Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

Richmond Public Schools became the first district in Virginia to adopt a collective bargaining resolution for teachers.

RICHMOND—Before 2020, Virginia was one of only five states that didn’t allow collective bargaining for teachers and staff. That changed after the General Assembly passed a law allowing the practice for public employees. In December, Richmond Public Schools (RPS) became the first district to allow its employees to practice collective bargaining.

Spoiler alert: This sets the tone for the rest of the state. Other localities are already following in Richmond’s footsteps. And progress is being made.

What Is Collective Bargaining?

Collective bargaining basically allows employees to come together and use the power of negotiation. Prior to the ban on collective bargaining, the Virginia Education Association (VEA) noted several ways educators utilized the tool. For example, local associations bargained for more specialized teachers in schools, as well as to have a say in scheduling school calendars. 

James Fedderman, VEA president, elaborated on what bringing collective bargaining back for teachers could mean for Virginia schools. A total of 19 Virginia localities had collective bargaining for public sector employees until 1977 when courts determined that the state law didn’t explicitly permit localities to undertake that action.

“The right to negotiate contracts is a win-win—both educators and students benefit. When the professionals who know our students’ names are given a voice, the needs of both are guaranteed to be front and center,” Fedderman said. “As an example, in states where educators have been able to bargain with school leadership, they’ve worked out agreements for smaller class sizes, added extra resources for students, and taken steps to increase school safety and student and staff health. Here in Virginia, when we could bargain, VEA locals had used that process to add art, music, and reading teachers and amend school discipline policies, among other steps.”

Fedderman also noted that when contracts are negotiated locally, it’s good for teacher recruitment and retention, which he called “a significant plus” for students. It also provides a way to address issues of equity and racial and social justice, he said.

Impacting Individuals

Back in Richmond at the December school board meeting, Jerry Gunter, an RPS employee, noted that full-time aides start at a salary more than $10,000 below the federal poverty level for a family of four.

“Our aides—full-time employees—start off at $16,000 with no comfortable way to negotiate, like, the bare minimum for living a meager life,” Gunter said when he addressed the RPS School Board. “[I work] 40 hours a week. I give extra time. I stay back. I’ve asked administrators for advice and a lot of times they tell me, ‘Go back to college. Become a teacher.’ Well, I made a conscious choice. I want to be support there. That’s what I want to do.”

Charlotte Hayer, an RPS high school teacher, said she wants to have a say in her workplace.

“We want to sit at the table like professional adults and have conversations,” Hayer said when she addressed the RPS School Board. “Because I can guarantee you that when we do that, RPS will be a better place for our scholars, for every employee, and for the community.”

After more than an hour of public comment, the board deliberated for about 30 minutes and eventually approved the resolution for collective bargaining, 8-1. The room erupted in applause. 

Across the Commonwealth

Other Virginia localities, like Henrico County, Charlottesville, and Loudoun County, are also looking into allowing collective bargaining.

Fedderman gave his opinion on what RPS’s example could mean for the rest of the commonwealth.

“I hope the rest of the state took notice that the city of Richmond and its educators have agreed that school employees need and deserve a seat at the table when important decisions are made and policies formed. For more than 40 years, educators have been denied this opportunity in the commonwealth, one that is available to school employees in more than 40 states today,” Fedderman said. “Momentum is building in other localities in Virginia, too, and I hope to see more school divisions following Richmond’s lead.”

Just over a week after RPS made its decision to allow collective bargaining, the Prince William County Board of Supervisors voted 5-2 in favor of crafting an ordinance that will allow employees to form collective bargaining units.

Del. Elizabeth Guzman—who represents the 31st District, which includes parts of Prince William and Fauquier Counties—commended the board for its decision on Twitter. In 2020, she carried historic legislation to end the ban on collective bargaining.

“Great step toward giving our first responders and other county workers a voice on the job! Thank you, Prince William County Board of Supervisors,” Guzman’s post read. “Let’s get this done for our hardworking employees who powered this county through the pandemic!”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com.