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Teaching Profession

Teachers’ Unions Are Gaining Ground in a State That Once Forbade Them

By Olina Banerji — June 10, 2024 | Corrected: June 10, 2024 7 min read
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Corrected: A prior version of this story incorrectly described union membership losses. The American Federation of Teachers has added members in the last two years.

Teachers’ unions notched a major victory on June 10, winning the exclusive right to collective bargaining on the behalf of 27,500 teachers and staff in Fairfax County, the country’s

It is a major turnaround in Virginia, historically one of a handful of Southern states hostile to labor unions. And it’s a sign of hope for teachers’ unions at large, which have seen membership declines in recent years due to recessions, the pandemic, and unfavorable legislation and litigation, including a blow from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Fairfax Education Unions ran unopposed and won the election with an overwhelming majority after a six-month-long campaign. In bargaining, it is expected to bring wage increases and changes to heavy teacher workloads to the table.

The joint leaders of the FEU, Leslie Houston and David Walrod, began planning their campaign almost as soon as former Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed a bill in 2020 to reverse a ban on collective bargaining by public sector entities in Virginia that had spanned nearly five decades.

“We wanted to get collective bargaining and get our folks those rights because we know what’s good for workers is ultimately good for students,” said David Walrod, the president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, one of the two local teachers’ unions that make up the FEU. Walrod is also a special education teacher at Lake Braddock Secondary in Burke, Va.

Houston, the president of the Fairfax Education Association that makes up the other half of FEU, and a learning disabilities teacher at Braddock Elementary in Annandale, Va., called the election “the most successful public sector bargaining campaign won in the last 25 years.”

Fairfax joins a growing number of Virginia school districts, which now include Richmond and Prince William County, in achieving collective bargaining rights after a long gap of 47 years. The state’s supreme court had made it illegal for public sector entities to bargain in 1977.

Some teachers’ unions have lost members in the tens of thousands over the last decade, the drop triggered in part by a U.S. in 2017 that stopped unions from requiring non-members to pay “agency fees.” The ruling made it easier for teachers to drop their union memberships and spurred a flurry of legislation and additional litigation to weaken teachers’ unions’ influence in schools.

Now, affiliates in Virginia are trying to reverse course and establish collective bargaining agreements with their school boards. The bargaining agreements in Richmond and Prince William County have resulted in higher wages for teachers, classroom assistants and other staff, and more .

Local organizing efforts can potentially reenergize the membership of the national unions, said Melissa Arnold Lyon, an assistant professor of public policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. Lyon has studied the rise and fall of teachers’ unions over the decades and is watching Virginia’s string of elections closely.

“In places where bargaining has been illegal, there is a culture built around the idea that unions protect bad teachers and should be avoided,” said Lyon. “The core work for [national and local] unions is to change that mindset to get teachers, and the general public, on board.”

An important but uneasy union alliance

Both Walrod and Houston were appointed presidents of their respective unions after the 2020 bill passed. They both felt that teaming up would make the process of collecting enough votes to become the exclusive collective bargaining unit for the county go faster. (FEA’s membership is about 4,000 and FCFT’s 3,000, Houston said.)

Even so, the alliance was difficult to forge.

“There is some history of mistrust between our organizations. We had to start by building trust,” said Walrod. “The hardest part was to talk to each other’s members and convince them that we weren’t trying to poach them.”

FEU campaigned at more than 244 worksites, including schools and bus stops, often spending seven days a week in school buildings to collect signed cards in favor of collective bargaining. The union also had to educate teachers and staff about their right to collective bargaining in a state that had prohibited it for so long.

“Virginia did not have a union culture for over 47 years. We had to convince them [the workers] that no one would force them to pay union dues even if we represented them in collective bargaining,” Walrod said.

The FEU needed 30 percent of the votes from the instructional block of educators within the school district, and the same amount from the operational block. The union will represent both instructional and non-instructional staff like transportation workers, public health assistants, and cafeteria workers, among others.

There was a concerted effort, said Houston, to reach out to younger voters in these two blocks: “I realized that teachers in their 20s won’t respond to emails. We ran a virtual campaign on Instagram, too.”

The NEA pitched in, said Houston, to help get FEU’s message across to the 27,500 potential unit members. Ultimately, FEU won 97 percent of the votes from instructional staff, and 80 percent from the operational block.

Bargaining unfamiliar to both school boards and unions

To kick off the bargaining process, FEU plans to focus on the two issues they see as critical to improve working conditions—wages and workload. According to Houston and Walrod, operational staff in Fairfax County are not paid a living wage; some make as

Houston said she’s hopeful that once a contract is in place, workers will be paid enough so they don’t have to work two jobs.

Teachers’ low morale at work and job-related frustrations could have charged these local organization efforts, Lyon said. “In these difficult times, if someone is choosing to stay in the profession, they want to make sure that something changes,” said Lyon.

Lyon’s research shows that restrictions on collective bargaining have coincided with teachers leaving the profession. Bargaining protections, she said, might have the opposite effect.

Unions like FEU must now work with school boards who are unfamiliar with bargaining.

When the Richmond Education Association became the first teachers’ union in the state to win back the right to collective bargaining, the school board voted 8-1 in favor of permitting bargaining. But members expressed some concerns about the uncertain according to local news reports.

A resolution passed by Richmond’s school board also stipulates that in the first three-year contract, the REA and the board can only bring two issues each to the negotiating table. The board is currently at an impasse with the REA over permanent contracts for American Sign Language interpreters in the district.

In Fairfax, the school board adopted an amendment allowing bargaining in February 2020, which the board chairman, Karl Frisch, said was a reversal of the board’s longstanding opposition to collective bargaining rights for teachers and staff. Board and union have since worked together to pass a resolution on collective bargaining, according to a statement from Frisch, the board chairman.

“Everyone wins when educators and other school staff have a seat at the decision-making table. Pay increases, working conditions improve, and turnover becomes less common,” he said.

Walrod, though, isn’t under any illusion about the challenges ahead. “We will build this first contract ground up and we recognize that it sets the tone for future negotiations as well,” he said. “The initial scope is going to be limited. Both sides are inexperienced at bargaining, so we know there are going to be some bugs in the system initially.”

Did Virginia’s teacher walkouts help unions?

Longer term, the REA and FEU may push for greater control over issues like large class sizes.

But the situation in Virginia suggests that unions have become more creative in how they garner support, not just with educators, but with the larger community around them. Lyon pointed to to protest what unions saw as a lack of funding for public schools. The mass protest, coordinated by local affiliates of the NEA and American Federation of Teachers, took place on a professional development day.

“I think the message they sent to parents in the community was they weren’t sacrificing instructional time to do this. That was a unique strategy,” Lyon said.

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