Richmond Educators Win Precedent-Setting Fight for Collective Bargaining Rights

Teachers and other public school employees in Richmond, Virginia, won a major victory in December when the city’s school board, in an 8 to 1 vote, approved a resolution granting them collective bargaining rights.

The victory sets a precedent for other districts and public sector employees throughout the state. Richmond is the first school district in Virginia to reinstate collective bargaining rights, after the legislature in 2020 lifted the state’s 43-year prohibition on collective bargaining for local government workers.

Members of the school board had made repeated attempts to delay the vote. Winning took a mass mobilization led by the Richmond Education Association, which convened district-wide workers’ assemblies, held rallies outside school board meetings, and shared dozens of teacher testimonies during public comment periods.

What finally passed was a compromise resolution stating that the union and the school district can each bring only two bargaining issues to the table for the first negotiated contract, which will last three years. Still, by overturning the sweeping ban on contract negotiations, this compromise opens the terrain to expand union power in every school building.

Patchwork of Rights

Under the new state law, which took effect May 1, 2021, each governing body (such as a school board) can vote to authorize collective bargaining rights for its employees, after which the union is permitted to hold an authorization vote among the workers.

This means there will be a patchwork of public sector bargaining rights throughout the state. Virginia’s anti-union right-to-work law remains in effect; so does its draconian ban on public sector strikes. Bargaining is still banned for state employees.

Virginia banned negotiations with public sector unions in 1946 to break the power of Local 550 of the CIO-affiliated State, County, and Municipal Workers of America, the all-Black union at the University of Virginia hospital.

In 1971 a federal district court found this prohibition unconstitutional, and public sector unions were authorized to negotiate contracts. But in 1977, the state Supreme Court reinstated the ban on bargaining for all public sector employees in the state, including those employed by local entities like Richmond Public Schools.

Authorization Card Drive

Although Richmond school employees didn’t have collective bargaining rights, they did have a union, the REA, with more than 1,000 members and a network of shop stewards.

After the new law passed in 2020, the union’s organizing committee led a grassroots campaign school by school — mobilizing both members and non-members to sign authorization cards and demand the reinstatement of collective bargaining rights.

Since Virginia is a right-to-work state, non-members can sign authorization cards in support of collective bargaining, but only members will be able to participate in negotiations and provide input on the contract.

The cards were used to show the school board how much support there was for collective bargaining, and to build momentum for an election to authorize the REA as the exclusive bargaining agent, which will be the next step.

REA also built community support by reaching out to parents and other unions, even holding committee meetings at the picket line of the Nabisco strike by Bakery Workers (BCGTM) Local 358.

These acts of solidarity paid off — members of Local 358 were among those who joined the REA rally outside the December 6 school board meeting where collective bargaining rights were finally granted.

Organized From Below

Members of the Richmond chapter of the Virginia Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators were at the center of the campaign as organizing committee members, shop stewards, and members of the REA executive board.

VCORE was founded after the 2018-2019 strike wave. The founding members, critical of their statewide union’s emphasis on lobbying, sought to transform it into a more democratic and effective fighting organization in the workplace. They were inspired by the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators that had rebuilt Chicago Teachers Union by organizing from the bottom up.

VCORE has advocated for stronger relationships with other labor and community organizations, and for democratic participation and mass mobilization.

The caucus pushed the REA to reinvigorate its steward system. The union is training a new layer of worksite leaders to organize its authorization card campaign; these leaders will form the basis of contract action teams in future negotiations.

“Any veteran union organizer knows that the quality of the contract that the REA will win is contingent upon the strength of its organization in the workplace and willingness of its members to take action,” said Cole Oberman, a member of REA and VCORE.

VCORE members also advocated for the union to convene district-wide assemblies where all categories of school district workers — not just teachers — could identify and analyze the issues they were facing on the job and determine how to respond.

So far the REA has convened three of these assemblies, bringing together more than 100 workers total. For many, this was their first time interacting with the union. They talked about staffing shortages, uncompensated working hours, class sizes, district-mandated curriculum, decrepit buildings, and bullying by administration.

No Easy Road Ahead

The REA and its parent VEA have faced dogged opposition from employers and politicians, Democratic and Republican alike, and they have a difficult road ahead.

It was a Democrat-controlled school board in Richmond that considerably delayed and tried to weaken the collective bargaining resolution. Outgoing Democratic Governor Ralph Northam had delayed from 2020 to 2021 the implementation of the law reinstating collective bargaining rights.

The new Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin has announced his intention to launch an all-out offensive against anti-racist education, public schools, teacher autonomy, public health, and the labor movement. He has established a tip line through which parents can report on educators who engage in “divisive practices.” Among the regressive bills introduced in the first few weeks of his administration is one attempting to reinstate the ban on public sector collective bargaining rights.

Meanwhile the Virginia School Boards Association has taken a legislative stance against collective bargaining and continues to host anti-union trainings for local school boards.

It is in this context that the REA must organize a union authorization campaign (it must win an election to become the official bargaining unit representative), and then lead contract negotiations.

Beyond Richmond

Despite these challenges, the awful working and learning conditions provide fertile ground for organizing. Virginia ranks 50th nationwide for teacher pay compared to other occupations, a recent study found. In Richmond, educational support staff such as instructional assistants have spoken out against poverty wages.

And beyond the schools, a recent study from the Commonwealth Institute found that 80 percent of Richmond public sector employees are unable to support a family in the city.

Workers in other municipalities are pushing for collective bargaining too. On December 7, firefighters and county workers in Loudoun County won a collective bargaining resolution from their board of supervisors. On January 18, the newly formed Virginia Beach City Workers Union, Electrical Workers (UE) Local 111, rallied outside a city council meeting to push for collective bargaining rights.

“This victory has excited workers around the state who have long felt disillusioned with the business union model,” said elementary English as a Second Language teacher Noor Sami, a member of REA and VCORE. “People are beginning to feel like change is not only possible, but likely. Just in my school alone, everyone is looking at the REA with new eyes and excited to see what comes next.”