The State Supreme Court decision that local governments cannot, under existing state laws, negotiate labor contracts with their employees has invalidated contracts for more than 30,000 city and county government employees around the state, including more than 16,000 in Northern Virginia.
It also appears to have stopped, for the moment, the unionization of government employees, the national fad that has swept across Northern Virginia in the past 10 years, leaving dozens of locals and freshly created unions in its wake.
The effects of the court decision are not yet clear, and may not be for months, but most local officials and union representatives say they see no drastic changes for at least a year or two since virtually all local governments have announced that they plan to honor the provisions of present contracts even though the contracts are officially "null and void."
One effect already clear, however, is that outside arbitration of unsettled employee grievances, required in the union contracts, and outside federal mediation in salary disputes has ended, giving city and county officials the final word. This may result in poorer contracts, say some union officials, and more arbitrary actions by city and county officials who know "no impartial outsiders" will be watching them.
The court decision was hailed as a major victory for Gov. Mills E. Godwin, who brought the suit against Arlington County last year because, he said, it had many union contracts with its public employees and because he believes collective bargaining by public employees is "not in the best interest of the people of Virginia."
The governor said he is not "opposed to our counties talking to their public employees about (working) conditions" but when governments sign binding labor contracts with their employees some of the policy-making power of elected officials is transferred to unions.
While the Supreme Court decision does not preclude the Virginia legislature from passing laws allowing collective bargaining by government employees, Godwin has pledged to veto any that it does pass.
Del. James M. Thomson (D-Alexandria) last year introduced just such a bill, which is expected to be voted on this session. However, Thomson said recently he sees no chance it will be passed this year and has little hope for it next year unless many legislators change their minds or opponents are replaced in this fall's election.
The battlefield will be the legislature, and the opinions of the more than 30,000 city and county employees affected - who are still largely in shock from the decision - have yet to be heard there.
Jerry Wurf, president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, which represents 4,500 Northern Virginia government employees, has said "the working men and women of Virginia, who are both shocked and embarrassed by this decision, will join with us in the fight to remedy this injustice through the political process."
The state-local issue, with the state suing one of its counties, is colored by what a number of local officials believe is the governor's outspoken antagonism toward Northern Virginia and Arlington in particular, largely because of the fight over I-66, the highway the state wants built and Arlington doesn't.
"I don't know why he (the governor) chose Arlington. The attorney general's office has told us it was because only in Arlington did the county board of supervisors and school board have contracts" with employee unions, says Arlington County Attorney Jerry Emrich. But Fairfax County does also, Emrich says, and in fact has more than three times as many employees covered by county-union contracts.
The State Supreme Court overruled an Arlington County court decision last October that said labor pacts between the county and the unions are permitted under existing state law and the state constitution.
Most local jurisdictions and unions are just now getting full texts of the court decision and are hesitant to predict what lasting effects it will have.
Peter J. Moralis, executive director of the Virginia Public Employees Council, which represents eight union locals in Arlington and Fairfax Counties and Alexandria, says that one reason state officials have been pushing the suit is because of increased interest in unions among state employees, who so far have not been organized by any unions.
"There's not a week goes by that I don't get a request from state employees requesting to be organized. The governor can bury his head in the sand all he wants but many state employees are unhappy and he has not addressed the problem of employee representation at all," said Moralis.
For the immediate future, Moralis said, unions will speak as spokesmen for groups of government employees, not as their official or exclusive representative." There will be discussions and local boards ultimately will act and adopt things discussed as a matter of policy, not as a contract." The loss of arbitration of grievance procedures and in salary disputes could be the most significant effect, Moralis said. "Almost all of our agreements were ending up in arbitration, giving us better contracts than we were getting at the bargaining table."