School Employees Seek Collective Bargaining Rights

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Atlanta Hutchins, third grade teacher at Crozet Elementary. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The Albemarle Education Association (AEA), a public educators’ union, is engaged in a major push to recruit new members in an effort to establish collective bargaining rights for county school employees. In response to a 2021 change in Virginia law that now allows public sector workers to collectively bargain with their employers, the AEA says the time is right for all school employees to pursue that goal.

“The key big shift, especially in regards to bargaining, is that now that the Virginia law has changed, it gives workers the opportunity to have a say in negotiating a legally binding contract,” said Vernon Liechti, president of the AEA. “It’s really good news, and actually, it’s normal in most of the rest of the country.” Virginia, along with North Carolina and South Carolina, were the only U.S. states that did not allow public sector unions to bargain collectively before this change.

Albemarle educators say that their drive to unionize has been largely prompted by working conditions imposed by pandemic protocols beginning last year and extending into the current school year. While many unions focus primarily on issues of pay and benefits for their workers, AEA representatives hear most often that current teachers, especially, are feeling left out of school division decisions that they feel they should have the ability to negotiate in their contracts.

Vernon Liechti, president of the Albemarle Educators Association. Submitted photo.

“I think in regards to a lot of issues, the pandemic just exposed what was already there—it served as kind of a magnifying glass,” said Liechti. “Teachers feel like there’s a lot of responsibilities that keep piling higher and higher with nothing being removed. And at the same time, there’s a lot of pressure to get things back to where they were in 2019.” If teachers and staff are not given time to focus on fewer important priorities, he said, “that’s going to cause burnout and more people leaving the profession, and that’s not something I think anybody wants to see.”

The AEA is the local arm of the Virginia Educators Association (VEA), which in turn is part of the National Educators Association (NEA). In preparation for collective bargaining, the AEA is establishing bargaining units broken down by type of employment contract, so there will be separate units for teachers, bus drivers, food service workers, counselors and other staff. 

After a semester spent barnstorming every school in the district to explain the potential benefits of joining the union to all school workers, Liechti said that membership in the AEA has grown by 20% since the 2021-22 school year began, though he declined to reveal the total number of members in the group currently. Once an AEA bargaining unit has secured signatures proving they have majority support for the move, they will submit a request to the Albemarle school board to collectively bargain for their contracts, which the board has 120 days to consider. Liechti says some units plan to move ahead in early 2022.

While the AEA must demonstrate that at least 50% of a bargaining unit approves of union representation, agreements the AEA reaches with the county will be binding for all. As part of the new law, Virginia’s General Assembly granted “monopoly bargaining power” to unions representing public sector employees, overturning a ban on such power put in place in 1993, which means that unions will bargain for all employees in their bargaining unit, whether they belong to the union or not. However, because Virginia is a “right to work” state, workers may not strike and are not required to pay dues to unions who negotiate on their behalf.

Hardly Normal

Many teachers who experienced the chaotic 2020-21 school year have been unhappily surprised by the school division’s expectations of them for the current year, given that so many restrictions remain in place. “It’s really difficult to teach kids from six feet away and trying to keep kids three feet apart,” said Cheryl Knight, teacher and AEA representative at Murray Elementary. “At the same time, all of the things we’re expected to be doing—culturally responsive teaching training, making sure everyone passes the SOL’s [after significant learning loss last year]—are still there. We’re expected to do all of the normal things when things are hardly normal.”

The main desire that teachers and staff name as the impetus for collective bargaining is to have a voice in decisions that affect their work lives. “I think there are different pressures for those who are in administration,” said Knight, “and they’re looking at it from different viewpoints, but their decisions affect everyone who is part of this system under a time of, right now, continual stress. Things like planning time, duty-free lunches, those types of things are really important to teachers, especially during these strange pandemic times, and we need to have a say in those policies.”

AEA president Vernon Liechti speaks with an ACPS employee who works as both a bus driver and food service worker at Monticello High School. Submitted photo.

Atlanta Hutchins, teacher and AEA representative at Crozet Elementary, said that the required Covid mitigation strategies such as masking and distancing have changed teaching the most, as well as dealing with a “revolving door” of student absences, in tandem with an avalanche of division dictates. “Last year there were a ton of decisions being made by division staff [from curriculum to protocol], and I felt like I didn’t a have a say in any of them,” said Hutchins. “If you’re not in the classroom, they make sense on paper, but when you put those into practice—virtually or in person—they often don’t make sense. We just want to say, ‘Can we tell you what we see?’ and ‘Can we do this in a way that makes sense?’”

As examples, teachers point to both simple and complex policy decisions. A recent change in how all ACPS workers are paid—from monthly to every two weeks—will cause pay imbalances during months with fewer work days and was, workers say, not well-communicated in advance. “We know it’s going to hit bus drivers and teaching assistants the hardest, and there was no chance for anybody to say, wait, let’s talk about this and think about it a little more,” said Hutchins.

“Another example was that the school board changed the start day for the school year from a Wednesday to a Monday,” she continued. “That sounds like a little thing, but we all have our calendars set up for a Wednesday start in terms of how we transition kids in for the start of the year without exhausting them (and us) the first week, and that just threw us all for a loop and made everybody a little more stressed. Teachers are not being consulted or told the reasons for these things.”

Liechti is hoping for community support in the AEA’s push for collective bargaining. “When we submit our resolution to the school board, they will vote to either approve or reject the resolution,” he said. “So, what we’re trying to do is make sure we have strong support from everybody, not just people that are working in the division, but also the community as well. We’re trying to benefit the community by benefitting the people feeding their children, transporting their children, teaching their children, and we want to make sure those people can afford to live in the communities they work in.” 

Hutchins also stressed that working together with the school division is best for the students. “A lot of the stuff [imposed by the school division last year] ended up causing extra stress for us, or caused us to have to use resources that we weren’t familiar with because we weren’t given time,” she said. “In the end, the kids were the ones who were missing out and kind of getting the short end of the stick.” She also referred to equity issues across school districts. “How equitable is it for one school to have $20,000 in PTO funding for the classrooms and other schools to not even be able to provide snacks for their students?”

“The key line that keeps coming up is ‘children’s learning conditions are teachers’ working conditions,’” said Liechti. “So, we’ve got to be willing as community to push forward and say, yes, we should have the right to be able to negotiate our working conditions, our compensation, our benefits, because those are things that will help recruit and retain teachers at Albemarle County Public Schools.”

A Seat at the Table

For teachers and staff, AEA membership can be a costly commitment. Union dues for AEA members range from $26 to $48.50 per month for full-time professional and educational support personnel (regardless of tenure). The full-time dues add up to $582 per year, of which about $350 goes toward VEA and NEA membership dues. National surveys show that a majority of dues funding typically goes to the state and national union affiliates. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that about 75% of dues money pays for union salaries, overhead, and political spending, while about 25% goes toward employee representation.

The Charlottesville-based Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA) represents local school boards across the Commonwealth and actively lobbied against the collective bargaining law while it was under consideration in the state General Assembly. The group cited studies showing that “teacher collective bargaining has been shown to have a negative impact on student achievement, particularly on minority and disadvantaged students,” and pointed out that, per Virginia law, no school board can agree to be subject to binding arbitration. (Though they have issued public statements on the issue, the VSBA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

AEA president Vernon Liechti recruits teachers and staff at Baker-Butler Elementary. Submitted photo.

The VSBA has also noted in public documents that school boards do not have taxing authority, so they are prohibited by law from contracting with bargaining units on financial issues like pay increases—those decisions are made by the county Board of Supervisors. However, Liechti says that the AEA could work with the school board to craft an annual budget proposal. “We can support the school board in their negotiations with the Board of Supervisors,” he said. “That’s where community support [of the AEA] helps out as well, so we can let the board know that this is what the community wants to see happen.”

“There are many other things [besides pay] that can be put into a contract—say, how many personal days a teacher gets and how much professional development,” said Knight. “All of those types of things contribute to a work environment that’s much more pleasant.” She also recalled prior superintendents’ perspectives on shaping the budget. “I think Dr. Haas presented a balanced budget last year, but Pam Moran used to do what she called a needs-based budget—‘this is what we need’—where there was a gap to fill,” she said. “You know, if you don’t ask, it’s still a no.”

The VSBA’s “Task Force on Collective Bargaining” has made recommendations to local school boards on how to decide whether or not to enter into collective bargaining agreements with constituent groups. The group hosted a workshop in Charlottesville on December 7 that proposed alternatives to collective bargaining while still giving employees “a seat at the table.” A crowd of about 100 AEA members rallied in support of bargaining on the Downtown Mall ahead of the workshop, which was attended by Albemarle School Board attorney Ross Holden and board member Graham Paige.

For its part, Albemarle’s school district has said only that it is prepared to deal with any AEA request. “The division’s position is that the School Board will follow the law,” said Phil Giaramita, strategic communications officer for the school division. “If a petition or request that meets the law’s requirements is submitted to the Board, it will be reviewed and voted upon within the 120-day window permitted by the law.” 

Since the law went into effect in May of 2021, the Richmond Education Association has been approved for collective bargaining with their local school board, while the Loudoun Education Association has submitted a request and is awaiting a decision from their board.

What will AEA members do if Albemarle’s school board says no? “Then it becomes, well, what are we going to do about it?” said Hutchins. “You’re an elected official, so maybe we work on electing people who support collective bargaining.” 

Editor’s note: The print version of this article inaccurately described the annual AEA dues. It has been corrected here.

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