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Virginia Beach rejects collective bargaining for city employees

Virginia Beach city employees and supporters picket outside City Hall ahead of City Council’s vote on collective bargaining. (Photo by Ryan Murphy)
Virginia Beach city employees and supporters picket outside City Hall ahead of City Council’s vote on collective bargaining. (Photo by Ryan Murphy)

Virginia Beach’s City Council voted 5-5 on a measure to allow employees to negotiate their wages and working conditions, ultimately defeating the proposal.

Five council members — Sabrina Wooten, David Hutcheson, Jennifer Rouse, Worth Remick and Joash Schulman — voted in favor of the request from the city’s firefighter’s union. Councilmember Amelia Ross-Hammond abstained from the vote.

Council measures need a majority vote to pass.

Mayor Bobby Dyer and others suggested an ‘enhanced meet-and-confer,’ which would create a formal committee for the city manager to hear employee concerns instead of granting collective bargaining rights.

Once the bargaining ordinance was defeated, and without voting on the meet-and-confer resolution, Dyer immediately ended the meeting. He then had to briefly re-open it to allow Ross-Hammond to explain her abstention.

“I’m still learning more,” Ross-Hammond said.

Max Gonano, a Virginia Beach firefighter and the president of the local firefighters union, was visibly frustrated at the outcome after the meeting — especially the nature of the split vote.

He said the city’s been talking about bargaining for years, empaneled a task force that made recommendations to the city council last year and spent hours discussing bargaining at multiple meetings over the last two months.

“This is what these elected officials are there to do: They’re there to make decisions. They’re not there to punt. It’s a disappointment for us, it's a disappointment for the community and it's a disappointment for all the workers of Virginia Beach,” Gonano said.

The resolution granting collective bargaining would have applied to all city employees, though the firefighters’ union was the only unit that made the request.

Following the vote, organizers were already rallying workers from other departments in the lobby, talking about filing their own request to force the question again.

George Stinson has spent 13 years repairing sewer lines in the city’s utilities department. He was one of the couple dozen city workers who joined a picket line Tuesday, chanting and waving signs outside city hall ahead of the vote.

“We’re worth more, they need to give us more. We’re not asking for a whole lot, we’re just asking for our worth,” Stinson said.

After the vote, Stinson was disappointed but was looking ahead. 

“We’re just going to have to regroup, push a little harder and hope the citizens of Virginia Beach feel our pain and help us out,” Stinson said. 

“Give us our worth, our respect. That’s all we ask of you.”

Collectively bargaining a contract — the core tool of labor unions — was banned for government employees in Virginia in 1993.  A2020 law passed by the Democratically-controlled General Assembly reopened that door, allowing local governments to grant public employees the right to collectively bargain.

Since the law went into effect in 2021, several Virginia cities have approved bargaining, mostly in Northern Virginia. Locally, Portsmouth authorized bargaining rights to all its employees in November, while Norfolk’s City Council rejected a bargaining request from the city’s police union the same month.

Some Virginia Beach City Council members — including Dyer and vice-mayor Rosemary Wilson — have expressed concerns since February about the potential increase in labor costs, loss of control of the city’s budget and the possibility of employees in other departments organizing to push for bargaining rights.

At a public hearing earlier in April, teachers and city employees from departments like public works spoke in support of the firefighters’ request. Several city residents did too, as did former city fire chief Steve Cover and ex-police chief Jim Cervera.

A handful of opponents cited concerns about cost and employees walking off the job at the hearing. State law does not allow public employee unions to strike.

But workers in Virginia Beach have refused to work before. In August 2020, waste management employees refused to collect trashthe day after the council approved hazard pay for other city workers for risking exposure in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic — a measure that did not include the trash collectors who never stopped working, even as government offices closed down and trash collections increased.

Proponents said that the ability to push for higher wages could help firefighters afford to live in the city they serve. A study by the progressive Commonwealth Institute from 2021 found city employees struggle to make enough to afford housing in Virginia Beach, the cost of which has risen dramatically since the study was published.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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