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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point

It's time to bargain

by Wayne Ellis

Sixteen years ago, I wrote an article in this magazine entitled "Why We Need Collective Bargaining." At that time, the VEA was in the midst of an initiative called the Ten Year Plan to Achieve Collective Bargaining. We were hopeful that a law would be passed and we would get the same ability to negotiate that most teachers in America now enjoy. However, it's now more than 10 years later and collective bargaining is still just a dream for education employees in Virginia. I think it's time for us to revive the effort to gain a collective bargaining law: The time is right to get the rights we deserve.

Some may say, "Why do we need collective bargaining? Everything seems to be working all right now." I think that is part of the tunnel vision we have as educators in Virginia. Take salaries, for example: Even though Virginia ranks high among states in its ability to pay, teacher salaries are still below the national average. We have to go into every budget cycle hoping the school board will give us a raise. If we had collective bargaining, we could negotiate contracts that would guarantee salary increases for three or more years. That would help establish a more stable environment in local school districts, as yearly budget fights wouldn't be necessary. Then school boards and local associations could spend more time on other issues, such as improving the education of our students.

I also think educators in Virginia do not know how poor our fringe benefits are. The health insurance plan in my school division, Richmond, is among the better plans in Virginia. However, it's not very good when you look at what educators have in other places. Last summer, I talked to my sister-in-law, a guidance counselor in a suburb of Pittsburgh, and she told me they had finished their contract negotiations, signing a three-year contract. She told me their health insurance cost had increased. She was now going to have to pay $30 a month for her family plan, and the co-pays were less than mine. There had been no cost before. I was amazed, as I currently pay over $230 a month and hope it won't go up. And, while housing prices and the cost of living in the Pittsburgh area are lower than they are in Richmond, educators there have higher salaries and better benefits. (She gets paid for bus duty. Do you?) That helped prove to me that not only was my salary substandard, but my benefits as well.

There are also those areas other than salary and fringe benefits in which a collective bargaining agreement would protect us. This summer, my school division decided to change high school schedules from a seven-period day to eight periods. It also decided that teachers would teach six classes instead of five. If a contract had been in place, an arbitrary change like that could not have occurred. The local school board would have had to open negotiations to make the change, which would have given the local association the chance to win compensation for those teachers to offset the additional class. Without bargaining, high school teachers in Richmond came back to school to find their workload increased without any additional compensation.

Two articles I recently saw also tell me the time is ripe to seek a bargaining law. The first described a bill in Congress that would allow firefighters and police officers to bargain collectively. If this bill becomes law, as it appears to have a good chance to do, teachers and education employees would be the last large group of public employees in Virginia with no bargaining rights. I find that unacceptable. The second article was about the upcoming Senate race and quoted University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, who says that Virginia has changed and is no longer one of the most conservative states in America. Many new residents in Northern Virginia and in Hampton Roads are not native Virginians. They come from places where collective bargaining is the norm. Many of our new teachers also come from bargaining states. I think current Virginians will support our efforts to gain a collective bargaining law.

The VEA cannot secure a bargaining law without its members' help. Remember, we are the VEA. It will take all of our locals getting involved in the General Assembly elections. We must form and maintain strong local political action committees. We must ask the candidates if they would support collective bargaining for education employees. We must stop supporting those who do not support us and elect people who will. We have a governor who I believe will sign a collective bargaining law if it comes to him. The window of opportunity is now. We can no longer afford to be complacent. To keep schools strong in Virginia, we must include teachers and other education employees in the decision-making process. Collective bargaining will do that. It's time to fight for our right to bargain.

Ellis, a member of the Richmond Education Association, teaches math at Huguenot High School.


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