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Virginia Beach council considers referendum for collective bargaining

City council considered a referendum to address the question of collective bargaining for city employees earlier this week. (Photo by Ryan Murphy)
City council considered a referendum to address the question of collective bargaining for city employees earlier this week. (Photo by Ryan Murphy)

A measure that would have allowed collective bargaining for city employees failed in April. Council discussed adding the issue to November’s ballot as a referendum.

Virginia Beach council members considered adding a referendum on collective bargaining for public employees to November’s ballot this week.

Council previously voted against collective bargaining in a 5-5 split in late April. The ordinance needed a majority to pass, and council member Amelia Ross-Hammond abstained from the vote, citing a need for more information.

Mayor Bobby Dyer said he wants to prioritize educating the public about the issue and gathering information and research on it.

“If it takes more time, we can certainly consider moving the referendum to next year,” he said.

The issue could come before council sooner than November. A bargaining unit can initiate a vote by collecting the signatures of more than half of the workforce it represents and bringing the request to unionize to council. The council then has 120 days to act on it.

If another bargaining unit brings the measure, that could result in a vote as early as September.

“I kind of disagree with the notion that we didn’t have enough information,” Councilmember Chris Taylor said at Tuesday’s meeting about the city’s first request, which came from the firefighters union.

“If the issue came up in 120 days… we would have an opportunity to vote and hopefully there would be no abstentions because there’s another four months to find out any information they would need to find,” Taylor said.

Collective bargaining for wages, benefits and working conditions was banned in Virginia for public sector workers in 1993. In 2020, the General Assembly overturned that law. Virginia is one of 44 states that allow government employees — including teachers and public safety workers — to form unions. Portsmouth authorized bargaining rights for its employees late last year.

With a referendum in November, the public would decide whether or not collective bargaining should be an option for city employees in Virginia Beach. However, the referendum would be nonbinding: council would not be required to adopt the outcome of the people’s vote.

The last nonbinding referendum of this kind in Virginia Beach was in 2012, when the city asked if it should use “reasonable efforts” to support the financing and development of The Tide light rail extension. About 63% voted yes. The expansion was later defeated in a referendum in 2016, when 57% voted no.

Council would need to decide to add the collective bargaining referendum to the ballot at least 81 days before the election, by Aug. 16.

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