Gov. Mills E. Godwin said last week that the ban on public employee collective bargaining in Virginia does not prevent local governments from using "public hearings or private meetings" to discuss wages and other employment conditions with government workers.
In his first formal policy statement on public employee relations since the Virginia Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 14 that collective bargaining between government units and their employees is illegal, Godwin said:
". . . Public officials may and should freely discuss with local employees any subject related to their service. Local officials should communicate with local employees to obtain the benefits of the knowledge and experience, as well as apprise themselves of the concerns and aspirations of those who serve the public.
"Whether through the medium of public hearings or private meetings, the channels of communication should always be kept open. The willingness of public officials to listen to public employees and give appropriate consideration to what they hear should be an established principle of local government."
Godwin delivered his policy statement to the House of Delegates Labor and Commerce Committee, which recently considered, but finally rejected, proposed resolutions supporting "discussions" between Virginia government units and their employees.
The governor's statement brought immediate and mixed reactions from committee members and public employee representatives.
"It was not as negative as we feared it would be," said Mary Hatwood of Alexandria, president of the Virginia Education Association.
"It is a bland statement, however, and does not provide teachers with the protections they need," she said. "We will have to come back to the Assembly and seek those protections. We want a process spelled out and I don't see that in this statement. We are still working for collective bargaining."
Dels. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington) and Richard R. G. Hobson (D-Alexandria), members of the Labor and Commerce Committee, said they were pleased with the positive aspects of the governor's statement, but renewed their calls for detailed legislation spelling out personnel procedures for local governments.
"This sets forth a nice principle," Stambaugh said, "but when do we get down to the practicality of saying how the Arlington school board deals with 1,200 employees?"
The Supreme Court decision banning collective bargaining agreements with public employees was directed at contracts between Arlington County Workers and both the school board and the County Board. The legality of those contracts was challenged by the state last year at Godwin's direction.
Hobson said he does not think the court's ruling prohibits public employees from using agents, including union officials, to present their requests to local governing bodies so long as no contract results. However, he said in an interview, "My point is that the Assembly has a responsibility to say exactly what the policy is in this area. The governor's statement falls far short of what I think the proper legislative policy should be."