This new General Assembly finally has the opportunity to enact policies that will promote the inclusion and advancement of its increasingly diverse populace. These legislators have already moved to expand access to the ballot box and to reproductive health care, basic rights that have been disproportionately denied to people of color. But they also have the opportunity to undo another legacy of Jim Crow: the statewide ban prohibiting all public-sector workers from the freedom to bargain collectively.
It’s no coincidence that the only three states in the nation with a blanket ban on collective bargaining for public-sector workers are deeply scarred by the history of slavery and segregation (the others being North Carolina and South Carolina). Workers in the South were barred from bargaining collectively for the same reason that enslaved people were barred from learning how to read. Because people in power know there is power in numbers. United we bargain, divided we beg.
Virginia lawmakers can help heal the wounds of Jim Crow by beginning to undo its damage. Legislation sponsored by Del. Elizabeth R. Guzman (D-Prince William) and Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-Fairfax) would lift the ban on public-sector collective bargaining in every corner of the commonwealth. Our teachers, nurses, firefighters and law enforcement officers should have the freedom to form a union and bargain collectively for things such as fair pay, adequate staffing and safe working conditions. A strong public sector has always been one of the most important pathways to the middle class, and strengthening our public sector strengthens our entire community.
Just last week, we saw more than 2,000 teachers, including many teachers of color, flock to the Capitol to fight for their students. Passing this legislation would give these educators more power to advocate for the children they teach. Freida Florence, a Norfolk prekindergarten inclusion teacher, said that collective bargaining “will give me the ability to advocate for better teaching conditions, like making sure kids have warm classrooms when it is cold, and cold classrooms when it is warm.”
It’s no coincidence that some of our most revered civil rights leaders, including Edwin B. Henderson and Harry and Harriette Moore, were teachers. They understood that the two keys to advancement for marginalized communities were education and organization. There is strength in knowledge and in numbers. Lest we forget why the Rev. Martin Luther King was in Memphis when he was assassinated: He was supporting city sanitation workers who were forced to work in such unsafe conditions that two garbage collectors had been crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck.
In Virginia, teachers, firefighters and other public-sector workers are asking for a voice — not just for themselves but also for the communities they serve. Corrections officer Bridget Squire spoke to the retention crisis within her profession in front of the House Appropriations Committee: “One of the biggest problems is we don’t have the opportunity to sit down and discuss what the serious nature of the problems are. I feel like if we had the right to sit down with collective bargaining, we can come up with a solution as to how we’re going to retain these officers in these institutions.”
As lawmakers debate whether to lift Virginia’s ban on collective bargaining, firefighters have shared stories of understaffed trucks in rural regions, and teachers have spoken of classrooms so crowded that their students sit on the floor. Teachers, nurses, firefighters, corrections officers and social workers are on the front lines of serving underserved communities, and no one is in a better position to advocate for marginalized populations than they are.
The room where it happens is in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy. We can make history by shaking this vestige of Jim Crow that hangs over this commonwealth. It’s past time to give our workers the dignity of a voice and a seat at the table.