RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Richmond’s School Board is the first in the state to vote in support of collective bargaining. This gives school staff the right to join a union and negotiate their pay and benefits.

Most other states already allow public-sector collective bargaining. After the general assembly’s recent approval, it’s now up to Virginia’s local governments to decide if they want to opt-in.

Those in favor of collective bargaining say it’s a win for staff and students. The Virginia Education Association said teachers can do things like secure smaller class sizes and better advocate for students’ needs through contract negotiations.

The 8-1 vote at Richmond’s School Board meeting on Monday night ended a multi-decade battle over collective bargaining.

“It’s time to do the real work,” said Katina Harris, the Richmond Education Association president. “We’ll be able to have a seat at the table.”

Harris helped draft the resolution that the board voted on Monday.

“We’re excited about it and we’re ready to start the process,” she said.

Lawyers like Richmond attorney Cynthia Hudson will play a large role as local governments decide on how they will proceed.

“Legal services are definitely going to be necessary and local governments will have choices to make on deciding how they will employ those services,” she said.

Hudson has already been advising governments who are considering collective bargaining. She said most localities she’s helping are in northern Virginia. One of the most frequently asked questions she gets on the topic is “why do people want this?”

Advocates say allowing collective bargaining in Richmond will improve teacher retention rates as RPS faces severe staffing shortages. Harris called it a win for both staff and students.

“Infrastructure, culture in the buildings, all of those things impact the students if they impact the teachers,” she said.

“Once collective bargaining is enabled, it doesn’t simply stop there,” Hudson said. “It’s then up to employees to actually take advantage of the mechanisms that are available to them.”

The General Assembly recently gave localities the power to vote on public-sector collective bargaining after a 40-plus year prohibition.

“Virginia is confronting a new frontier, or what is basically a new frontier with public sector employment law with collective bargaining,” Hudson said. “Much of the story remains to be written.”

Though school staff will have more of a say in many aspects throughout RPS, the resolution says employees still cannot participate in strikes.