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The Prince William County Board of Supervisors (photo courtesy of The Prince William Times)

Prince William County is the latest major jurisdiction in Northern Virginia to consider granting collective bargaining rights to public sector employees, but labor organizers say the county’s draft plan is so full of holes they doubt if they can sustain it.

In a strongly worded letter to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors this month, union leaders pointed out that the draft ordinance, prepared by the county administration with the assistance of an outside employment consultant , gives management the final say on “work rules, policies, procedures and standards of conduct.

“At a minimum, the staff and their outside lawyers have misled – if not outright lied – the board into believing that we will be able to negotiate working conditions,” wrote the union leaders of three groups representing the police, firefighters and other public persons. workers. “The list of exclusions is so broad that there would be no negotiation on working conditions.”

The letter also proposed clearer language ensuring that part-time employees can be included in collective bargaining units and more authority for a neutral labor relations administrator to handle arbitration and investigation of complaints of unfair labor practices.

The Virginia General Assembly passed a law in 2020 allowing local governments to allow collective bargaining by their workers while leaving localities free to decide the details of what would and would not be negotiated. The battle in Prince William, which potentially affects about 4,000 county employees, appears to be the most bitter dispute between labor and management as Democratic-leaning localities seek to convey pro-labor positions under the new law.

If passed in its current form, Prince William’s draft order would primarily limit collective bargaining to wages and benefits, a less expansive version of similar laws already approved by Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington counties as cities. of Alexandria and Richmond.

“County staff have excluded all unions from the entire process,” Katie Zaimis, president of the Prince William County Police Association, said in an interview this week. “Everything was done behind closed doors. And every draft that comes out, we haven’t had any input.

A county spokesperson declined to comment on behalf of the county administration, which drafts the ordinance with the help of outside counsel, employment consultant Eric Paltell, and presents it to the county council for approval. . A hearing on the collective bargaining ordinance is scheduled for November 22.

The Prince William County School Board passed its own collective bargaining plan last month in a 7-1 vote, according to the OMCP.

In a previous board discussion of the proposal last month, County Attorney Michelle Robl suggested Prince William was taking a more cautious approach than other Northern Virginia locations that have already allowed negotiation. collective.

Where can public sector employees collectively bargain in Virginia?

“They have some growing pains with them,” Robl said. “They still don’t have a collective agreement in place. We take advantage of the experience of Mr. Paltell’s 30+ years in the states that have had him, while seeing what has happened in the other jurisdictions in Northern Virginia that don’t seem to be working as well as they can. .

David Broder, president of Virginia Chapter 512 of the Service Employees International Union, said county staff resisted the board’s demand for an order “that would give their employees the same rights as Fairfax employees. and Loudoun and Arlington and Alexandria”.

“That’s just not good enough,” Broder said, adding that it’s taking time for other jurisdictions in Northern Virginia to reach new labor agreements because it’s “very difficult in America for workers to come together and form trade unions.

After the Nov. 2 letter, Broder said, none of the changes proposed by the task forces were implemented until the order was announced for a public hearing.

“Since we sent that letter, I think we’ve unfortunately seen the same dynamic play out, which is that county staff…continue to push workers out of this process,” Broder said.

Robl did not respond to a message left in his office on Tuesday.

While discussing a recommendation for the county and the unions to share the costs of the arbitration process to avoid “frivolous” labor claims, Paltell told the board that his advice was based on common practice in many places. other states, even though they did not match what other Northern Virginia jurisdictions did under an entirely new law.

“Our client is the county,” said Paltell, who works for Maryland-based law firm Kollman & Saucier. “We’re trying to put some sort of check on the county’s financial exposure in these proceedings.”

Chair of Prince William’s board of directors, Ann Wheeler, did not respond to emailed requests for comment for this story.

Several union leaders said they hoped the board would take more time to change the order before moving forward. In the November 2 letter, labor groups urged the council not to follow the advice of an “outside union-busting lawyer”.

“The process of drafting the Collective Bargaining Ordinance has been significantly hampered by the adamant refusal of union-busting and unelected staff to include labor organizations in discussions,” the labor groups wrote. “Tellingly, county staff and the county attorney regularly meet with real estate developers about land use issues in the county, but refuse to meet with unions about key workers’ rights issues.”

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