“A Game Changer”: Virginia Teachers Close to Getting Collective Bargaining Rights

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Virginia teachers are one step closer to being able to bargain with their local school boards over wages and working conditions, after Sunday’s passage of what advocates have called a “historic” bill.

The measure is now on the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, who has until April 6 to act. He hasn’t taken a public position on the legislation, which would allow limited public-sector collective bargaining. 

The passage of this bill is “literally a game changer,” said Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston.

“People need to think of this in very, very simple terms—that collective bargaining is a common good for the kids of the commonwealth,” he said on a Tuesday press call with reporters.

Virginia teachers haven’t had collective bargaining rights since 1977, when the state Supreme Court struck down that right. Before then, about a dozen local associations—including in Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria, Virginia Beach, and Charlottesville—were engaged in collective bargaining. In 1993, Virginia cemented into code an official ban on public-sector employees collectively bargaining through their local unions. 

Teachers also don’t have collective bargaining rights in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas, according to the National Council on Teacher’s Quality’s database on collective bargaining laws, which was last updated in January 2019. In nine other states, collective bargaining is permissible, but districts are not obligated to engage in bargaining, the NCTQ’s database says. 

That could now be the case in Virginia. While the state House had passed a broader measure that would have mandated that state and local governments bargain with unions, the state Senate passed a more narrow bill saying that bargaining will be allowed only if a local school board authorizes it with an ordinance or resolution. 

Already, some localities—including the Fairfax County School Board—have publicly expressed support for collective bargaining. Others have argued that implementing bargaining would be expensive and could lead to higher taxes.

Livingston said the VEA will be putting forward “a tremendous amount of work” to urge every local school board to pass resolutions authorizing collective bargaining. 

“There’s not a teacher out there who isn’t going to work their tail off to make sure that school boards understand the benefit to kids of contract negotiations,” Livingston said. “We’re not naive. Getting educators a seat at the negotiating table will be easier in some places than others, but we’re not going to be bashful.”

‘A Seat at the Table’

On the press call, local union presidents said getting collective bargaining rights would allow them to advocate to improve learning conditions for students.

“We’re the experts in the field, and we didn’t have a seat at the table,” said Kimberly Adams, the president of the Fairfax Education Association. “It’s like coming up with a new way to do heart surgery without asking a doctor first how to do the procedure.” 

Adams said her union’s priorities include smaller class sizes, smaller counselor-to-student ratios, more health professionals in schools, reductions in mandatory testing, and higher wages for hourly employees, like custodians and bus drivers. (Unions have long held that collective bargaining raises wages, but a 2018 study funded by Stanford University found that requiring school districts to bargain with teachers’ unions did not actually improve teacher pay.)

Meanwhile, Kelly Walker, the president of the Virginia Beach Education Association, said it would be tough to get the local school board on board with authorizing collective bargaining, but her union is determined to help officials “understand what this means.” 

Since the Great Recession, she said, teachers’ workloads have increased, and it’s harder to provide students with the support that they need.

For two years now, the Virginia Education Association has organized a rally outside the state capitol to call for higher teacher salaries and more school funding. Teachers have taken personal days to attend—in some cases, shutting down schools due to the high volume of absences. (Strikes by public employees would remain illegal with this new legislation.)

“I think the passage of this bill is a byproduct of that very visible and very vocal advocacy,” Livingston said. “I expect that we’re going to see that advocacy continue because we are clearly not where we need to be in meeting the needs of students and meeting the needs of public schools.” 

The national unions also cheered the bill’s passage. In statements, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said she looked forward to “working with VEA and school boards across the commonwealth to improve learning conditions in every single Virginia classroom,” while American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the legislation’s passage “gets us closer to ensuring all public sector workers in the country have a voice.” 

Image: Inett Dabney, center right, the principal of Martin Luther King, Jr., Middle School, and other Virginia educators and supporters chant for more school funding during the Virginia Education Association’s annual rally in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 27. —Daniel Sangjib Min/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP