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Charlottesville firefighters plan to unionize under new state collective bargaining code
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Charlottesville firefighters plan to unionize under new state collective bargaining code

Firefighters union

During a recent Charlottesville Professional Firefighters Association meeting, members vote to ask the City Council to amend city code to allow collective bargaining.

Greg Wright and other members of the Charlottesville Fire Department are planning to unionize after a change in the Code of Virginia, effective May 1, allows municipalities to enter into collective bargaining agreements with their employees.

Wright, a captain with the fire department and third-term president of the Charlottesville Professional Firefighters Association, submitted an email to City Council members on March 6 informing them of the upcoming change in the state code and asking them to adopt an ordinance to allow collective bargaining for city employees.

“I humbly ask that you, and all the members of Council support this Amendment. Empowering ALL City employees to participate in traditional collective bargaining is something that I hope you consider as important as we do,” he wrote.

Wright also serves as vice president of the Virginia Professional Firefighter Association and oversees other localities.

Previously, the state code prohibited governing bodies from recognizing any labor union or other employee association as a bargaining agent of any public officers or employees, or to collectively bargain or enter into any collective bargaining contract with any such union or association or its agents with respect to any matter relating to them or their employment or service. These ordinances may not include provisions that restrict the governing body’s authority to establish the budget or appropriate funds.

The city of Alexandria is the first jurisdiction in the state to pass a collective bargaining ordinance, which was unanimously approved April 17.

Charlottesville’s City Council can either adopt the code or take an on-the-record vote to adopt an ordinance to allow collective bargaining within 120 days of Wright’s request.

Wright said he has not received a response from councilors yet, but that he is optimistic they will respond and vote to adopt an ordinance within the 120-day period. If they vote to adopt the ordinance, all city employees will be able to create officially recognized unions and enter into collective bargaining with the city.

“I’m hopeful that it’s just adopted with some friendly amendments,” Wright said.

According to emails obtained by The Daily Progress through a Freedom of Information Act request, councilors and City Attorney Lisa Robertson have exchanged communication regarding Wright’s email and collective bargaining.

“Greg Wright’s e-mail Saturday morning raises lots of questions about how we are going to approach the problem/opportunity of collective bargaining: Is there any model ordinance that has been suggested for Virginia cities? By the [attorney general]? [Virginia Municipal League]? Do we have a plan for how, or when, we are going to look at this issue? It’s going to take more than a presentation at one meeting,” Councilor Lloyd Snook wrote in an email to fellow councilors and Robertson on March 8.

Robertson forwarded the councilors a link to an Alexandria Times article about that city’s collective bargaining ordinance on March 8.

Robertson, councilors and City Manager Chip Boyles exchanged additional emails in response to Wright’s request, but most of the details of this communication were redacted due to attorney-client privilege.

The Charlottesville Professional Firefighters Association already functions as a union, but is not officially recognized by the city and does not have contracts. If a collective bargaining ordinance is adopted, the association can become an official union and enter into contracts with the city.

“We have an actual bargaining unit that’s 65 members of our union. So if we actually turn into a true union and not the Firefighters Association, we’re preparing to start moving forward with a contract and working through that for the first time internally with this fire chief and with the city leaders,” Wright said.

Wright said the firefighters’ desire to unionize is not reflective of a negative relationship with the city, but rather to prevent issues that could come up in the future.

“We do have a good working relationship with the fire chief and all the administrative side of the fire department, and with the city councilors and the city manager’s office. But that’s all just based on just trust and established relationships,” Wright said.

“If we request to sit down and talk to them, they’re not bound to come in here for any reason whatsoever. So, we have been fortunate that they’re willing to sit down and work with us on a number of labor issues, but this would actually solidify that to say that, [in the future], whoever the people are who are occupying those seats would still be playing by the same rules. Everybody would work together.”

Unionizing and entering into contracts would create a level of accountability for both firefighters and the city staff, Wright said.

“An actual adoption of collective bargaining does hold everybody accountable on both sides. The data exists out there and you typically see an improvement in public safety when there’s contracts in place,” he said.

Wright said the Firefighters Association’s main goal with collective bargaining is to hire more firefighters.

“Our biggest issues in Charlottesville have always surrounded staffing and career development. We were fortunate to get a grant to onboard 15 new firefighters. But that really just rounded out our staffing for the two ambulances,” Wright said. “Industry standards dictate that there’s four firefighters on every fire engine. We only run with three.”

Another goal is to create a more standardized pay scale and pension.

“Virginia is one of the last states to actually have adopted some language at the state level to allow this. Most of my colleagues across the nation have contracts they’ve worked under,” Wright said.

“A big goal is to allow firefighters to work a 20-year career and then retire because of the wear and tear on your body and unusual sleep hours and the shift work. After 20 years, you’ve done your time, you’ve provided that service to your community.”

Wright said it’s important for firefighters to have access to good insurance due to the health hazards of the job and wear and tear on the body over time.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate, we have a pretty robust health and wellness program. We have annual medical physicals and performance evaluations. So they do a pretty good job there; we’d like to see bigger improvements out of the state level, like expanded presumptive cancer coverage,” Wright said. “With a contract, your locality might be able to adopt and cover more occupational diseases.”

Wright emphasized that while the association wants to unionize, it would not be able to strike, so residents shouldn’t be concerned about endangered public safety.

“There’s not a time anywhere across the nation that police or firefighters are walking off the job because of contract negotiations,” he said.

While Wright cites a primarily cordial relationship between the Firefighters Association and city staff, there has been tension in the past between fire department staff and city staff.

In February of last year, disputes arose between then-Fire Chief Andrew Baxter and then-City Manager Tarron Richardson. Baxter resigned following his complaints of disagreements with Richardson.

“In the year since your appointment as city manager, I have come to understand that we do not share the same vision for the Charlottesville Fire Department or of the leadership of the city government,” Baxter wrote in his resignation letter. “I have faithfully served the Charlottesville community in this position since 2015. Despite leaving this formal leadership role with the city, I will continue to be active in this, my community.”

Emails obtained by The Progress via FOIA at the time showed that Baxter and Richardson had been arguing since at least October 2019, primarily in regards to budget cuts. Richardson had directed Baxter to make numerous cuts to the department’s budget, while Baxter voiced concerns that more money was needed to employ more firefighters.

“I have reached a point in this role where my values and professional ethics will not allow me to continue to work in the current leadership environment,” Baxter wrote in an email to staff. “Serving as your Fire Chief has been, without a shred of doubt, the greatest honor of my fire service career.”

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