Va. Has Big Stake in Bill on Public Safety Unions

By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Police and firefighters unions in Virginia would gain collective-bargaining rights under a bill that passed the U.S. House by a wide margin and seems likely to pass the Senate, creating budget concerns among local governments.

The measure, approved by the House 314 to 97 last month, would permit public safety workers in all 50 states to negotiate with the governments that employ them over pay, benefits and working conditions. It passed easily after intense lobbying by police and firefighters unions to bring together pro-labor Democrats and pro-safety Republicans.

If the Senate approves the measure, it could have far-reaching consequences for Virginia, one of two states, along with North Carolina, that prohibit collective bargaining by public safety unions. It could mean bigger pay raises for tens of thousands of Virginia police officers, firefighters and prison guards, who typically must accept whatever raises their government employers choose to give them. It also could present government officials with escalating financial demands at a time when tax revenues have flattened.

The White House has taken no public position on the legislation.

"It's great," said Marshall Thielen, a firearms instructor for the Fairfax County Police Department and president of the Fairfax Coalition of Police. "It brings us on par with the mainstream of America. We're pretty backward here in Virginia in employer-employee relations."

Officials in Northern Virginia are wondering what it would mean to them.

"It certainly strengthens the unions' bargaining positions," said Paul Ferguson (D), chairman of the Arlington County Board.

Many government officials in Northern Virginia declined to comment on the bill, saying the implications are unclear.

Virginia is a "right-to-work" state, where unionism never won the same public acceptance it has in the industrial Northeast and Midwest. The federal legislation could force Virginia governments to negotiate with unions in an unprecedented way.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said in a statement that he had not had a chance to study the legislation but that he believes "good managers should always be willing to meet with groups of public employees to discuss working conditions and salaries." When communication is good, "management has nothing to fear," he said.

The bill would give public safety officers the right to join a union, to have the union recognized by their employer, and to bargain collectively over hours, wages and terms of employment. The measure would allow the parties to seek mediation to resolve their differences, but it would not permit the workers to strike or to force their employers into binding arbitration.

A similar bill, with "broad bipartisan support," will soon be introduced in the Senate, said Laura Capps, a spokeswoman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who chairs the Senate Health, Labor, Education and Pensions Committee.

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