Are “Rubber Rooms” Coming to Fairfax County Public Schools?

📷: JHVEPhoto (Adobe Stock)

Pat Herrity | The Herrity Report

For years New York City spent over $65 million annually to pay the salaries of hundreds of teachers to spend the day in “rubber rooms” passing the time doing anything from napping to playing cards. Protected by a union contract with the city, these teachers were sent to the “rubber rooms” while the process to remove them for alleged misconduct or poor performance stretched out for months to a decade.

On October 5th the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on whether the County will open itself to the same situation by passing an ordinance to require collective bargaining with public employee unions on everything from wages to discipline. This will impact your child’s school, your neighborhood’s safety, and make your taxes and public services look more like New York’s or California’s. I highly encourage you to testify on this ordinance at the public hearing at 4:00 PM on October 5th. More details below on what collective bargaining is and how the current ordinance will hurt taxpayers and County employees.

Instead of drafting a narrow ordinance, the draft collective bargaining ordinance will require the County to negotiate with public employee unions on pay, benefits, discipline, working conditions and a number of other items.

There are several reasons this ordinance does not make sense. As we have seen from other jurisdictions in the country that have public sector collective bargaining these reasons include:

  • It will raise your taxes and increase the cost of services – not because of the pay and benefits for employees but from process administration cost, the reduced efficiencies due to cumbersome work rules and a dragged-out disciplinary process.
  • It will reduce the County’s flexibility in providing services – especially in emergencies like the pandemic. During the pandemic we had our teacher’s union (who we do not currently have to contract with) say they would not go back to teaching until ALL students and teachers were vaccinated.
  • It will create a conflict of interest – I am not in support of taxpayer funded political action committees which is essentially what public unions become – using taxpayer dollars to argue, lobby and provide support for candidates that agree to spending even more taxpayer dollars. Not including the School Board, the Board of Supervisors has received roughly half a million dollars from unions. SEIU is a national union significantly influencing Fairfax’s ordinance and they have donated to every member of the Board except for me.
  • It is bad for our employees.
      • The cost of administration, drawn out disciplinary processes, reduced flexibility and other costs will compete with our ability to fund increases for our employees.
      • The ordinance has largely been drafted by national unions, not County employees
      • It will eliminate the opportunity of our long-standing employee groups such as the Employee Advisory Council and smaller unions like the Hispanic Firefighters to collect dues through payroll deduction – consolidating power in the major national unions and decimating these useful groups.
      • As the ordinance is currently drafted, it is harder to get rid of a bargaining unit than to certify it – creating a monopoly and eliminating competition.
      • Many of our existing employee groups and unions (non-mandatory) are opposed to the ordinance as currently written as unfair to employees.
  • It takes the decisions out of the hands of elected leaders and County staff – This agreement includes binding arbitration which means that if we don’t come to an agreement then the final decision on pay, benefits, discipline, etc. rest with an arbiter. We’ve seen firsthand the negative impact of binding arbitration on Metro from compensation to work rules during the pandemic.
  • The process is being unnecessarily rushed – The current version has not even been discussed by the Board in a committee meeting. Board Committee meetings, as I have been lectured to by several Board members, is where we are supposed to do the Board’s work.
  • Residents, Taxpayers, and Employees have been left out of the process – During the drafting process there has been no opportunity for public input and only a few employee meetings. Over 80% of our employees are not members in any of our current unions – which we are not currently required to negotiate with.
  • We are in the middle of a pandemic – Despite how you feel about collective bargaining for public sector unions, this is not the time to add to the burden of our employees or taxpayers – especially given the local and national labor shortage.

Public collective bargaining is new to Virginia, only recently enabled by the General Assembly without guidance on infrastructure or funding to set up the multi-million-dollar team of lawyers and administrators to run the negotiations. The result of this legislation in other parts of the country is consistent: high taxes and poor public services.

  • New York has the highest tax burden in the country – its unionized public worker base and bargaining contracts are some of the strongest nationally. Rubber rooms keeping teachers on payroll and out of the classroom for months to a decade is only one example of the destructive results of those restrictive contracts.
  • Wisconsin got rid of public sector collective bargaining back in 2011, which resulted in a $3.6 billion budget deficit recovery and a surplus without increasing taxes.
  • More examples are New Jersey, California, Washington, and Michigan where I doubt you would envy their public services or taxes.

The issue of “rubber rooms” in New York highlights a critically damaging component of this legislation, which is that it makes it painstakingly difficult to get rid of ineffective public servants. This includes unqualified teachers, poor police officers, and ineffective office administrators. In Fairfax, we pride ourselves on our incredible workforce, but it’s because we can hire the best and fire those who fail to meet the standards of our residents. The ordinance the Board considers on October 5th will virtually eliminate that quality control. Our original draft ordinance did not include bargaining over discipline, but now that it does, getting rid of ineffective public servants will be an issue we will experience.

Last year, I heard complaints from many of you who saw the influence of the local teachers’ union (that didn’t represent most teachers) advocating to postpone in-person learning while other jurisdictions went back to the classroom. Collective bargaining would mean this kind of influence would be binding through union negotiation, without a public hearing for your input.

Big unions experienced in this legislation have largely driven the drafting of Fairfax’s ordinance, and they are making sure they get the best deal. They are the experts at the table while most locals are not. Smaller, local unions who have effectively served their members in the past, but lack numbers, have largely been overlooked in the development process. Roughly 80 percent of the County workforce is unaffiliated with a union and hasn’t indicated if this is even something it wants. You, the taxpayer, have been left out entirely until the public hearing just before the vote on October 5th. Clearly, the feedback on this ordinance is lacking.

I have long been an advocate for our employees and a fair and balanced compensation package. To attract the best and brightest employees, we need to have a competitive compensation package. Public sector collective bargaining will result in significant issues and costs that will compete with our ability to provide those packages and will instead serve national unions.

I urge you to testify on this ordinance at the 4:00 public hearing on October 5th by signing up here. The pandemic has made testifying at the public hearing easier – you can submit written testimony, call in to testify, submit a video by 9 AM the day before the public hearing, or show up and testify in person.

Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) is a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. Follow him on Twitter: @PatHerrity

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