Fairfax County Public Schools workers vote to officially unionize

This article was written by Angela Woolsey and published on InsideNova.com

Fairfax County Public Schools teachers and other workers have elected a union to represent them in forthcoming labor contract negotiations.

The Fairfax Education Unions (FEU), a team-up of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers (FCFT) and the Fairfax Education Association (FEA), announced that it will represent over 27,500 FCPS employees in their first collective bargaining effort since they secured that right in March 2023.

The elections, which began on June 3 and involved separate votes by instructional and operational workers, resulted in the unionization of Virginia’s largest public school system and represented the largest successful public-sector collective bargaining campaign in the U.S. in 25 years, according to FEU.

“Today marks the culmination of a 47-year-long fight to win collective bargaining at Fairfax County Public Schools,” FCFT President David Walrod said. “This is undoubtedly a historic moment in Fairfax and a monumental step forward for labor.”

The union reported an overwhelming victory among teachers, counselors and other “instructional” employees, 96% of whom voted to unionize. About 80% of operational employees — a group that includes bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other “operational” workers — did the same.

FEU didn’t face any challengers in the election to choose workers’ collective bargaining agent, but participants could vote for no representation as an alternative.

As the bargaining agent, FEU will now be able to negotiate a contract with FCPS leaders to determine employee pay, benefits and working conditions. The union election followed a challenging budget season that resulted in lower wage increases than what FCPS Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid initially proposed, frustrating some teachers.

In a press release from FEU, a building supervisor for Glen Forest Elementary School in Bailey’s Crossroads expressed hope that collective bargaining will lead to “a livable wage,” along with improved benefits and working conditions.

“For close to 50 years, FCPS employees have struggled to have a stronger voice in the workplace. Now, those desires have become a reality. This win will be transformative for both instructional and operational employees,” FEA President Leslie Houston said.

Public workers in Virginia were prohibited from collective bargaining from 1977 until the General Assembly passed legislation in 2020, signed by then-governor Ralph Northam, that granted local governments the option to recognize and negotiate with unions.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors adopted a collective bargaining ordinance in 2021 that created bargaining units for general county government employees, the police, and Fire and Rescue workers. The unions for police and fire workers both got their first contracts approved last December.

The Fairfax County School Board approved its own resolution cementing collective bargaining rights for FCPS employees on March 9, 2023.

In response to the union elections, an FCPS spokesperson said the system is “pleased to see the process moving forward.”

“We understand that many FCPS staff members have and will exercise their right to engage in the collective bargaining process, and we are glad staff had the opportunity to vote and have their voice heard on this issue,” the spokesperson said.

School Board Chair Karl Frisch, who represents the Providence District, said he’s “excited” that the county’s public school educators and staff now have the same right that enabled his family to find middle-class stability when he was growing up. His father was a unionized public worker, and his mother worked as a waitress.

“This is a historic and exciting day for Fairfax County,” Frisch said in a statement. “Collective bargaining will help staff retention and student success. Everyone wins when teachers and other school staff have a seat at the decision-making table — pay increases, working conditions improve, and turnover becomes less common.”

Contract negotiation dates haven’t been set yet, but Walrod says the unions hope they’ll be able to secure a contract before the start of the 2025-2026 school year, which would begin on Aug. 18, 2025 — after the county adopts its next budget in May 2025.

“We’ll be working throughout the summer to prepare for bargaining,” Walrod said. “…While the bargaining process will be new for both FEU and the district, if the process plays out as is typical in other districts, the next steps for both us and the district will be to begin creating a bargaining team and to craft initial bargaining proposals in preparations for our first negotiating sessions.”

In her statement, Houston indicated that the unions “will be focused on securing fair compensation and living wages for all,” but Walrod said it’s too early to announce specific priorities.

“We’ll need to have a lot of conversations and collect data to ensure that we have a clear understanding of where the workforce wants us to go,” he told FFXnow.

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