Virginia legislation that would allow collective bargaining in the public sector and introduce binding arbitration to settle disputes could damage police accountability by removing authority from elected officials, according to critics.
The commonwealth’s collective bargaining bills would give public-sector unions the authority to represent an entire working unit in contract negotiations, even if some of the workers are not union members and do not want the representation. Binding arbitration means disputes between an employer and a working unit or single worker would be settled by an arbitrator, and the employer must abide by that decision. Elected officials would be bound by these decisions.
“Collective bargaining means a contract makes decisions instead of the elected officials,” Ken Girardin, a policy analyst for the Empire Center for Public Policy, told The Center Square. “The main problem with collective bargaining is that bad agreements can outlive the people who sign them.”
The Empire Center is a free-market think tank based in New York. Girardin said the collective bargaining bills being considered in Virginia are similar to New York’s current collective bargaining laws, and, in some ways, are even worse.
One policy that has come out of New York’s negotiations is cooling-off periods, in which police officers cannot be asked questions about a shooting until some time has passed. Others include statutes of limitations, which prevent officers from receiving disciplinary action if the department doesn’t find out about breaking procedure until after a certain amount of time passes.
However, Girardin said Virginia’s law goes even further than New York’s laws by putting disciplinary action in the control of binding arbitration, meaning an arbitrator could prevent an officer from being fired for breaking protocol, even in extreme circumstances in which it causes a person’s death, he said.
Collective bargaining also affects salaries.
Oftentimes, arbitrators don’t like to get into the nitty gritty of these contract disputes, but instead make arbitrary compromises, Girardin said. Because arbitrators tend to look at agreements from neighboring localities, he said that salary and benefit increases can have a “ping-pong effect,” in which neighboring localities compete with each other and the unions keep pushing the pay and benefits higher.
This has led to the salaries of New York police forces increasing at a fast rate. The average salary in two localities (Kings Point and Old Westbury) has surpassed $200,000. Many others are well over $100,000.
“In New York, police union contracts get negotiated in secret, and the public often learns the terms only after they're ratified,” Girardin said. “Some union contracts can last for 10 years, and between binding arbitration and the ‘contract continuity’ language under consideration [in Virginia], it would be next to impossible to get a union to give up a contract provision if they're intent on keeping it.”
Girardin said New York’s laws were introduced because the state was trying to stop strikes and ensure people had access to services. However, he said Virginia’s current system hasn’t run into serious problems, so there is no reason to make a drastic policy change. If elected officials believe police officers need higher salaries or better benefits, they already have the authority to make those changes, he said.
“This proposal isn’t serving any public interest,” Girardin said.
House Bill 582, which has passed the House, would allow collective bargaining for most public-sector unions in the state; workers hired by elected officials would be exempt from having collective bargaining rights. Senate Bill 939, which has passed the Senate, would allow for collective bargaining by public workers if the local government passes an ordinance that permits it. It also would exempt those employed by elected officials.
HB 582 is sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Dale City, and SB 939 is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax. Neither office responded to requests for comment from The Center Square.