The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Alexandria is afraid of Virginia’s unlimited public-sector union bargaining

Seagulls fly overhead as a visitor to the Alexandria waterfront throws food their way on Feb. 16 in Alexandria.
Seagulls fly overhead as a visitor to the Alexandria waterfront throws food their way on Feb. 16 in Alexandria. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

F. Vincent Vernuccio is a senior fellow at Virginia Works.

It has been slightly more than a year since Virginia passed one of the broadest public-sector union laws in the country. With the law set to go into effect on May 1, cities and other local governments across the commonwealth are debating how best — or if — to implement it. Alexandria’s experience is instructive: Officials in the deep-blue city are worried about the high cost of government union negotiations.

City leaders are debating a framework for government union collective bargaining, which the new state law makes legal for the first time in decades. They’re starting with a blank slate. Though other states have entire codes governing public-sector bargaining, Virginia has hardly anything on the books. Last year’s law was short and vague. Though it allows local governments to choose to bargain with government unions or not, it puts virtually no limits on what unions can bargain over, nor does it specify how disputes will be resolved. Instead, the law leaves cities and counties to work out the details.

Alexandria is considering strong limits on union bargaining, which may seem odd for such a liberal city. The city manager summed up the reason in a February memo to the City Council. He said, in so many words, that granting unions carte blanche would hurt Alexandria residents. Following union pushback, the City Council has delayed a vote on a bargaining framework.

Unions aren’t happy with the city manager’s proposal. In the memo, he quickly made clear that the top priority has to be “the community’s interest in uninterrupted and effective government.” To protect those interests, he proposed limiting collective bargaining only to wages and benefits. He also recommended keeping unions to four bargaining units instead of the eight that unions want, because more bargaining units would mean higher costs and more negotiations costing the city time and money. The manager worried giving unions any more leeway would create an “adversarial environment” and “undermine . . . efforts aimed at fostering collaboration and teamwork” and limit the city’s flexibility in serving the public’s needs.

The city manager then took things a step further. Unfettered collective bargaining, he said, would have “impaired” Alexandria’s ability to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. It would have stopped the city from taking quick and decisive action in a fast-changing situation. The subtext is unmistakable: Having to negotiate with government unions at every step would have made this crisis even worse.

He also warned of potential long-term harm to Alexandria’s fiscal health, pointing out that the city’s financial adviser says “collective bargaining is not a credit positive.” Though it won’t lower the city’s bond rating by itself, it adds downward pressure where none previously existed. If the lack of flexibility created by collective bargaining contributes to the lowering of the city’s bond rating, Alexandria will find it harder or more expensive to borrow money.

And then there’s the cost. Alexandria estimates that running the bargaining process will cost taxpayers up to $1 million every year, depending on how much unions can bargain over. Yet that money won’t go to city workers’ paychecks or benefits; it’s just the administrative cost paid for the process and to lawyers and negotiators. Surely that money would be better spent on wage hikes, benefits or coronavirus protections instead of on a new bureaucracy that manages negotiations with government unions.

These concerns are not specific to Alexandria. The city is ahead of others in terms of considering a bargaining framework, but every jurisdiction in Virginia could soon face tough decisions to allow government union collective bargaining and the issues it covers. Fairfax County is forecasting at least $1.6 million in administrative costs, and, last year, the Commission on Local Government estimated that cities across the state will face major bills. Beyond negotiations, Alexandria’s total tab could be $25 million. Other cities could also soon be paying eight figures or more a year. Counties would pay unknown millions more.

The high cost extends to quality-of-life concerns, too. In Fairfax County, teachers unions recently made headlines when 2,300 teachers refused to teach in person, even though the district planned to bring students back to the classroom. The district ended up hiring more than 600 classroom monitors to account for their absence. This happened without a collective bargaining framework. After the statewide law goes into effect, in areas that allow collective bargaining, government unions could have even more leverage to shape policy in ways neither citizens nor officials want.

In Virginia, local officials are the only ones who can limit government union collective bargaining. They could even simply not allow it. Cities, counties and school districts across the commonwealth would do well to look at the warning signs coming from Alexandria. It proves what state lawmakers were told but refused to admit last year: Unlimited government collective bargaining comes with a price tag Virginia can’t afford.

Read more:

Henry Olsen: Democrats’ pro-union bill would only hurt American workers

Megan McArdle: Affluent professionals and unions: Can this marriage last?

David Von Drehle: Labor unions need to find a new bargaining chip

Paul Waldman: Jay Inslee wants to save the planet and unions at the same time