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Albemarle school employees walk out on collective bargaining talks

Back in 2020, the General Assembly voted to allow collective bargaining with public employees. It wasn’t required, but if communities wanted to negotiate with unions, that would be possible in Virginia. So far, only a dozen of the 132 school districts in the state have started the process. Richmond, Charlottesville, Norfolk and several communities in Northern Virginia are well underway, but Albemarle County, Petersburg and three other school boards are struggling.

In May of 2021, a new law took effect in Virginia. It told local school boards they could bargain with their workers, but state lawmakers didn’t provide much detail about how that process would work. At the Virginia Education Association, organizing specialist Amanda Kail says the first steps were clear.

“The workers go out, and they collect cards. It’s like a petition, and when you get a majority of workers who say they want to do this, then you are able to enter into collective bargaining, but there’s an extra step in Virginia.”

That extra step requires each school board to decide for itself how the process will work – who will be covered by the bargaining unit, how employees will choose their representatives and so on.

The VEA’s Amanda Kail thinks that’s unnecessary.

“You wouldn’t have unemployment be different in every single county in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but essentially that’s what this law does for collective bargaining and school boards. Each individual school board has to figure out the terms of collective bargaining for their district. Usually that’s taken care of by a state agency, and we in Virginia do not have one.”

And that’s what’s holding up the works in at least five districts including Albemarle County, where Phil Giaramita speaks for the schools.

“The two sides were making a good deal of progress on a resolution," he recalls. "As a matter of fact, in those three sessions they’d reached agreement on about 70 separate items, and they agreed in concept on another ten.”

But then, he says, the Albemarle Education Association or AEA surprised the board.

“The AEA walked out of a negotiating session on Thursday after about 30 minutes, and didn’t come back,” Giaramita says.

But Liz Koenig says the board shouldn’t have been surprised. The secretary of the AEA claims the union clearly told members last month that there were two points that were not negotiable.

One – the district insisted the union get new cards signed to authorize collective bargaining. The original set was from 2022, but the schools argued those cards were now “stale” – not representing the labor force today.

“The cards are only old – over a year old in some cases – because of their delay, but they want to throw them all out and do it again,” Koenig explains.

Last year, she notes, the AEA was ready to go -- proposing a resolution similar to the one okayed by the school board in neighboring Charlottesville.

“Charlottesville was making progress at this point. They sat down … finally passed it, and they have one of the strongest collective bargaining resolutions in the state.”

Instead, the county school board voted that proposal down.

Employees and parents responded with emotional remarks during the public comment period of meetings, prompting the board to pledge support for the concept of collective bargaining. It then hired a lawyer and drafted own resolution. The 20-page document describes circumstances under which the system could disregard the contract. It proposes administrators and support staff be left out of the bargaining unit, and when employees vote on who should represent them in contract talks, the board said it would only accept the outcome if at least 66% of eligible workers took part. That, says Koenig, is deal breaker number two.

“Many school board members have been elected with far less than 66% of their electorate turning out.”

Koenig hopes to underscore that point and additional concerns that teachers, bus drivers and other school employees have before tomorrow’s board meeting. They’ll rally outside Albemarle’s County’s downtown Charlottesville building at 6 p.m.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief