Collective bargaining letter sparks tiff among Prince William Labor Caucus

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A Prince William labor group is splintering over the push for collective bargaining in public schools and a letter attacking the county’s School Board.

As of last week, the Prince William Education Association and the county’s School Board were at odds over the process for verifying the signatures from division teachers that PWEA collected to form a collective bargaining unit. The School Board’s process for verifying the signatures would require a review of all supportive union cards by the school division’s administration, something the PWEA says is unacceptable. Instead, PWEA has proposed having a third party verify the cards or having the administration review the cards at a “neutral site” with names withheld.

Last week, an informal working group of unions from Northern Virginia, D.C. and Maryland called the Prince William Labor Caucus appeared to weigh in on the disagreement. A letter from the caucus – which was formed in 2020 – was sent to all eight School Board members calling their proposed verification process “tantamount to union busting.” Among the letter’s eight alleged signatories were PWEA President Maggie Hansford, Joe Mirabile of the county’s firefighters union, David Broder of SEIU local representing Fairfax County government employees and Greg Akerman, the Northern Virginia director of the Baltimore-DC Metro Building Trades Council.

But several of those alleged signatories say they don’t support the letter, which reads: “The public sector unions which represent other employee groups in the county did not experience these types of tactics and we believe our educators deserve better.

“We call on the Prince William County Public School Board to accept the thousands of valid signatures the educators have collected and vote yes to adopt collective bargaining for school employees.”

On March 31, Akerman and Stephen Courtien, the president of the Building Trades Council, sent a letter to the School Board disavowing the letter, saying they had no prior knowledge of it and did not agree to sign it.

They said that their association – which represents 22 local construction unions between Northern Virginia and Baltimore – supported the teachers’ efforts for collective bargaining but also had a fruitful working relationship with the school division.

“We do not condone the usage of our signatures or logos on any message without my explicit consent,” Courtien wrote. “While we support the Prince William Education Association in their goal to achieve collective bargaining, we were unaware of the characterization of the School Board members in the letter. The Prince William County School Board has taken great steps to promote trade union apprenticeships and provide pathways to the middle-class for local residents. Superintendent [LaTanya] McDade has been a vocal supporter of career opportunities for students by including partnerships with trade unions in the county’s strategic plan and working diligently to ensure students are prepared for the demands of the 21st century workplace.”

A second alleged signatory of the letter said they too hadn’t agreed to sign it, but they wished to keep their name and organization out of controversy.

Hansford declined to answer whether all the listed signers of the letter had agreed to sign it, or say who had even sent the letter. According to Katie Zaimis, the president of the Prince William Police Association, who said she had agreed ahead of time to sign the letter, Hansford was the one sending it around for signatures.

“The caucus worked on that letter together,” Hansford told InsideNoVa. “Everybody that’s included in our caucus – it was a team effort of writing a letter. I spoke with several of the caucus members after the [March 24] School Board meeting … We worked in a group effort to draft the letter. My understanding is that the draft went out sooner than was planned, and at the end of the day the caucus fully supports collective bargaining, and I stand with the letter from the caucus.”

Yet, in an email to Hansford and Mirabile obtained by InsideNoVa, Akerman said otherwise, asking them to retract the letter in any medium.

“Please clarify with any reporters, media, elected officials, or organization that inquires about the letter that the building trades unions had nothing to do with it,” he wrote. “Finally, please consider my organization fully removed from any activities of the PW Labor Caucus. We will continue to fully support your efforts to achieve collective bargaining. However, we find these actions to be unacceptable.”

According to Akerman, the caucus is an informal association of labor interests in the county that grew out of the pandemic and the General Assembly’s passage of HB 582 in 2020, which allowed for public sector collective bargaining beginning in 2021. Most recently, the group had worked together to support the county’s firefighters in their push for collective bargaining with the Board of County Supervisors.

Broder, who heads up Fairfax County’s government employee union, declined to say whether he had agreed to sign the letter ahead of time, but he told InsideNoVa he fully backed the PWEA’s push for collective bargaining.

“Collective bargaining leads to better services, it leads to better jobs for our communities, and we believe that every single working family deserves a seat at the table with collective bargaining,” Broder told InsideNoVa. “Prince William County has a very clear choice ahead, for both the School Board and the Board of Supervisors.”

On Wednesday night (after InsideNoVa went to press), the School Board was expected to vote on a resolution clarifying that date of hire information will not be required to verify a signature in support of collective bargaining, an issue that had caused some confusion after the board laid out its verification process. Hansford has submitted a sworn affidavit to the School Board saying that PWEA has collected signatures from a majority of the division’s certified non-administrative staff members, including teachers, nurses, counselors, librarians, psychologists, social workers and speech pathologists. The School Board has said that won’t suffice, and that the division needs to verify the legitimacy of the signatures.

Some board members could also try to reopen the verification process adopted at their last meeting in March. School Board Chair Babur Lateef had said division counsel made it clear that the board was not requiring date of hire information but that some in the PWEA were still under the impression that it was.

“It is disappointing that the PWEA has resorted to name-calling and untoward tactics to try to intimidate School Board members,” he said. “I’m happy to know that the trade unions do not share the same characterization of the School Board as the PWEA does. We have had a tremendous relationship working with different trade unions over many years.”

Lateef told InsideNoVa he couldn’t speak for the whole School Board, but so far he thought PWEA had not been acting in good faith in its effort to form a collective bargaining unit with the division.

Ultimately – provided the signatures are verified by a mutually-agreeable process – the board has 120 days to adopt a resolution accepting or denying the collective bargaining unit, after which the board can decide what exactly the unit can negotiate on.

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