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Hundreds of Richmond city employees select unions

People stand holding purple signs. One reads "UNIONS FOR ALL"
Scott Elmquist
VPM News
People rally outside Richmond City Hall in favor of unions for city employees, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.

Two units chose unions, while the labor and trades unit is headed toward a runoff. 

Hundreds more Richmond city employees selected unions on Thursday to represent them in contract negotiations.

The vote is a significant step in a long-standing collective bargaining effort by unions and city workers, set off by a state law passed in 2020.

Union ballots for three of the city’s five bargaining units were counted on a live stream by BallotPoint, a company based in Portland, Oregon. The fire and emergency services unit chose the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the administrative and technical unit chose the Service Employees International Union. The labor and trades unit, meanwhile, is headed toward a runoff.

Ballots were sent out to 1,860 members of the three units, and workers voted by mail. Ballots cost $7.10 each. The cost was split between unions and the city, according to Keith Andes, the president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 995.

The labor and trades unit, which was the only unit to have more than one union vying to represent workers, will head to a runoff election. Teamsters Local 322 won 113 votes, one short of the majority needed. The Laborers' International Union of North America Local 804 won 92 votes, and 22 ballots were cast for no union.

Results still need to be certified, and both unions filed complaints regarding prohibited practices against each other, said Matt Maciejczak, a spokesperson for Teamsters Local 322.

The labor and trades unit's 610 employees mostly work for the Department of Public Utilities and Department of Public Works, and also as inspectors for the Department of Planning and Review. The race between the two unions was a rare public view into competition between organizations which usually speak of solidarity.

The administrative and technical unit chose SEIU Local 512 by a large margin, with 95% of those voting picking the union to represent them in contract negotiations. It’s the largest unit, with 803 ballots sent out to members , according to the city ordinance. SEIU did not share the vote breakdown.

“This is a long time coming and was needed,” said Otissa Williams, an employee for Richmond’s Department of Social Services, in a statement sent out by the union after the vote. “Now, we actually have a voice in what we receive as far as compensation, better [working] conditions, and now we can better serve our individuals without the worry over top of our head.”

The fire and emergency services unit, made up of employees from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services and the Department of Emergency Communications, also opted for a union by a large margin. Of the 447 ballots sent out, 162 voted for the IAFF, while 2 voted for no union.

“We are honored by this result and look forward to representing our members in future negotiations,” Keith Andres, president of IAFF Local 995, wrote in a text message.

The votes come after negotiations between the unions and the city over which workers would be represented in each unit. This included disagreements over who counted as a supervisor in the case of the labor and trades unit, and whether to include 911 dispatchers in the fire and emergency services unit.

The disagreements were arbitrated by an outside lawyer working as a “labor relations administrator,” who also set the ground rules for the elections conducted this summer.

After a brief period in which objections over the election process can be filed, the unions can now begin contract negotiations. Benefits and pay, working conditions, holiday time, and insurance are among the items on the table.

Hundreds of police officers voted last month to have the Richmond Coalition of Police enter contract negotiations with the city. 561 ballots were sent out.

The city’s professional employees are the only remaining group to not have voted for a union of the five bargaining units recognized by a 2022 ordinance passed by City Council. Organizers are working to garner support for a union ahead of filing for a vote, which is standard practice. SEIU has also filed a petition to represent this unit.

Roughly 4,000 full-time, part-time, and temporary workers work for the city of Richmond. It is the fourth largest employer in the city, according to Virginia Employment Commission figures cited in Richmond’s budget.

Although Richmond’s new budget won’t be considered until early next year, planners are already drafting the upcoming budget, which may have to include new costs from collectively bargained contracts.

Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.
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