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Board Authorizes Collective Bargaining for County Workers, Higher Wages for Contractors

Pro-union county employees attend the in-person County Board meeting held on Saturday (via Arlington County)

For the first time since the 1970s, municipal employees in Arlington will be join unions and negotiate employment conditions.

The Arlington County Board restored collective bargaining with its unanimous approval of revision to county code during its meeting on Saturday. The county will soon allow employee associations to enter into collective bargaining with the county over compensation, benefits, working conditions and other issues.

The change responds to a state law passed by the General Assembly in 2020 that went into effect in May.

“Elections have consequences,” Board Chair Matt de Ferranti said. “We would not have this authority if we did not change the legislature in 2019. Let’s not let other people speak for us. We know that in any community, and in the United States, many already have a voice, but making sure that you have a voice — and it’s a majority voice — is critical.”

The first collective bargaining agreements are expected to go into effect in the 2024 fiscal year. Approximately two-thirds of county employees will be eligible to join one of five collective bargaining units in the ordinance.

These five units are police; fire and emergency medical services; service, labor and trades; office and technical; and professional employees.

Board Vice Chair Katie Cristol said she would like to see the decision for public employees ripple into the private sector.

“I challenge the General Assembly to tackle with the same alacrity they took on collective bargaining some of the anti-union provisions that still govern the private sector here in Virginia,” she said, which received applause from attending meeting members.

She reiterated her support for the move on Twitter.

But not everyone is enthused with the changes. Collective bargaining could result in tax increases for Arlington residents, opined Mark Kelly, a opinion columnist on ARLnow.

“Constraining our county budget with an unfavorable labor contract is not only a lazy way to address compensation, it can cause other long term issues,” he wrote in a recent column. “One only has to look at the financial troubles of Metro to understand just how quickly maintenance and other needs can get pushed aside as personnel costs grow out of control under a labor agreement.”

With a second unanimous vote, the Board adopted a policy that will increase wages for tradespeople working on government-contracted projects. The change follows passage of a state law giving local governments the option to implement prevailing wage programs for public works contracts exceeding $250,000.

The new policy applies to contracts solicited on or after Oct. 1 of this year.

“This proposed program design is intended to serve as an initial phase, which would be revisited in the future based on the County’s learned experience and anticipated clarification to the State’s enabling legislation,” the county’s press release said.

Like the issue of collective bargaining, Kelly said this decision will also burden taxpayers, who will not enjoy more public amenities in return.

“Over the course of a 10 year capital improvement plan, the increased costs will approach $100 million,” he said. “By way of comparison, this is equivalent to a new high school building or two aquatics centers. But taxpayers will not get new buildings or other infrastructure in return.”

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