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Area educators make case for collective bargaining

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Nearly 100 teachers, school employees and community members from Charlottesville and Albemarle County gathered on the Downtown Mall on Monday to show support for the collective bargaining of public sector employees.

“It’s up to us to make things better, to make people want to get into our line of work,” said Vernon Liechti, president of the Albemarle Education Association, at the rally.

Monday’s event was the first large demonstration from local educators since the state lifted the ban on collective bargaining for some public-sector employees that’s been in place since 1977. Area education associations have been working to gather support for collective bargaining since then with plans to take the next steps in the new year.

The Albemarle Education Association, which represents county employees, recently said that it is the fastest growing local organization of the statewide, Virginia Education Association. The AEA’s membership has grown by almost 20% since the start of the school year, according to the association.

Liechti said collective bargaining is one tool to ensure school employees are responsible and professional, treated well and compensated appropriately.

“If we step up, others will step up,” he said. “We have to be willing to take the steps and motivate and support others to do the same.”

Local teachers and school employees can start negotiating a contract after their School Board votes to authorize such talks.

To force a vote on a resolution, a union representing a group of employees needs the support of a majority — more than 50% — in the bargaining unit. At that point, the School Board has 120 days to vote on a resolution that would outline the parameters for contract negotiations, such as who would be included in the unit.

The average salary for teachers, including librarians and school counselors, in Albemarle County is $58,428 as of the 2019-20 school year, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education. In Charlottesville, the average salary is $62,941.

At $57,665, Virginia lags behind the national average of $64,133 for teachers. However, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a plan Monday to give teachers a 10% raise spread out over two years. That plan does require school divisions to chip in local dollars for teachers to receive the full amount.

City Council began discussions about collective bargaining during its Monday meeting. Councilors voted in August to direct city staff to develop a collective bargaining ordinance for city employees. The city’s firefighters were the first group locally to push for such an ordinance. They were followed by Charlottesville Area Transit drivers, which includes those who drive school buses.

Matt Ray, a CAT driver, said at Monday’s rally that the drivers support the teachers.

“We have a lot of similar issues,” he said. “We do use the school buses. We supply them with our drivers to make sure that kids get to school. It’s been an ongoing problem exacerbated by COVID. But there was a problem beforehand. We also have a need for collective bargaining. We struggle doing the job that we do.”

Jessica Taylor, president of the Charlottesville Education Association, said collective bargaining would give school employees the changes to bring about the change they want to see.

She asked the roughly 100 people in attendance to raise their hands if they had bought supplies for their school or classroom, given up their planning time to cover another teacher’s class, eaten lunch while walking around the playground, brought food to school that wasn’t for them or wondered if a sore throat was strain from talking with a mask or “something way worse.”

Many people raised their hands in response to each point.

“It’s a lot,” she said. “This year is a lot. Last year was a lot. … Now is the time for us to get organized. Working together we are no longer individual voices, each speaking to our own truth, but rather a chorus too beautiful and loud to be ignored.”

Taylor said after the rally that the CEA is working to educate its members about collective bargaining and planning to start an organizing committee soon, which is a key first step in gathering support. She meets regularly with Liechti as well.

“There’s something to be said about solidarity,” Taylor said. “There’s something about solidarity that’s inspiring and motivating, and I think people need something to inspire them.”

Ernest Chambers, a physical education teacher at Burnley-Moran Elementary in Charlottesville, said that his dream is that school employees are paid an equitable salary that would allow them to live in the communities that they teach in.

Speakers encouraged those at the rally to speak to their colleagues about joining the union or community members about the whys driving collective bargaining.

Lisa Larson-Torres, chairwoman of the Charlottesville School Board, said that she and the board were supportive and wanted to learn more about the process.

“The entire board and administration know that you, our teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling,” she said. “We see the work you do and we feel the love you have for your students. And we want to support you.”

Larson-Torres pointed to the recent pay raise for substitute teachers and changes to the school calendar as some ways that the school system is working to address challenges facing school employees.

Monday’s rally was held ahead of a workshop about alternatives to collective bargaining that the Virginia School Board Association is hosting Tuesday. Organizers said they wanted to send a message that union busting wouldn’t be tolerated. The Virginia Education Association and other groups have criticized the workshop, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch.

“It is an alternative for some who feel they don’t have the means to do collective bargaining,” said Gina Patterson, the executive director of VSBA, in a statement to the Richmond Times Dispatch last month. “Nothing in the session is telling a division not to engage in collective bargaining.”

The state school board association, based in Charlottesville, opposed the change in state law allowing public sector employees to collectively bargain. Because school boards don’t have taxing authority, VSBA argued boards couldn’t negotiate with employees about salaries or other provisions that would cost money.

Tim Klobuchar, a teacher at Monticello High School, said that he was in a union for 17 years when working in Minnesota.

“I can tell you that it can be better,” he said.

He said that he currently makes $20,000 less working in Albemarle County than he did in Minnesota. The district where he had taught allowed employees to reach the top of the salary scale much quicker rather than waiting 30 years. Other benefits included more personal days, a workload relief day and options on how they got paid.

“The biggest thing I think is just having that voice, having a say in what happens to us,” he said. “... I just keep thinking about how we were just kind of at the mercy of the administration deciding that we deserve something rather than us actually going out and getting it and earning it and having it enshrined in a contract.”

Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, said she would be available to help the school employees in any way she can.

“But truth be told, there is no law that I am more proud to have helped pass than the one that is making the movement here today possible,” Hudson said.

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