The Virginia Supreme Court decision Jan. 14, which ruled invalid all existing union contracts made between city and county governments and their employees, has not ruled out such contracts in the future if authorized by the state legislature.
The 30-page decision, overruling an October decision of the Arlington County Circuit Court, concludes such collective bargaining is a power local governments do not have under present state law or the state constitution.
The Arlington court had found such contracts are a "reasonable method" of managing county and school affairs, "impliedly authorized and should be upheld unless they are clearly contrary to the public policy of the commonwealth.
The highest state court disagreed, finding collective bargaining powers are neither implied nor authorized by state law or the constitution and that they are not "necessary to promote the public interest," since many cities and public employees in the state receive wage increases and other benefits without benefit of unions, as did Arlington until only a few years ago.
The court concluded that the state legislature must specifically authorize collective bargaining for public employees, that it has not done so and that so far there are "overwhelming indications" that the legislature is opposed to it. The decision stated that the recent "Virginia history of public employee collective bargaining is persuasive, if not conclusive, that the General Assembly, the source of legislative intent, has never conferred upon local boards, by implication or otherwise, the power to bargain collectively and that express authority, so far withheld, is necessary to confer the power."
The court said: "We decline to intrude upon what the attorney general succinctly describes as a 'singularly political question.'"
It is the first time the state's highest court has faced the collective bargaining issue, although the court noted in its decision that a federal court here last year ruled on the issue against the Teamsters union in Portsmouth.In that case, U.S. District Court Judge Richard B. Kellam said:
"The legislature of Virginia has the right to and has determined not to recognize union representation of public employees . . . In the absence of legislation a local government has no authority to recognize a labor organization as representative of city employees. It is not a matter of constitutional right, but legislative."