27,000 Virginia education workers win union recognition
NEA President Becky Pringle and FEA President Leslie Houston rallied educators at Chantilly High School, in Fairfax County, Virginia. | NEA

FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va.—Over 27,000 Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) workers won union elections for both of their bargaining units on Monday under the Fairfax Education Unions (FEU).

Around 14,000 teachers and 13,000 support staff will now be represented by an alliance of the Fairfax County locals of the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). This win increases union density in Virginia by at least 15%, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The election victories were for the two bargaining units within the FEU: the Licensed Instructional Unit, covering all workers requiring a license, such as teachers, counselors, social workers, psychologists, librarians, and speech language pathologists; and the Operational Unit for workers such as various kinds of assistants, cafeteria workers, custodians, transportation workers, and front office staff.

Anyone with hiring or firing power is not in these bargaining units and will seek their own representation.

A string of recent wins

The wins are part of a flurry of union organizing activity in the Commonwealth lately, particularly in Northern Virginia with the Northern Virginia Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, headed by Ginny Diamond. Around 15,000 public and private workers have been organized in Virginia over the past five years, not including yesterday’s election.

In the public sector, the Teamsters organized county service workers; SEIU has done likewise in Fairfax and Loudon counties; at schools and college campuses, AFT, NEA, AAUP, and CWA have all had successes. Fire departments in a number of cities, including most recently in Richmond, have concluded collective bargaining agreements under the IAFF.

As for the private sector workforce, Unite Here organized 1,500 college food service workers; Workers United has organized 30 units (mostly Starbucks stores); the Operating Engineers have brought in 19 more units; SEIU organized airport workers at Dulles and Reagan; IBEW unionized 1,000 new workers; and the NewsGuild organized journalists at Politico. These are just a few of the several unions that have been growing and organizing.

Bring back the unions

Fairfax County Public Schools is the ninth-largest school district in the country, and Fairfax County is one of the richest counties in the country. While the Virginia General Assembly and governorship change hands between Democrats and Republicans regularly, the unique combination of a Democratic majority win in the statehouse in 2019 and a lame-duck Democrat governor and pressure from local labor federations across the Commonwealth led a law which had banned collective bargaining by public sector employees to be repealed in 2021.

This also gave local governments the option of granting the right to collective bargaining to their employees. It took another two years of pressure from organized labor on the Democratic-supermajority FCPS School Board to finally extract collective bargaining rights for education workers in 2023.

These dual wins will mark the first time FCPS has had a union contract since 1977. Almost 50 years ago, organized labor in Virginia was attempting to repeal right-to-work, but workers and their allies fell just short of being able to do so.

In retaliation, segregationist Democrats (Dixiecrats) and Republicans chose to punish the unions for daring to challenge employer power. Since Virginia was already a right-to-work state, the only thing the right wing could do to make things more hostile to unions was to make it illegal for any government within the Commonwealth to recognize a union or have a contract.

In the interim, while collective bargaining was banned, some education workers did join the NEA or AFT, but the repressive legal atmosphere forced the unions to operate more along the lines of a solidarity union. Workers still had to rely on internal employer HR frameworks and court systems for any kind of labor disputes.

Over the rest of the 1970s and ’80s, most of the Dixiecrats completed their defections over to the Republicans, and the Democrats reconstituted themselves primarily in areas with larger numbers of people who were college-educated, Black, immigrants, in the military, from out-of-state, or some combination thereof.

These areas generally had the fastest economic expansion and the largest number of unionized workers, which also formed the Democratic voter base in places like Northern Virginia, Richmond, Tidewater, and Charlottesville.

Labor looking for allies

While the new Democrats who came in weren’t the Dixiecrats of old, they weren’t necessarily always the best on labor either. Despite having a solid Democratic majority and the governorship, it still took four years for FCPS workers to get their union: two years to repeal the collective bargaining ban and another two ultimately actually have the right to unionize be explicitly granted. This was all from Democrats who claimed to always support collective bargaining.

Many unions are on the hunt for stronger political support; extreme-right Republicans are openly hostile to organized labor, while many neoliberal Democrats at the state level say they back labor but don’t show much initiative without pressure from below. Given this political situation and the fact that three-quarters of recent union gains are in the public sector, labor could be one or two bad elections from having the right that made the Fairfax County victories possible stripped away once again.

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TN Long
TN Long

TN Long is a software developer and is active with the Communist Party in Northern Virginia.