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Northam's bid to delay localities' public sector collective bargaining dismays labor advocates

Northam's bid to delay localities' public sector collective bargaining dismays labor advocates

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Gov. Ralph Northam wore a mask Friday as he considered a piece of legislation while Policy Assistant Grace Kelly assisted in his conference room inside the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond. The General Assembly will consider the governor’s proposed changes to legislation on April 22.

To the dismay of labor rights groups, Gov. Ralph Northam wants to push back the date on when localities could give public sector workers, including teachers, the right to collectively bargain.

On the final day that he could take action on bills, Northam proposed amending the measure carried by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, and Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, changing the date it would take effect from July 1 to May 1, 2021. The proposal quickly drew pushback from advocates who say the coronavirus public health crisis shows that workers need a voice.

“Virginia’s public service workers, many of whom are on the front lines of this pandemic, today realized the sting of empty campaign jargon from 2017,” Doris Crouse-Mays, the president of the Virginia AFL-CIO, said on Sunday. “Virginia is ranked last in the nation for workers, and the governor’s decision to postpone the effective date of this legislation, along with the delay in the minimum wage increase, reinforces that record.”

Teachers, firefighters, police and other public sector employees are barred from collective bargaining, in which an employer negotiates with a group of workers. Virginia is one of three states with such a ban. Legislation the General Assembly backed would let local governing bodies pass ordinances granting collective bargaining authority for public sector employees.

Northam’s office said in a news release that the delayed enactments on collective bargaining and other labor-related legislation would “ensure workers get the support they need while allowing greater economic certainty in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The General Assembly will consider the amendment and Northam’s other proposed changes to legislation at the April 22 reconvened session in Richmond.

A coalition of labor unions, including the Virginia AFL-CIO and the Virginia Education Association, that pushed for the bill’s passage said in a statement that it is “disappointed” by the proposed delay.

“Choosing May of 2021 as an effective date also leaves open the possibility that the governor will go back to the General Assembly next session and ask for yet another delay,” the coalition, formally called “Stronger Communities. A Better Bargain”, said. “It is easier to postpone a freedom than it is to take one away.”

Crouse-Mays echoed that sentiment.

“The anti-worker forces who saw opportunity in tragedy have secured yet another victory,” she said. “They will be back next year where they will undoubtedly attempt to win more.”

Several elected officials, including Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, have backed the idea, which has drawn opposition from the Virginia Municipal League and Virginia School Boards Association, among others.

The measure, which continues to forbid public employees from striking, was the biggest change related to education that the legislature backed this year, and Northam’s amendment drew criticism Sunday from teacher organizations.

Norfolk Federation of Teachers President Thomas Calhoun called the proposed delay “totally unnecessary.”

“By making collective bargaining a local option, the legislature already built in substantial lead time before it could be implemented in any jurisdiction,” Calhoun said.

A previous version of the bill would have granted the collective bargaining power automatically, but the compromise struck by House and Senate Democrats make it an opt-in idea. Local governing bodies would be required to vote within 120 days on collective bargaining if public employees say they want it.

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