PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Portsmouth has voted to approve collective bargaining for city employees, making it the first locality in Hampton Roads to do so.
The vote was 4-2, with Mayor Shannon Glover and Councilman Mark Whitaker voting no. Councilman De’Andre Barnes was absent Tuesday.
The push was led by Portsmouth Professional Fire Fighters & Paramedics Union Local 539, which held a rally beforehand to garner support. The union emphasized the move would benefit all city employees, not just firefighters, giving them a seat at the table to bargain for better wages and working conditions, and help fire, police and other city departments better retain workers.
All city employees can unionize under the proposal, but are not required to do so.
“By City Council supporting collective bargaining, you will demonstrate your commitment to fairness, equity and the well being of those that dedicate themselves to public,” said Kurt Detrick, president of the union. “This proactive approach not only strengthens the bond with the city and their employees, but also contributes to the overall efficiency and effectiveness of public services.”
Detrick added that 90% of the full-time employees of the Portsmouth Fire Department back the local union to represent them in the process.
Detrick said the process to get collective bargaining approved had its first big step back in 2020, with the formation of work group approved by council at the time. Former Councilwoman Elizabeth Psimas was one of those that voted yes at the time.
“I think collective bargaining and unionization of city workers works. I think it’s important. I think it’s fair, and it’s fair to all employees,” Psimas said Tuesday in support. “… I also worry and think about the fact of what we spend to train all of our city workers, particularly our police and fire, but also our general wage employees. We spend a lot of investment, and time and money and energy to keep those employees, and we want to keep them here. We don’t want them to run to Chesapeake and run to Virginia Beach.”
That 7-0 vote back in 2020 eventually led to the submittal this July of the ordinance that went before council on Tuesday.
Critics of the move, including Interim City Manager Mimi Terry and Police Chief Stephen Jenkins, talked about how collective bargaining could affect operations and increase costs for taxpayers.
“I hope the citizens understand what this is going to mean for them. We are about to go through budget deliberations — what is it going to cost the city,” Terry said, “… and when I think about the impact this is going to have on a city that’s trying to pull itself up and move forward, I could (see) that as a heavy lift for the city, and who’s gonna save us from that?”
Mayor Shannon Glover told us he is worried it could impact residents. He said it could put the city in a difficult position to manage the budget.
“I am concerned about the financial stability of our city. I am concerned about how it’s going to impact our services in addition to how it will impact our seniors and other vulnerable citizens,” he said.
Councilman Bill Moody in voting yes said this will help provide consistency for public workers, who might see changes depending on the future makeup of city hall.
“What’s to say the next city manager may be doing something entirely different, might be another council that’s not as supportive,” Moody said. “Our men and women who go in to protect us, they go into a fire situation, they go into the unknown. Their families and them should not be exposed to the unknown of politics … in the years I’ve sat on this council, … I’ve seen them have to come here and literally beg for a raise … they should not have to face the unknown each fiscal year.”
This all comes after Virginia passed a law in 2020 to allow public sector employees to collectively bargain pending local approval. Localities in other parts of the state have approved collective bargaining, including in Richmond and Northern Virginia. Virginia Beach is currently debating the issue.
Detrick said the next step is city council will create politics and procedures around collective bargaining that need to be approved through an ordinance.