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More Richmond city employees file for union elections

Patrick Olivier with stetson hat and Teamsters zip in front of a "Richmond Is For Unions" sign
Scott Elmquist
VPM News
Patrick Olivier, a shop steward representing EPES Transportation with Teamsters Local 322, speaks at Thursday's filing.

The three units that filed Thursday comprise roughly half of the city’s employees.

More Richmond city employees filed for union elections on Thursday afternoon, and the city has hired a labor relations administrator to conduct the election, bringing the city another step closer to having a unionized workforce.

Linda Brown, who works for Richmond Public Library, made the announcement outside of City Hall flanked by labor organizers from across the city. Other organizers grilled hamburgers just across the street.

“Employees of the city of Richmond keep the city running. We do it every day,” she said. “We don't have the title as first responders. But we're on the j-o-b every day, on time.”

In July 2022, Richmond City Council approved a collective bargaining ordinance, taking advantage of state legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2020 that allowed localities to grant employees the ability to collectively bargain. Previously, Virginia was one of three states with a blanket ban on collective bargaining — and state employees are still unable to.

The city’s ordinance recognized five units (groups of workers that are eligible to organize): police, fire and emergency services, labor and trades, professional, and administrative and technical. Thursday’s filing means all five have separately requested union elections.

Workers in each unit can cast a vote for or against joining a union after the city certifies the petition. And if a majority vote in favor, that union then negotiates a labor contract with the city.

Three groups announced they were filing for elections Thursday. Workers from the administrative and technical unit, alongside the professionals unit, filed to join the Service Employees International Union. Labor and trades workers filed for an election to join Teamsters Local 322.

Around 2,000 workers make up these three units, according to SEIU Virginia 512 President David Broder. National labor regulations require the petitions to include evidence that at least 30% of the unit's workers support holding an election.

The other two units: the city’s police, and fire and emergency services, were able to utilize their existing employee associations to file shortly after the collective bargaining ordinance was adopted last July.

The city of Richmond employs approximately 4,000 employees, including temporary and part-time workers. It’s the fourth largest employer in the city.

Negotiations over the form of the collective bargaining took place over eight months, a timeline Councilmember Kristen Nye compared to “birthing a baby.” Mayor Levar Stoney came out in favor of collective bargaining early but supported a more restrictive proposal than was put forward by members of council. Stoney and City Council finally reached agreement in July 2022, and organized workers were permitted to file starting in late November.

Then a multi-step process began.

“It is not easy in this country to form a union,” said Broder.

At Thursday’s rally, Mavis Green, who works for the Department of Public Works, said low compensation and poor working conditions isolate city employees from their neighbors.

“We are not ‘one city: our city,’ we are the other city,” he said, referencing a semi-official Richmond slogan. “When you come to work and you work 80 hours, and your health care is more than your net, that's the other city. … When you have to commute and you can't live in the city that you work in, that's the other city.”

A labor relations administrator, who will oversee the union election, was brought on this week. The ordinance called for the LRA to be hired within 120 days of the ordinance’s adoption, a deadline City Council missed.

Council approved Keith Greenberg as the LRA in December. Greenberg will work part time reviewing petitions to determine if 30% of the employees in each unit indeed supported an election — also known as a card check — and setting up a process for the elections.

The elections will be conducted by a third party via an agreement between SEIU Virginia 512, Teamsters Local 322 and Richmond city government.

From there, each unit will bargain independently with their unions — if their elections are successful — over various conditions of employment. That includes wages, leave, time off, insurance, workings hours, retirement plans and discipline.

The city still has two union-specific job postings up: a labor relations manager and a labor relations specialist.

Thursday’s rally didn’t just include those hoping to represent Richmond’s public workers. Representatives from traditional unions like the Virginia AFL-CIO, IBEW Local 666, as well as newer organizations like Starbucks Workers United and United Campus Workers at VCU attended.

“We've been fighting at Starbucks for over a year now just to get one bargaining session. And every step of the way, SEIU and our city's citizens have supported us in that fight,” said Tyler Hoffman. “Your fellow working-class brothers and sisters at Starbucks will be here every step of the way for your battle.”

Jahd Khalil covers local government, the economy and labor issues for VPM News. Previously, he covered state government for RadioIQ and was a freelance journalist based in Egypt.