Virginia Firefighters Want the Right to Negotiate

By Megan Schiffres

June 22, 2021

The General Assembly approved some changes this year, but left it up to local cities and counties to decide how to enforce it.

RICHMOND – Now that they have the ability to request it, fire departments across Virginia are asking their local governments to grant them collective bargaining rights. With these rights, firefighters will have a seat at the negotiating table when local governments discuss their employment. 

“Specifically for firefighters, no one is going to know the business of firefighting more than the people who are actually doing it,” said William Boger, president of the Henrico Professional Firefighters Association. “They’re maybe not going to know the nuances of what it takes to provide the public safety component that we provide. So whenever we can sit down at the table with them and work out the details, it just strengthens the relationship.”

In Virginia, so far only one locality has already passed an ordinance allowing public employees to have collective bargaining rights. The City of Alexandria in Northern Virginia adopted a public employee collective bargaining ordinance on April 17. Now, eight other Virginia fire departments are in the process of requesting the right to collectively bargain from their governments. These localities include Fairfax County, Arlington County, Loudoun County, Prince William County, the City of Charlottesville, the City of Virginia Beach, the City of Portsmouth, and the City of Richmond.

Collective Bargaining a Renewed Right in Virginia 

Starting on May 1, a new law in Virginia gave public employees the right to request collective bargaining power. Public employees have been denied that right since 1977. That’s when the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that public-sector collective bargaining agreements were invalid under state law. 

The original House version of the bill that renewed this right for public employees was nine pages long. It laid out a detailed process creating a state board to oversee these negotiations, establishing procedures for navigating impasses, and giving the circuit court judicial review over disputed contracts. 

The version that the governor signed, which is closer to the collective bargaining bill proposed in the Senate, covers a single page. It includes brief instructions on what local public employees must do to petition for the right to collective bargaining. But, vague wording and a lack of guidance in the legislation is leaving the door open for localities to limit the scope of public employee’s new collective bargaining rights. 

That’s according to representatives of fire department associations across the Commonwealth. They say that the law still leaves the power to determine the working conditions, wages, and benefits of public employees firmly in the hands of local governments. 

“The bill that finally got passed was very, very broad. It had no framework and it created nothing at the state-level to adjudicate issues between the employees and the employer. It basically punted it to the localities to figure it out on their own,” said Joe Mirabile, secretary and treasurer of the Prince William Professional Firefighters Association. 

Asking for Permission to Collectively Bargain

Under the new law, a majority of public employees in each unit of the locality’s government can petition their city, county, or town to adopt an ordinance recognizing the collective bargaining power of public employees. Once they submit the petition, the governing body of that locality must take a vote on the ordinance within 120 days. 

Though they’re grateful for the progress that the General Assembly made last year, representatives of firefighters associations across Virginia say their biggest concern with the new law is that local governments still retain the right to deny a request for collective bargaining. 

“It is a little cumbersome, the way that the laws are written. Somewhat. In that the local government still has the authority to approve an ordinance or not approve an ordinance to allow for collective bargaining. So it’s not guaranteed for us right now,” said Boger. “It’s up to the Board of Supervisors or the City Council or whoever you’re dealing with to approve it.”

The firefighter’s association in Henrico isn’t pursuing collective bargaining rights yet. That’s because Boger says the department already has a collaborative partnership with their county’s government. But, he says unfortunately that’s not the norm in Virginia. And, Boger acknowledges that his department’s relationship with the county could change at any time. 

“For every one that has a good relationship, there are probably four that don’t have a good relationship,” Boger said. “We work together to solve problems. But that could change, of course, tomorrow. Like you mentioned, the board could change. The county administration could change. And then if all of a sudden they decided ‘Hey firefighters association, we’re not going to meet with you anymore. We’re not going to talk about the problems that we have,’ then, we would probably look at pursuing the ordinance.” 

The Scope of Bargaining Power for Firefighters

Public employees have the right to collectively bargain “with respect to any matter relating to them or their employment or service,” under to the new law. However, what that definition encompasses is still up for debate. 

According to firefighter association representatives in Virginia, localities are using the vagueness of the law’s wording to restrict what public employees can actually demand once they gain collective bargaining power. 

For example, the City of Alexandria’s original proposed ordinance for allowing collective bargaining by public employees limited the scope of those negotiations to only wages and benefits. 

Arlington County Departments Disagree on Definitions

In Arlington County, the local government is currently proposing a slightly more generous definition. Their definition includes wages, benefits, administrative procedures for promotions and layoffs, and working conditions related to physical health and safety. But according to union rights advocates, the scope of the county’s definition still isn’t broad enough. 

“[It] not only covers wages but hiring practice, layoffs, promotions, job functions, working conditions and hours, worker discipline and termination and benefit programs. That’s the definition by a well-known source, the Encyclopedia Britannica, that’s been around forever,” said Scott Treibitz.“The county is coming in and basically saying, ‘You know what? We see this definition, but we’re going to give you our own definition. And our own definition is, collective bargaining is we’re going to talk about wages. Or we’re going to talk about these five issues, instead of what the big definition here is.”

Treibitz is the former assistant director of public relations for the American Federation of Teachers and communications director of the International Union of Electronic Workers. He’s been advising the firefighters association in Arlington throughout their process of requesting bargaining rights from the county. 

Brian Lynch, president of the Arlington Professional Firefighters Association, agrees. He says the county is deliberately limiting the scope of his association’s negotiating power. 

“It unnecessarily limits the scope of issues upon which we can engage with bargaining with management. It also prohibits the negotiation of procedures that we can use to enforce a negotiated agreement,” Lynch said. 

What Do Firefighters Want? 

The needs of firefighters are greater than other public employees, according to Treibitz. That’s because the hazards of their jobs, from breathing in toxic fumes to exposure to traumatic events, are extreme. Unlike other public employees like teachers and administrators, firefighters risk their health and safety on a daily basis. 

“Our frontline workers have been on the front lines addressing the service calls that arise when somebody is sick or frightened or worried about a family member. Have been exposed often not only to coronavirus but also to the sorts of traumatic events that stay with you for a lifetime,” said Del. Dan Helmer (D – Prince William). “And all along the way, they’ve been there for us. They’ve been fearless. And they deserve our gratitude and our support.”

Helmer copatroned the legislation in the Senate which now enables public employees to request the right to collectively bargain. In his district, the firefighters association treasurer says he’s most looking forward to having the power to negotiate salary increases.

“We’re still a growing department, we’re the second biggest locality in Virginia. But we’re still playing catch-up from not investing in the services to keep up with the pace of growth that we have,” Mirabile said. 

Firefighters Say the Current System Isn’t Working 

Without collective bargaining rights, fire departments in Virginia can only form associations, not labor unions. These associations have the right to meet and confer with their local government about issues related to their employment. But, localities are under no obligation to honor their requests. 

According to Mirabile, these meet-and-confer agreements don’t give firefighters the opportunity to have a balanced negotiation with county administration. 

“Meet-and-confer is completely one-sided and they’re under no obligation to do anything you request. You’re basically begging for them to do stuff and they might or might not do it. Whereas collective bargaining, we’d be sitting at a table trying to negotiate terms of a contract. It’d be give and take. It’d be a much more collaborative relationship rather than one-sided,” said Mirabile. 

When local governments refuse to negotiate with their associations, the departments typically appeal to the media and state-level politicians. According to Mirabile and Lynch, they’ve had some limited success with this model. But again, that success depends on whether they can gain attention for their complaints. 

“The way we got it was through political advocacy. But when you have to go to the political realm, things have to get bad,” Mirabile said. “It has to be a crisis for it to rise to the level of public discourse. And you have to have the right combination of political figures and the right political moment.”

Better Conditions for Firefighters Means Better Services for the Community 

Better working conditions for firefighters doesn’t just benefit members of the department. According to Treibitz, it also ensures that residents receive the best emergency care possible. 

“Collective bargaining is going to offer taxpayers better value and better services. Because it’s going to allow the people who deliver us the services every single day a more important voice in how services are delivered. How we effectively can offer the customer, and the customer’s the taxpayer, a better product. And right now, that better product is in the hands of a few managers, versus the people that are delivering the services,” said Treibitz. 

For example, both firefighter associations in Prince William and Arlington counties say they want to use collective bargaining to negotiate for increased staffing on emergency response calls. According to the National Fire Protection Association, they recommend that a minimum of four firefighters should staff each fire engine. Prince William County isn’t following that recommendation, according to Mirabile. 

“Our minimum staff is three. So I’ve been here, I’m rolling into my fifteenth year. I was actually hired in a recruit school that was supposed to bump all of our engine companies up to four-person staffing. And we’re here fifteen years later and we still don’t have it,” Mirabile said. “Sadly we had a fire fatality, one of our firefighters died in 2007. I was actually in recruit school for that. And one of the LODD recommendations, line of duty death, they do a report afterwards, and one of the recommendations was four-person engine staffing in trucks and rescues. And here we are fifteen years later and we haven’t done it.”

COVID-19 Highlights a Need for Hazard Pay

Especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, firefighters say their contracts must also include health benefits like hazard pay and sick leave. 

“[It] just boggles my mind, how many COVID patients we were running. That was also another big issue, with what’s called emergency paid sick leave. So we had guys who were getting sick and gals who were getting sick from… running COVID patients, and they were being forced to have to burn their own leave,” Mirabile said. “We were having to quarantine entire shifts of people for two weeks. So then that created a strain on the system because then we had to cover those vacancies.” 

The Future of Collective Bargaining in Virginia

While the current system isn’t perfect, both firefighters and legislators agree that allowing public employees to request the right to collective bargaining is a good start. 

“I certainly think that this was a good step and it’s sensible to see how it works out and make sure that our firefighters and police officers and teachers and other employees who are so critical to education and public safety are able to do the things we ask them to do which is protect our homes, protect our neighborhoods, and educate our kids. And I’m looking forward to seeing how the process we’ve laid out works and ensure that it is effective,” said Helmer. “And if it’s not effective, we can explore whether we need to adjust accordingly.” 

The PRO Act

On the national level, legislators representing Virginia in Congress are also attempting to expand the rights of unions. 

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which Rep. Bobby Scott (D – VA) introduced to Congress in February, would dramatically expand labor protections related to employees’ rights to organize and collectively bargain in the US. This legislation also applies to public employees. 

“The Protecting the Right to Organize Act is a major step toward ensuring that workers can exercise their basic right to form a union and collectively bargain for higher pay, safer working conditions, and decent benefits, including paid leave, quality health care, and a secure retirement. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the urgent need for Congress to protect and strengthen workers’ rights,” said Scott. “Over the past year, workers across the country have been forced to work in unsafe conditions for insufficient pay, because they lacked the ability to stand together and negotiate with their employer. The PRO Act is an opportunity to honor the contributions of the many frontline workers during the pandemic and American workers nationwide who continue to uphold our economy.”

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