By Bridget Manley, publisher
Almost a month after the Harrisonburg School Board voted to allow collective bargaining for teachers and staff in city schools, the initiative now hangs in limbo as union representatives have raised concerns with several issues in the language of the resolution.
A week after that vote, described as a “historic night” by members of the Harrisonburg Education Association, representatives of the Virginia Education Association pointed out “significant shortcomings” in the resolution, said HEA President Andrew Thompson. The VEA advised the HEA not to move forward with an election until a new resolution was adopted, he added.
And now, the election is off, with representatives from the school board and the local teachers’ union back at the negotiation table.
Concerns raised after the resolution passing
The resolution now in question was developed over the summer by the Superintendent’s Task Force on Collective Bargaining. That group consists of school board members, central office staff and HEA members.
School Board Chair Deb Fitzgerald told The Citizen that the task force met many times over the summer to discuss the resolution. Next, the board’s attorneys advised board members what they should vote on, before HCPS attorneys with Botkin Rose prepared the final language.
Thompson said that HEA members didn’t see the final resolution until it was posted on the school board’s online meeting portal a week before the Sept. 5 meeting, when it was adopted.
After the resolution was passed, HEA sent it to VEA for review. At that point, Thompson said, VEA noted its concerns and advised HEA not to proceed with the election.
“We are not lawyers, we’ve never done this,” Thompson said. “We were acting in good faith the whole time.”
HEA then called for a meeting with the task force on Sept. 18. A VEA representative attended, along with members of HEA, to outline their concerns.
“I think everyone was surprised,” Fitzgerald said about the school board members, noting that multiple HEA representatives spoke in support of the resolution at both the public hearing on Aug. 15 and on Sept. 5. The resolution was read aloud at the Sept. 5 meeting, and a representative for VEA was also in attendance at that meeting.
In the Sept. 18 meeting with the task force, the VEA representative explained the group’s concerns, but were told that public notices had already been issued for the election. HEA then called a Sept. 22 meeting with HCPS board members and school representatives, and voted not to move forward with the union election process as outlined in the resolution.
Disagreement over voting parameters
One of the biggest sticking points is that the resolution requires a majority of employees to vote for the union in order for the election results to be considered valid. That means that both “no” votes and all non-votes would count as “no” votes – a measure that union officials call “undemocratic.”
In a letter to school board officials, HEA wrote, “it concerns us that by participating, we would be establishing a precedent for elections that are unfairly weighted against the union.”
Fitzgerald, however, told The Citizen that the board did not receive all of the information it requested as the resolution was being prepared.
Last spring, HEA sent out a digital “card check” to gauge teacher and staff interest in collective bargaining. After collecting the cards, HEA sent a signed and notarized declaration reporting the results.
According to that declaration, 81% of certified staff – teachers, social workers and counselors – and 51% of classified staff – bookkeepers, custodians and teacher assistants – voted in support of collective bargaining.
Fitzgerald said that what the board did not know was how many employees actually voted, as well as how many employees voted yes and how many employees voted no. The board wanted this information to determine how representative the card check was of all HPCS employees.
Fitzgerald said the committee tried to verify that information this summer with HEA multiple times without response. Instead, it determined that weighing yes votes against no votes and abstentions would effectively show whether a majority of employees want collective bargaining and want HEA to serve as their collective-bargaining agent.
Thompson gave two reasons that HEA did not share that information because it was private, proprietary employee information as well as due to complexities of securely obtaining that information from the VEA, which ran the digital card campaign.
“The VEA basically said ‘I don’t understand why they need it. They either believe a legal affidavit or they don’t,’” Thompson said. “If we have to go back and verify [every vote], we will, we will verify every card we have.”
Fitzgerald does not believe there is much of an appetite among the board to change that part of the resolution without the numbers that have been requested. If the board receives those numbers and can verify employee interest, that change might be more palatable, she said.
Scheduling, decertification also sticking points
Another sticking point for HEA in the resolution was that HPCS would call for an election. Thompson says that in most cases, the union calls for an election by the board once the resolution has been passed. According to Thompson, the union should set the date.
In response, Fitzgerald said, “though not specified in the resolution, we agreed to pay for the election and we agreed to sign the contract for a third party to run it. Given those facts, it seems reasonable that the division and HEA could come to mutual agreement on the timing concerning when this election would occur.”
“If HEA wants to pay for the election and sign the contract, that point can be brought up again and discussed,” Fitzgerald continued.
A third sticking point concerned the decertification procedures and the lack of defined “terms, impasse and unfair labor practice procedures.”
In the resolution, the board has the ability to decertify collective bargaining at any time, as does a majority vote by the bargaining unit. Thompson said that the decertification must come from the union members, not the board. Further, he believes the board is still unclear on the roles of the board and of the union.
“The way it’s been explained to me is that what sense would it make for the school board to be able to regulate the decertification of the union of employees,” Thompson said. “Then they could do that the second they don’t like a negotiating pattern…That’s not how this works.”
Fitzgerald, however, said that the board has the power to decertify collective bargaining, and putting it in the resolution “is simply a matter of transparency.”
Hoping for a path forward
All parties involved hope to resolve their differences and eventually gain collective bargaining for employees.
“I would love to see a collective bargaining agreement signed,” Fitzgerald said.
School Superintendent Michael Richards told The Citizen that while he supports collective bargaining, he did not believe he should weigh in on HEA’s recent decision and the process moving forward.
“I know that the resolution was written and offered in good faith and firmly believe it would have led to a strong relationship between HEA and the School Board,” Richards wrote in an email.
Thompson hopes that the resolution is just a first draft, and does not want to lay blame at anyone’s feet.
“We need to get back to work and make it the final draft,” Thompson said. “And I’m hoping that’s what [the board’s] attitude is.”
“This isn’t about the certified staff and the classified staff not wanting collective bargaining, this is about HEA choosing not to participate in a process that would get them to be picked as the agent,” Fitzgerald said. “I think the vote on the board indicates pretty clearly that we support entering into an agreement with certified and classified staff with an agent.”
Thompson has asked teachers and staff to stick with them while they negotiate with the board.
“Stay with us, we are still working hard,” Thompson said. “These things don’t happen overnight, but they can change people’s lives forever.”
“The ball is going to be in [HEA’s] court,” Fitzgerald said.
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