Danville to consider resolution after utility workers approach union

Danville City Council will consider a resolution Tuesday night reiterating the city’s prohibition against collective bargaining on behalf of municipal employees.

The move comes after Danville Utilities employees recently approached the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers about the possibility of unionizing.

“We feel like the City Council and city administration has done a very good job in supporting employees with benefits and pay and an open-door policy to our employees,” said City Manager Ken Larking. “The need for collective bargaining is not there.”

Under then-Gov. Ralph Northam, the Virginia General Assembly granted local governments the authority to recognize labor unions or other employee associations and to collectively bargain or enter into collective bargaining contracts with with such groups.

IBEW Lead Organizer Dale McCray told Danville City Council during its Oct. 18 meeting that several city workers with Danville Power and Light reached out to the group to form a union.

“They just feel having a voice on terms and conditions of employment is the best way to approach it,” McCray told the Danville Register & Bee on Thursday.

If those workers have concerns about pay, workplace safety and seniority, forming a union would give them a say, he said.

“It’s nothing out of the ordinary,” McCray said. “They want a voice in the process and they feel they don’t have one.”

The IBEW, based in Washington, D.C., represents about 750,000 utility workers in the private and public sectors in the United States and Canada, he said.

“I certainly don’t support the effort to prohibit collective bargaining,” he said Thursday.

Danville Mayor Alonzo Jones said he will vote in support of the city’s resolution setting forth its policy on collective bargaining.

“I want the opportunity for us as a city to be able to work first with our employees,” Jones said Thursday.

Adding that he’s not against collective bargaining, Jones said he wants a partnership among city staff and city workers that works out issues.

Also, implementing collective bargaining and recognizing unions would pose additional costs for city government and taxpayers, Larking said.

“We’d have to have expertise to negotiate contracts,” he said. “With that, we would have to add to our staff.”

Contract provisions requiring more money would also mean additional expenses to the city that would be passed on to the taxpayers, Larking said.

The resolution sets out the city’s policy that “prohibits any official, employee, appointee or agent of the city, vested with or possessing any authority, to recognize any labor union or other employee association or organization as a bargaining agent of any city officers or employees, or to collectively bargain or enter into any collective bargaining contract,” City Attorney Clarke Whitfield wrote in a letter to City Council.

“While the resolution prohibits collective bargaining, this resolution sets forth the council’s policy of promoting orderly and constructive relationships between the city and its employees in support of its responsibility to residents to provide for their health, safety, welfare and the uninterrupted operations and functions of government,” Whitfield wrote.

During an interview in March 2020, Danville Human Resources Director Sara Weller said the city would have to hire at least three new employees — a negotiator, an attorney well-versed in the collective bargaining process and a human resources staff member who would make sure agreements on wages and other work conditions reached between the municipal government and its employees are implemented.

Costs also could come from bargaining that results in wage and salary increases, Weller added.

Before the change in state law in 2021, Virginia was one of only three states with a blanket ban on collective bargaining.

Advocates argued allowing public workers including teachers, police officers and firefighters to join unions that could bargain for them in contract negotiations would give them a stronger voice not only on wages and benefits but also issues like safety and retention.

Critics of public-sector collective bargaining have said it can be easily politicized if labor unions spend money to help elect officials who could favor more generous contracts, according to The Associated Press. They also argue governments have fewer choices, such as relocating a business, to get a union to reduce its demands.

The city currently has about 1,100 to 1,200 employees.

Article By John Crane | Register & Bee