Thousands Of Virginia Public School Teachers And Staff Vote To Unionize

Public school employees in one of the biggest school districts in the U.S. have voted overwhelmingly to form unions, capitalizing on a recent Virginia law that allows for collective bargaining in the public sector.

The two votes in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Fairfax County covered more than 27,000 workers, putting them among the largest union elections in recent years. The county’s teachers voted nearly 97% in favor of unionizing, while the operations staff, which includes custodians, food workers and bus drivers, voted nearly 81% in favor.

A spokesperson for Fairfax County Public Schools could not immediately be reached for comment Monday. The election results were released Monday by the two unions representing the workers, the Fairfax Education Association and the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers.

Leslie Houston, president of the Fairfax Education Association, said in a statement that the unions would focus on “securing fair compensation and living wages for all.”

Until not long ago, Virginia was one of a small handful of states that barred public-sector collective bargaining, forbidding workers from negotiating over wages and benefits since a state Supreme Court decision in 1977. But as Virginia has shifted from red to blue in recent years, it’s become more welcoming to organized labor, a pillar of the Democratic Party.

Fairfax County Public School buses sit idle at a middle school in Falls Church, Virginia, in July 2020.
Fairfax County Public School buses sit idle at a middle school in Falls Church, Virginia, in July 2020.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

In 2020, spurred on by pressure from labor groups, Virginia’s Democratic-led assembly passed a bill overturning the decadesold ban on public employee unionism. The legislation was signed into law by then-Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, giving unions hope they could build membership in the right-to-work state.

The law allows for municipal employees across Virginia to form unions, so long as their local officials approve it. Several Democratic strongholds in the state have since passed resolutions or ordinances paving the way for collective bargaining, including the state capital of Richmond and the Washington suburb of Alexandria.

The Fairfax County School Board passed a resolution giving the green light for union elections last year. The organizing in the school system was a joint effort by affiliates of the country’s two major teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Jo Ann Madison, a Fairfax bus driver, said in a statement Monday through her union that the county’s public school employees would now have “a seat at the table” to bargain over their working conditions.

“We’re counting down the days until we have a legally binding contract,” Madison said.

Correction: This story originally misstated Houston’s affiliation. She is president of the Fairfax Education Association, not the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers.

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