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Cleaners at VCU negotiate 35% pay raise

Large white letters spell "VCU" amid vines
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
Cleaners at Virginia Commonwealth University won a 35% raise during their first contract negotiations, according to their union.

Under their first union contract, workers’ hourly wages will increase to $16.50.

Cleaners at Virginia Commonwealth University negotiated a 35% raise in their first contract, their union announced Thursday.

The 220 workers who clean public spaces at VCU will have their hourly pay increase to $16.30 from $12, according to the Service Employees International Union’s property services division, 32BJ.

“This union thing for us is like Christmas. … It’s Christmas in July,” said Angela Arrington, a 58-year-old who cleans spaces used by psychology faculty and students.

It is part of a flurry of unionization in Richmond. Last month, hundreds of workers selected unions to negotiate contracts with the city of Richmond, and RPS transport workers chose LiUNA 804 to represent them in contract negotiations.

“Kids, teenagers are getting paid the same salary as us grown folks are making now,” Arrington said. “Everything is so high. Food is high, rent is high, everything is going up. But this makes it a lot easier for us to live as people.”

The three-year contract between the workers and SSC Services for Education, a contractor hired by VCU, also ensures hourly raises of at least 65 cents each year and reduces workers’ health insurance premiums, 32BJ said in a press release. Workers will also receive 12 additional paid days off per year.

“Don't ever give up because when you get ready to give up, when you think things aren't going to change, that's when a miracle comes,” Arrington said of the unionization effort.

Virginia is a right-to-work state, meaning that employers cannot force employees to join a union. Some benefits negotiated by unions, however, also apply to nonunion workers.

Unions say that hurts organization efforts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.7% of Virginian workers are represented by unions, which is less than half of the national average.

But unions have been gaining traction since 2019, when Democrats took control of the entire statehouse while holding the governor’s mansion. During their time in the majority, state Democrats passed reforms making it easier for public employees to unionize but stopped short of repealing right-to-work.

Within that party, key lawmakers and politicians who were behind the right-to-work law reversed course prior to the 2021 state elections.

Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.