Va. firefighters, medics press city for union rights
Collective bargaining is being promoted as a recruitment, retention benefit for Portsmouth
By Natalie Anderson
PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Firefighters and emergency workers are again attempting to secure collective bargaining power for city employee organizations to negotiate for better wages, safety measures and working conditions.
The International Firefighters Association Local 539, founded in 1937 and made up of nearly 200 full-time Portsmouth firefighters and paramedics, sent authorization cards to the city last week, displaying support from about 90% of its members, according to union president Lt. Kurt Detrick.
Per state code, it’s now up to City Council, which has 120 days to take a vote and decide.
Virginia was one of a few states with a blanket ban on collective bargaining for public sector employees until 2020, when the Democrat-controlled General Assembly enacted a new law, effective 2021, punting the final say to localities. Allowing collective bargaining means workers can negotiate in good faith with city leaders on a labor contract dictating pay, benefits, safety, equipment and working conditions.
Some cities in Northern Virginia already have approved the collective bargaining process for city workers, but attempts in Hampton Roads have not yet been successful.
Virginia Beach is considering collective bargaining for its employees and officers. In 2020, Portsmouth was the first Hampton Roads city to authorize collective bargaining for city employees thanks to a unanimous City Council vote. The resolution at the time called for a working group of city leaders and subject matter experts to explore procedures on how to make it happen when the law became effective the following year.
But City Council reversed course when that time came after then-Chief Financial Officer Mimi Terry, now interim city manager, informed members that such efforts would likely cost the city $2 million to begin the process while limiting expansion of other services. The council then adopted a resolution to no longer grant employees the ability to collectively bargain.
Because of the conflicting resolutions, Detrick said union leaders went back to the drawing board. They’re optimistic it could happen this time, though, as three of its endorsed candidates from last year’s election are now on City Council: Bill Moody, Mark Hugel and Vernon Tillage.
“We felt like this was the right time to go back at it,” Detrick said. “Now that they’ve been in office for the first half of the year, the dust has settled on the transition … we’re through the budget process and we’ve submitted the authorization cards.”
One reason he thinks the previous effort failed is because it was uncharted territory for Hampton Roads. But since, Detrick said members have talked with the community through civic league meetings and social media campaigns.
“I think the community understands the value and us having that seat at the table,” Detrick said. “And not just having a seat at the table, but having an actual way to handle the disputes when they come up.”
How the city will address the request from the fire union is unclear. Terry told The Virginian-Pilot that council, city leadership and the legal team will publicly provide more information “at the appropriate time to ensure the public is aware of the decisions we make as a governing body on behalf of our citizens.”
If approved, collective bargaining would apply to all city employees, not just firefighters and paramedics. Some processes would follow, such as the selection of representatives and labor administrators to help work toward a contract. Detrick explained that since Virginia is a right-to-work state, union membership is optional. City employees are also prohibited from striking and would be terminated if they did, he added.
“We’re entering into a new world in Virginia with this,” Detrick said. “Everywhere else does it. I can understand the apprehension, but it’s important to understand the facts and not just go off the fear.”
Detrick explained that employees would be represented through different bargaining units comprising workers of similar fields, citing one for police, one for those working trades and one for administrative professionals, for example.
Capt. Levin Turner, vice president of governmental affairs for the union, said allowing collective bargaining would prevent the “hemorrhaging” of the city’s personnel to other jurisdictions that can offer better pay and incentives — potentially making Portsmouth a more attractive option for workers. Though more than two dozen recruits are currently in the academy, he estimates about a dozen fire personnel have departed over the past 16 months.
Detrick said the department is almost fully staffed, but added he believes the union’s work to publicly advocate for collective bargaining rights has led to the hiring and filling of vacancies that once plagued the department.
Detrick said it’s about having a method in place to reach an agreement with city leaders beyond discussions.
“(This) is a way that we can amicably find common ground for the betterment of service delivery for the community,” Turner said. “And that’s ultimately our priority. We want to retain qualified and experienced personnel to provide the highest level of service to our community.”