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Fairfax teachers and school staff support the union for collective bargaining

Teachers and staff inside Fairfax County, home of Virginia’s largest school district is one step closer to being able to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement for the first time in nearly 50 years.

School employees voted overwhelmingly Monday in favor of collective bargaining, bringing together the Fairfax Education Association and the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers under an alliance group, the Fairfax Education Unions, that will represent more than 27,000 school system employees in labor talks.

A bargaining team will be formed to determine priorities for a union contract and begin working with the Fairfax school district on an agreement, officials said.

“I am excited and excited about what is to come for the people of FCPS, not only our staff, but our children,” said Leslie Houston, president of the Fairfax Education Association. “This is going to change the lives of our children because if their teachers are happy, they will be happy too.”

The two Fairfax school unions have long existed, but Virginia previously banned collective bargaining after a 1977 state Supreme Court ruling. That restriction was overturned by a 2020 state law that allowed it local government bodies to enter into collective bargaining agreements with local trade unions. Since then, unions across the Commonwealth have fought for recognition, and agencies have signed employment contracts for various government officials, including school employees.

Teachers across the region say collective bargaining is an opportunity to be more involved in the decision-making process, secure better wages and improve conditions for staff retention.

The Fairfax school district recently dropped suggested salary increases for the 2024-2025 school year from 6 percent to 4 percent after receiving about $89 million less from the province than initially requested. Houston said a contract could limit that kind of thing fluctuation.

David Walrod, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said the election results – in which 96 percent of teaching staff and 80 percent of operations staff voted in favor of the Fairfax Education Unions – were an indicator of employee excitement.

“We sent a very clear message that people want to see change,” Walrod said. “For too long, the district has made decisions without involving employees in the conversation.”

Karl Frisch, chairman of the Fairfax County School Board, called the development is exciting and historic.

“Collective bargaining will promote staff retention and student success,” Frisch said in a statement. “After all, the working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions of students. Everyone wins when teachers and other school staff have a seat at the decision-making table – pay increases, working conditions improve and staff turnover becomes less common.”

Virginia’s labor movement has long been weakened under the right-to-work law, which allows workers to opt out of paying union dues even if they are covered by a union contract. In 1977, the state Supreme Court ruled that Virginia lawmakers had not allowed municipalities to enter into collective bargaining agreements with public employees. For decades, these decisions have given unions the opportunity to lobby government boards for non-binding agreements and negotiations.

The American Federation of Teachers celebrated the development as a national victory, noting that FCPS is the ninth-largest school district in the country.

“Whether they are bus drivers or teachers, these educators are dedicated to their students and their work; they should have had the right to collective bargaining a long time ago,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.

Other school districts in Northern Virginia have adopted or are in the process of adopting ordinances that lay the groundwork for collective bargaining. Late last month, Alexandria City Public Schools employees voted in favor of collective bargaining, and the Alexandria Education Association became the official bargaining unit.

“I never initially thought we would have collective bargaining in the state of Virginia,” he said Dawn Lucas, president of the Alexandria Education Association. “It was a long process for us; But we persevered.”

Fran Lewandoski, a social worker at Lemon Road Elementary School and a board member of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said in an interview that she hopes for better working conditions and can leave, but she is especially excited about the opportunity for employees to take their place on the table.

“This really elevates the voices of the grassroots,” Lewandoski said. “It raises the voice of the average employee, like me.”

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