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Cville makes history with public sector contracts reached through collective bargaining

Workers in the City of Charlottesville’s Department of Public Works, Department of Public Utilities, Department of Parks and Recreation, Fire Department, and Office of Community Solutions have voted to join Teamsters Local 29.
International Brotherhood of Teamsters
Workers in the City of Charlottesville’s Department of Public Works, Department of Public Utilities, Department of Parks and Recreation, Fire
Department, and Office of Community Solutions have voted to join Teamsters Local 29.

Driving a bus in this small city might seem like an easy job, but Matthew Ray’s been doing it for more than a decade, and he says there are challenges – people drinking on board, doing drugs, having a mental health crisis or a fight while Ray is trying to drive.

“Basically my rule is if you’re on there and you can be peaceful and respectful to others I have no problem with you," he explains.

But there are times when he has to pull over and put someone off the bus or call the police if they don’t cooperate. His wife drives a school bus, and Ray says that’s also difficult.

“The elementary school kids – it’s just them keeping their hands to themselves – staying in their seat. I mean you can’t pull over every five minutes to fix a problem.”

So Ray was ready to help organize a local chapter when the Amalgamated Transit Union came calling. They asked the city to hire more aids to keep kids in line and secured a substantial increase in their hourly pay for school and city drivers.

“Top pay, come January first, if you have eight years of service is $31. I’m at $23. That’s eight bucks. These are significant pay increases.”

Ironically, it was here in Charlottesville that public sector employees were first denied the right to collective bargaining. During and after the Second World War, labor was in demand, but Black workers at UVA’s hospital were still confined to segregated wards, earning less than Whites.

“They were asking for a living wage. They were asking for an eight-hour work day – things that we now consider what any reasonable institution owes its workers," says Piers Gelly, a lecturer at UVA who has studied the history of organizing in Virginia.

He says the university tried, at first, to divide and conquer – speaking with individuals about their concerns but refusing to talk to their union. Then the administration heard rumors of a possible walk-out.

“The university president – Newcomb – started to worry that this could be really devastating if they had a work stoppage that spread. The university administration asked the governor and the General Assembly to ban public sector collective bargaining.”

They did --making Virginia one of only two states to do so. The ban held until 2022, when a majority of legislators and the governor were Democrats. They passed a bill allowing cities and counties to bargain collectively with their employees.

Today, Charlottesville police and firefighters join bus drivers in working under a contract created through collective bargaining, and employees in the department of public works are organizing. In Richmond, city workers in administration and tech also began the month with an agreement reached in talks between the city and the Service Employees International.

Virginia still prohibits strikes by public employees, and state workers are barred from bargaining, but Gelly says they’re free to organize and make their views known through public protests and the media. When UVA called in state troopers during a protest over the war in Gaza, for example, members of the United Campus Workers of Virginia were vocal in criticizing the administration and they remain concerned about how students are being disciplined.

“There are a lot of students who finished their fourth year, but their diplomas are being withheld, because of some internal university judiciary stuff," Gelly says. "Presumably the administration feels that process needs to reach its conclusion before they can decide if the degrees are granted.”

For him, this is classroom material at its best.

“What I try to explain to my students is this is history being made right here. We haven’t had any public sector contracts in Charlottesville for 75 years.”

Teachers in Charlottesville were also able to negotiate a contract with their school board, while educators in Albemarle County are working on it.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief