VB city workers push for collective bargaining rights ahead of law change

Virginia Beach

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — While local government employees are not legally allowed to engage in collective bargaining in the commonwealth until May 1, a group of workers from public utilities and public works making known their desire to have “a seat at the table” as soon as possible.

On Tuesday evening, ahead of City Council’s formal session at the convention center, roughly 30 members of the city workforce chanted about the desire for hazard pay and fair wages before delivering a petition to the city manager’s office that lists four demands.

  • “A complete re-evaluation of the entire pay scale to bring up our wages
  • 10 percent hazard pay
  • Stop management threats and abuse of power
  • Provide a seat at the table for worker leaders in each department, democratically elected by their co-workers.”

The petition asks for a response in writing by next Tuesday. It was signed by signed by the workers in Public Works, Public Utilities, Parks and Recreation and Human Services.

“We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired,” said Dwayne Arthur, who works in Mosquito Control and was listed as the point of contact on the petition.

Arthur said he in particular is tired of managers not taking input seriously. He recalled an experience where it took three months to work through a grievance process over what he called a “nonsensical rule to begin with.”

“Blatant disregard for items that affect you,” Arthur said. “Each and every one of us across the spectrum has instances of that.”

Jason Smith, who works as a custodian for public works, actually spoke in front of council emphasizing the desire for 10% hazard pay in each check through the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Without us working together, nothing gets done. The work that we do is essential and it’s hazardous,” Smith said.

Hazard pay has been a controversial issue in Virginia Beach. As language in the federal CARES Act was interpreted differently by each municipality, waste management workers staged a work stoppage when they were not included in an initial one-time bonus in August.

City Council later approved a one-time $1,500 payment for “emergency responders” like Smith and Arthur using money they saved from a hiring freeze.

The man leading the the rally would not identify himself to 10 On Your Side but confirmed he did not work for the city.

A local chapter of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union is publicly backing the effort, dubbing itself as the “Virginia Public Service Workers Union.”

Unions in Virginia — a longtime “right-to-work” state — saw a victory earlier this year when Gov. Ralph Northam signed a law allowing for public workers to engage in collective bargaining beginning May 1, 2021.

That means teachers, firefighters, police, trash collectors and more can have more of a say in their pay and work conditions — if local governing bodies like City Council agree to engage with them.

“We got to wait and see a little bit,” said Mayor Bobby Dyer when asked Tuesday about the chances of allowing collective bargaining in Virginia Beach. “We got a lot of problems that we are operating with right now in terms of budgets and things like that.”

COVID-19 has decimated local budgets and nobody in the city has received a raise this year.

Dyer hopes some of the concerns can be addressed without the need to unionize.

City Manager Patrick Duhaney is currently working to make salary adjustments for waste management employees, as they’re paid among the lowest in the region, according to a city spokeswoman. A market salary survey is also something city council has expressed interest in.

Arthur said he just wants to be involved.

“Don’t sit in your ivory mansion on the hilltop and try to figure out what we want below,” Arthur said. “This isn’t an ‘us versus them.’ This is a ‘let’s get together and fix the problems that are here.'”

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