Va. city firefighters, dispatchers push for collective bargaining after state lifts ban
The Portsmouth union members are among the first government employees in Virginia to request collective bargaining since the ban was lifted May 1
PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Portsmouth firefighters and dispatchers are pushing to do something the state had, until recently, banned all public employees from since 1993 — negotiate as a union over pay, safety measures and other work conditions.
The City Council must decide by Aug. 29 whether that will happen.
Portsmouth firefighters and dispatchers are among the first government employees in Virginia to request permission to bargain since the state lifted its ban May 1. That day, the union representing those employees submitted its petition to the City Council.
The Portsmouth union consists of 215 employees, along with 90 retired members. Kurt Detrick, a firefighter and the union president, said 90% of members have signed on in support of the effort.
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In past years, the union has individually gone to the fire chief, city manager and City Council to make complaints and negotiate requests as a group. Sometimes, Detrick said, it was hard to get their attention.
If they are allowed to bargain collectively, Detrick said, the union “would have a seat at the table” and the power to write contracts that typically last a few years and lock in most work conditions until it’s time to negotiate again.
Detrick said the change could help the fire department boost staffing levels and enhance the city’s ability to handle emergencies. In Portsmouth and across the country, many public safety agencies struggle to hire and retain staff. Detrick said in Virginia, firefighters’ retirement plans are in a state system rather than local ones, making it easier to move between different departments and adding to the city’s challenge to keep them.
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Despite the previous ban on collective bargaining, firefighter unions are common across Virginia — Portsmouth’s union was established in 1937. Until the bargaining ban was repealed, Virginia was one of only three states to have one in place.
Still, the new state law has some limitations for public sector employees. It’s up to the municipal government’s elected body whether or not to allow bargaining, and the state does not permit striking.
In a meeting Tuesday, Derek Challenger, a city attorney, told the City Council that “any local government employee who engages in a strike may be terminated from employment and banned from re-employment by the commonwealth or any Virginia public body for a year.”
The topic has come up regularly at City Hall.
In September, the council voted to allow employees to bargain collectively and convened a group of city employees to come up with procedures.
“That action is not binding on the current council,” City Manager Angel Jones said. “The Virginia Code provides that collective bargaining can only be authorized by council action taken after May 1.”
Jones neither defended nor criticized employees’ ability to bargain collectively, but said she was committed to setting competitive wages for all city employees, collaborating with employees and “being a good fiscal steward.”
Challenger said the city estimates negotiating and implementing a contract would cost up to $2 million annually. Ahead of the council’s Aug. 29 decision, the city is convening another group to research collective bargaining and conduct a pay study.
Most council members didn’t say whether they supported collective bargaining or not. Detrick noted that, at the time, all seven council members voted to allow it in September, and among them, four are still serving.
But Councilman Paul Battle, who had previously voted to allow collective bargaining, expressed reservations.
“We want to treat all our employees the same ... And this situation kind of pulls us apart,” Battle said. “This collective bargaining could take up a lot of time, and I really don’t see the meaning if we can make things better in the workplace and do it for all (employees).”
Detrick argues that a contract would help the city with annual budget planning. If a contract is in place for five years, then the city knows what pay and raises, if any, firefighters will get for five years. As things stand, the city budget staff and council have to make decisions about pay each year, meaning raises could be less than, more than or equal to what firefighters would get from a collectively bargained contract.
Detrick said firefighters in several Northern Virginia departments have also submitted petitions, and he expects more government employee groups — not just firefighters — across the state will do the same.
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