By Haley Thomas, contributor
Andrew Thompson, president of the Harrisonburg Education Association, called the Harrisonburg City School Board’s Tuesday business meeting a “historic night” after board members voted 5-1 to allow the district’s teachers and other employees to move forward with an election to decide whether to engage in collective bargaining.
“It’s been a historic night for the Shenandoah Valley — the first ever in the history of Virginia to get a resolution of collective bargaining,” Thompson said. “I’m just so proud, I can’t even get my words out.”
The measure also authorizes the district’s administration to establish and oversee the election process for the district’s classified and certified employees. No election date has been set yet. Certified employees include teachers, social workers and counselors, while classified employees include bookkeepers, custodians and teacher assistants.
Collective bargaining is aimed at giving teachers and staff “a seat at the table,” as many HCPS employees have called it. Legally, it allows them to directly negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment.
And the effort led by Harrisonburg Education Association members has been the central theme of the past two city school board meetings. Ten people spoke during public comment at the board’s Aug. 15 meeting — all in support of collective bargaining. Tuesday’s work session attracted more speakers in support of the effort as well as several city residents who opposed it, including board member Kaylene Seigle.
City resident Barbara Knupp said she was concerned that collective bargaining “ties back to a union” and that the associated costs would be passed on to taxpayers. She also said teachers have begged to be heard, and “we wouldn’t be here, at this point, if we hadn’t failed.”
Superintendent Michael Richards expressed his continued support for collective bargaining following public comment.
“We are a school division that really values input from all of our team members,” Richards said. “The idea that we haven’t listened to staff members is, frankly, wrong.”
Seigle said she agreed with those who spoke out against collective bargaining and that she “wasn’t sure that this resolution is the answer.”
She said she agreed that “we need to listen to our teachers,” but said that engaging in collective bargaining is no different than unionizing, which will “require dues to be paid by every employee.”
Several members of the Harrisonburg Education Association collectively called out, “that’s not true.”
At this, board member Andy Kohen, a retired JMU economics professor, asked to “put on my old hat.”
He cited his background in labor economics and said some of those who spoke out against collective bargaining had “factually incorrect” information. Kohen said federal laws protect all workers, and those who choose not to join a collective bargaining unit are not required to pay dues.
“Our country has a long history of the working people being benefited by the existence of collective action,” Kohen said. “And I think I’ll take that hat off and be quiet now.”
Board member Tom Domonoske said he wanted to clarify that the board didn’t allow for collective bargaining but, instead, allowed the district employees to decide for themselves.
“I am privileged to sit here…with what I know about the school systems here in the city of Harrisonburg, to support the simple idea that our employees get to vote to decide if they want someone to represent them,” Domonoske said. “They actually could decide they don’t want that. That vote has not yet happened. All we’re doing today is allowing them to have an election. It’s actually democracy in practice.”
Cheers from the Harrisonburg Education Association rang through the crowd as Board Chair Deb Fitzgerald congratulated the group on their approval to move forward with engaging in collective bargaining.
Thompson told The Citizen that he’s thrilled at the outcome of Tuesday’s business meeting.
“My members have done a great job of showing up when it mattered, talking about their true feelings and what matters to them, and I think that resonated,” Thompson said. “I think it resonated with the school board, with [administrators] and with the community. At least in large.”
Thompson said he thinks any lack of support for collective bargaining comes from misinformation.
“Change is scary, but this is a positive change,” Thompson said. “That’s what we want everyone to see: this isn’t a power takeover. We’re trying to save the damn system. We’re suffering and so are the children.”
Thompson told The Citizen that the next step is rallying the support of Harrisonburg Education Association members to encourage them to vote in favor of collective bargaining.
Jay Deck, employee of the Virginia Education Association, said collective bargaining is the best outcome for district staff.
“We were able to get 86% of teachers to sign cards,” Deck told The Citizen, regarding the Harrisonburg Education Association’s card campaign in March that gauged support from the district’s teachers and staff. “So that goes to show the overwhelming support — they want collective bargaining.”
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