RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Richmond’s City Council voted Monday to allow most city employees to unionize, making way for labor unions that can negotiate for wages, benefits and working conditions.

The final vote came after months of public hearings and meetings between city leaders, council members, municipal workers, labor groups and advocates.

“We’ve been working on this specific moment to authorize collective bargaining and to recognize our right as workers to have collective bargaining in a union. We’ve been working on this for about the past year and where we started was not very good,” Ben Himmelfarb, a Richmond Public Library employee who is part of the organizing committee for Richmond City Workers for SEIU Virginia 512, told 8News before the vote.

After initially backing different ordinances, city council members and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration reached an agreement last week on a plan that allows certain public city workers to unionize.

The state’s longstanding ban on allowing public sector workers, which include teachers, law enforcement and firefighters, to engage in collective bargaining was lifted when lawmakers passed legislation in 2020 that allows localities to approve such proposals.

This led the Richmond School Board to vote 8-1 last December to make the district’s teachers the first in the state to gain collective bargaining rights to negotiate their contracts.

City employees, labor union organizers and advocates have been calling on the council to pass a collective bargaining ordinance for other public workers the right to negotiate for better pay, benefits and other working conditions.

“They [councilmembers] know the problems that city workers face,” Himmelfarb said. “Problems not just of wages and benefits and working conditions, but problems that lead to lower quality public services for the city as a whole. Our working conditions are Richmond resident’s living conditions.”

Two different measures were introduced last year — one from council members Reva Trammell and Kristen Nye and another sponsored by Stoney.

In Stoney’s ordinance, collective bargaining was limited to city workers in the departments of Public Utilities and Public Works. The measure initially put forward by Trammell and Nye, which received support from most of the council, proposed expanding those rights to more city employees, including police, firefighters, library workers, social workers and others.

Himmelfarb said workers did not support Stoney’s initial ordinance and only some backed one from Trammell and Nye. But he said they worked with councilmembers Nye, Trammell and Jordan “to improve the ordinance.”

A final vote was delayed until Monday as council members opted to review the implications of approving collective bargaining rights for workers and waiting to reach a compromise with the administration on the legislation.

“We kept showing up. We kept fighting. We kept building our numbers so that now we are the biggest union in the city,” he said. “We represent the most workers from the most departments and we’ve gotten the ordinance to a place where we can support it and where it can serve as a foundation for bargaining.”

The ordinance approved by the council includes unions for the following public employees: police, fire and emergency services, labor and trades, professional, administrative and technical.

“There’s nothing guaranteed in this ordinance but what it does do is give us a legal seat at the table to have our union recognized and to begin working towards improved working conditions and improved public services,” Himmelfarb said.

The measure creates a framework for labor union elections and does not require any municipal worker to join a union or pay any fees associated with one. The city will still have the authority to make hiring and firing decisions and won’t impact the ability for a civilian review board to bring forward disciplinary rulings.

Trammell recognized the police officers in attendance before Monday’s vote, saying she felt the collective bargaining ordinance would attract more workers to the city as surrounding localities have not adopted union legislation.

Trammell and other council members thanked the city workers who attended, the administration and others involved in the process, but many noted that Monday’s vote was one of many steps.

Stay with 8News for updates.