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Fairfax County approves collective bargaining ordinance

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeffrey C. McKay was one of nine supervisors to vote for a collective-bargaining ordinance. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a measure setting up the process for collective bargaining with the county’s 12,500 employees, part of a growing trend affecting local-government workers in Virginia after the General Assembly repealed a state ban on such agreements in the public sector last year.

With the measure — which passed the Democratic-controlled board on a 9-to-1 vote — Fairfax moved Northern Virginia closer to becoming a hub for collective bargaining in a state whose “right to work” law barring unions from compelling workers to join their ranks has been a major obstacle for the labor movement.

Both Arlington County and the city of Alexandria also have adopted collective bargaining for their employees, while Loudoun and Prince William counties are preparing to consider their own frameworks.

But while worker advocates celebrated the earlier ordinances, Fairfax’s fostered some mixed reactions.

Local 512 of the Service Employees International Union, the county’s largest union, called the move history-making.

“Together, and with meaningful collective bargaining rights, we will transform Fairfax into a place where every working family can thrive,” Tammie Wondong, president of Local 512, said in a statement.

Some smaller unions argued that the measure doesn’t go far enough to protect lower-paid county employees.

“It really doesn’t represent the majority of workers, or even close,” said Dave Lyons, director of the Fairfax Workers Coalition, whose members include sanitation workers and other lower-paid county employees.

The measure affects Fairfax’s general county employees, firefighters, police and other first responders. It does not apply to employees of the county school system, which will establish its own framework for collective bargaining, officials say.

The measure establishes a framework for negotiations over wages, benefits, working conditions, hours worked and policies and practices affecting county employees — discussions that would take place between July 1 and Oct. 15 of a given year.

The process would be overseen by a neutral “labor relations administrator,” whose duties would include conducting elections to certify or decertify a bargaining unit and to resolve labor-management disputes.

In the event of an impasse, the discussions would go into mediation and, then, enter into binding arbitration.

Smaller unions opposed a provision that allows about 125 first-line supervisors to be part of a collective bargaining unit, arguing that it makes it harder to resolve grievances involving employees who report to those bosses.

They opposed another provision that bars employee associations with fewer than 300 members — including those representing workers of color — from weighing in on who is appointed as the labor relations administrator.

The county board members — nine of whom are Democrats — said the measure still ensures that Fairfax employees can fight for better conditions.

Most of what it calls for “are things we would do anyway,” said Jeffrey C. McKay (D-At Large), the county board chair.

“Every single individual who has been trained and employed by Fairfax County has a taxpayer investment on them,” he said. “And that taxpayer investment walks out the door if we lose our ability to retain our good employees because we’re not competitive with the marketplace.”

But, after about a year of discussions over collective bargaining in Fairfax, there were still some hard feelings over the final product, with some critics accusing the county board of pushing the measure through without addressing their concerns.

Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), the lone opposing vote, argued that the binding arbitration provision will tie the county’s hands in labor disputes and force Fairfax into expensive labor contracts.

“I’m going to remind you when this goes to arbitration and costs our residents dearly,” Herrity told his colleagues. “I’m going to remind you when we have issues with bad employees. Trust me, I’m going to remind you.”