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More and more Virginia school divisions are starting to unionize

Martha Commander
Steve Helber
Fourth grade math teacher Martha Commander, left, instructs her class during classes at Chimborazo Elementary School Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, in Richmond, Va.

The Fairfax County School Board recently approved a resolution allowing for collective bargaining among public school employees, and the Falls Church School Board is expected to follow suit sometime soon. School divisions across Virginia are starting to unionize.

Teachers and support staff and cafeteria workers across Virginia are trying to hammer out new collective bargaining agreements. It's happening in Albemarle, Arlington, Charlottesville, Fairfax and in Prince William. The idea is that public school employees will have more of a say in what happens at their workplace, says Arlington union leader June Prakash.

"I think we've become accustomed to stagnant pay and being overworked and taking away planning time, and that's becoming the norm," Prakash says. "And collective bargaining will help make that better. They won't be able to pile on or not raise the pay as they have been doing for so long."

David Broder is a service-industry union leader in northern Virginia who says groups considering collective bargaining in their local schools should be on the lookout for unreasonable requirements for union elections. He points to Prince William County, where more than half of the workers participating in the union election are required to vote in favor of joining the union.

"Essentially they passed an anti-democratic standard that they themselves couldn't meet," Broder explains. "If they held themselves to the same standard they required of their workers, no one on the Prince William County School Board would be in office today."

So far, the only school division that has actually entered into a contract is Richmond. A handful of other localities are currently negotiating contracts, and most school divisions have yet to start organizing.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.