RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — At a packed Monday night meeting, the Richmond School Board voted overwhelmingly to approve a resolution allowing teachers and other school staff the right to join a union and bargain collectively for pay and benefits.
The school district is the first in Virginia to grant collective bargaining rights to its employees.
The proposal came after the General Assembly approved collective bargaining rights for public employees, including teachers – provided the local governing body agrees to grant them. That led the Richmond Education Association to push for the proposal along with sympathetic board members.
The task force that formulated the resolution included board members Stephanie Rizzi and Shonda Harris-Muhamed, representatives of the Virginia and Richmond Education Association and district staff. The formation of the task force was also supported by board member Kenya Gibson.
An Outpouring of Support
A number of speakers, including parents, teachers, and community members, spoke out in favor of the proposal, calling on the board to grant employees of the school division the right to unionize.
Jessica Diaz, a middle school social studies teacher, said in public comments to the board that the time had come to let teachers organize.
“The majority of educators in the United States have collective bargaining rights,” she said. “We are in a position to lead the way in Virginia.”
Testimony didn’t just come from teachers. Jerry Gunner is a member of RPS support staff, and he told the board his family had worked in Richmond Public Schools for generations. In an emotional plea, he called on the board to pass the resolution and asked them, “How can you support me?”
Parents also spoke out in favor of the resolution. Kevin Pelletier has two children in Richmond Public Schools, a son in 8th grade and a daughter in 5th grade, and he decried the erosion of labor rights through policies like ‘right to work,’ saying teachers needed to be allowed to collectively bargain.
“They are grossly underpaid and they are exhausted,” he said. “What they are asking for is not radical… they just want a voice in how their contracts are formed and ratified.”
The Board Divided
As the board moved to vote on the resolution, however, cracks began to show. While board members Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhamed and Stephanie Rizzi, who lead the ad hoc committee charged with writing the bill, spoke strongly in favor of it, board member Dawn Page expressed reservations.
“Not having a full discussion, this feels rushed,” she said. The board was originally planning to simply receive the recommendations of the ad hoc committee on Monday, but Gibson submitted a substitute agenda item calling for an immediate vote.
“Without a full financial analysis we will not know the ramifications,” Page added.
But Rizzi said the committee materials had been freely available to other board members from the start for consideration over the previous weeks.
“Our recommendation, as far as I know, is to vote on this tonight,” she added.
“I don’t like hearing that some of my colleagues feel rushed,” said board member Elizabeth Doerr. She reiterated her support for the resolution, but added that she also wanted to see the financial analysis called for by Page.
The School Board recessed briefly, and returned to further discussion.
Board member Jonathan Young said that he fully recognized the issues that teachers brought up in their comments and sympathized with their frustrations over micro-management and stress, but that he thought they needed a different solution, “I don’t see that collective bargaining is that tool.”
“I’m tired of making excuses for excuses. It’s time to vote,” said board member Mariah White.
A few minutes later, the vote was held, with all but one member voting in favor.
What Collective Bargaining Would Mean
In short, collective bargaining would mean RPS employees could negotiate for their pay and contracts with the school board and city as part of a union.
While Richmond teachers can currently become members of the Richmond Education Association, the REA and its parent organization, the Virginia Education Association, are limited to their role as a professional organization, and cannot negotiate directly with local governments.
Although the resolution would allow teachers to bargain collectively, it also declares that an employee cannot “participate in any strike or willfully refuse to perform the duties of their employment in concert with two or more other Employees.”
Instead, a prospective union would have a set period in which to negotiate with school administration. If no agreement is reached, in place of a strike, teachers and administration would enter mediation with a neutral third party.