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Richmond City Council delays action on measure to allow city workers to unionize

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Richmond city employees who have been calling for the right to unionize over the past year may have to wait until September to see whether the City Council will adopt legislation to let them do so.

While some city officials and union advocates had expected the introduction of an amended bill Monday, the council instead delayed action again in front of about 100 city workers and labor organizers eager to collectively negotiate for better wages and working conditions.

“It’s time to do it,” said Maurice Black, a 23-year veteran of the city’s Public Works department who spoke in favor of union legislation during the council meeting. “We can’t keep working on these slave-mentality wages. It has to change.”

City Council President Cynthia Newbille said that she expects an amended bill based on feedback from the public and council members will be formally introduced next month.

While an updated ordinance could be introduced as soon as next Tuesday at the council’s Organizational Development Standing Committee meeting, further delay could prevent the council from voting before the end of summer as the governing body typically takes a recess in August.

“We are committed to moving this down the road. And when I say moving, I don’t mean kicking [the can down the road,]” she said. “What we’re talking about is doing this in a way that’s in the best interest of city employees and the organization as well.”

City officials have delayed voting on two competing bills multiple times as Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration has argued for limiting the right to employees in the departments of Public Works and Public Utilities.

Six of the council’s nine members have signed on as co-patrons for another bill that would allow social workers, library workers, police, firefighters and other employees to unionize. Still, the majority on council who say they support it have failed to bring it to a vote.

Standing with fellow members of an organizing committee with the labor union SEIU 512 during the council meeting, Department of Social Services employee Felicia Boney told the City Council that the debate is about expanding the rights of workers.

“We’re seeing a reversal of rights in our country right now. So it matters a lot that city of Richmond workers are fighting to expand our rights to a union and collective bargaining,” she said. “Our working conditions are your living conditions. We want a strong collective bargaining ordinance passed immediately.”

While Mayor Levar Stoney says he is supportive of allowing local government workers to unionize, he and other top city officials have pushed to limit an initial ordinance to a smaller band of workers because of the administration’s lack of experience negotiating union contracts and the costs that it could incur.

“The Administration continues to work with City Council to reach a resolution on collective bargaining,” Jim Nolan, the mayor’s spokesperson, said in an email just before the start of the council meeting.

Dwayne Johnson, an organizer with Teamsters Local 322, another labor union working with city employees, said the city should not narrow the ordinance to only a few workers.

“I think the biggest hurdle … is for the council members to understand the sky is not going to fall” if they pass a broader ordinance, Johnson said in an interview.

Nolan added that the administration has tried to focus on employee satisfaction recently by raising the minimum wage for city employees to $17 per hour, boosting police and firefighter salaries with raises of at least 10% and granting a 5% wage increase for all other city employees.

While few city employees have said they are pleased with the raises, Black said he feels that it still isn’t enough for some older employees whose wages are still low.

“A person who is making $125,000, a 5% raise for him looks excellent,” he said. “A person like me who is making $32,000 … the only thing it does is put me in a higher tax bracket, and I take home less money.”

Other workers and labor organizers said that a strong collective bargaining ordinance would also enable them to address other work issues, such as shift durations, caseloads, safety precautions and health regulations.

Local government employees are eligible to unionize and negotiate labor contracts under legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2020. The state bill, however, requires local governing boards to pass local legislation to grant the right in each locality. Richmond Public Schools teachers, for example, gained the ability to collectively negotiate work contracts after a School Board vote in December.

In March, four months after the introduction of two collective bargaining bills for city employees, the Richmond City Council voted to form a working group to review the legislation.

Administration and council officials at the time gave little detail about the composition of the panel and whether it would meet publicly. Union advocates who said they were invited to participate said the group never met, giving the impression that it was a stall tactic.

The council and one of its standing committees have reviewed the legislation three times in open meetings since then, each time declining to vote on whether to approve either bill.

Speaking to city workers and organizers with SEIU 512 after the council discussion about the legislation, city library worker Ben Himmelfarb said the introduction of an updated collective bargaining ordinance was pulled after a few organizers who saw the draft felt it was inadequate.

“The city attorney seems to be working with the mayor and [chief administrative officer] … to subvert the kind of strong ordinance that we want to see done,” Himmelfarb said. “There was a moment where we thought tonight we would see a strong ordinance and we would all go, ‘vote yes.’ We then saw the ordinance and it was crap.”

In an interview after the meeting, Councilwoman Reva Trammell, the chief sponsor of the council’s favored union bill, said officials need more time to review the proposed amendments. Trammell also noted that one of the chief co-sponsors, Councilwoman Kristen Nye, was absent, which made her and others feel uncertain about how to proceed Monday.

“We want to get it right,” she said. “I think all of us have not been on the same page. There’s been so much miscommunication out there.”

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