

The positive impact of unions is not just limited to pay and benefits. Collective bargaining gives workers the power to formally express their ideas for how to improve their workflow and workplaces, which leads to reduced turnover, better working conditions, and improved public services.

Victorious collective bargaining campaigns

Local government workers in the City of Alexandria and Arlington County saw victorious collective bargaining campaigns in 2021. The organizing behind these efforts was primarily driven by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF).

County employees working with IAFF and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) also secured collective bargaining rights for county workers in Fairfax County and Loudoun County. TCI found that 1 in 5 Loudoun County employees and 1 in 7 Fairfax County employees are paid less than the amount needed to support themselves in the county in which they worked.

Staff at Richmond Public Schools worked to get the Richmond City school board to pass a strong collective bargaining ordinance for teachers and school staff. The Virginia Education Association (VEA) and effective grassroots teacher organizing efforts were the primary forces behind this victory.

Ongoing efforts to organize

Employees of the City of Richmond are organizing to improve the collective bargaining ordinances being heard at the city council. A variety of unions, including SEIU, are involved in the Richmond organizing efforts. TCI produced research demonstrating the need for the passage of a collective bargaining ordinance in Virginia’s capital city. We found that 1 in 8 general Richmond city workers who work full time and year round do not make enough to support themselves, and 4 out of 5 do not make enough to support a family. Our report also indicated that the problem of low pay occurs across many departments.

Additionally, local public-sector workers in the City of Virginia Beach and the City of Newport News are organizing to pass collective bargaining in their respective localities with the assistance of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE). TCI analyzed current public-sector pay in these communities and showed that 4 in 10 Virginia Beach employees and 1 in 6 Newport News employees are paid less than the amount needed to support themselves in the city in which they work. When accounting for the respective salaries needed to support an adult with two children, the proportion of public employees who cannot afford an acceptable standard of living increases to 9 in 10 in Virginia Beach and 5 in 6 in Newport News.

Meanwhile, employees of the City of Norfolk are working with AFSCME to secure their own collective bargaining rights. Prince William County has also seen a significant push at the county and school level through campaigns led by workers in partnership with SEIU and VEA.

Staff at Fairfax County Public Schools, City of Norfolk Public Schools, and City of Hampton Public Schools have also begun their own respective campaigns with the help of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Albemarle County Schools staff are working on their collective bargaining campaign with the assistance of VEA.

Setbacks to collective bargaining campaigns

In September 2021, city council members of the City of Portsmouth reversed course on a previous unanimous vote to consider collective bargaining for the city’s firefighters and emergency dispatchers.

Virginia’s 2021 election results changed which party controls the governor’s office and the House of Delegates. Various legislative efforts to roll back collective bargaining for public-sector employees have taken place in the 2022 Virginia General Assembly, where Republicans now control the House and Democrats continue to control the Senate. But these efforts have largely failed, with opposition led by worker advocates in the Stronger Communities, A Better Bargain coalition.

Looking forward

In the last year, Virginia has seen over 15 active local campaigns to ensure collective bargaining for public employees—several of which have already secured victories. Meanwhile, additional policy changes are needed to move toward a strong, statewide law that recognizes the right of every worker to collectively bargain, rather than the current limited state law that creates a patchwork of different rights in different localities and bans state employee collective bargaining. The fight to give every employee in Virginia a voice on the job has only begun.

Mel Borja is a Worker Power Policy Analyst at The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis.

About The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis

The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis (TCI) advances racial and economic justice in Virginia by advocating for public policies that are designed in partnership with people most impacted, and shaped by credible, accessible fiscal and policy research.

TCI is a member of EPI’s Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN), a network of state and local organizations improving workers’ lives through research and advocacy.