Prince William County will gather more input from employees before deciding how to approach collective bargaining, following discussion during a work session Tuesday.
Under a new law that became effective May 1, Virginia municipalities can, but are not required to, enter into collective bargaining agreements with employees.
State code had previously prohibited local governments from recognizing labor unions among its employees or entering into collective bargaining contracts with them. Employees for state agencies and constitutional officers are not included in the new legislation.
Prince William’s police and fire departments have associations that act on behalf of members, but they are not formal unions. The groups advocated for larger pay increases during the crafting of the county’s budget for fiscal 2022, which starts July 1.
County Executive Chris Martino said the current system involves informally meeting with employee groups to review issues and potential changes to benefits during the budget cycle. He recommended that the county continue that process in a formal manner, which could include a memorandum of understanding.
The county must decide whether to create an ordinance governing how collective bargaining will work, which employees are eligible and the scope of bargaining. If no ordinance is created and a group of employees decides to unionize, the county would have 120 days to decide whether it will create an ordinance.
Deputy County Executive Michelle Casciato said if the county decides to create a collective bargaining system, it would likely come with about $2 million in annual operating costs.
“The cost is not insignificant,” she said.
The board directed Martino to come back with a recommendation about establishing a group of employees to provide input on collective bargaining.
“I don’t think that we can just arbitrarily make a decision about it by talking about it,” said Supervisor Andrea Bailey, D-Potomac. “We need some data.”
The decision was spurred over uncertainty over the main issues that bargaining would address.
“We really don’t have very many complaints from our employees,” Casciato said. “We are highly motivated as an employer to have an engaged and dedicated workforce.”
The board’s Republican members were more cautious about collective bargaining than Democrats. Republicans raised concerns about cost, a potential loss of transparency and disciplinary problems.
“You’re opening that door to a very troublesome road where you’re protecting bad apples,” said Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville.
Supervisor Margaret Franklin, D-Woodbridge, said it would be important to craft agreements that did not protect “bad actors.”
“It’ll be complicated. It’ll be complex,” she said. “But we make complicated decisions all the time.”
Board Chair Ann Wheeler, D-At-Large, said employees will probably request collective bargaining so it will be important for the county to begin work on an ordinance.
“I think we’re going to be faced with it and I want to at least get started on it,” she said. “I think it’s coming, and I don’t think sticking our head in the sand is the way to approach it.”