In Virginia, workers honor Dr. King, rally for collective bargaining

On Jan. 18, the newly formed Virginia Beach City Workers Union, UE Local 111, and faith community supporters rallied before the city council demanding a real voice for safety, dignity, living wages and an end to institutional racism on the job. City workers from the Public Works, Public Utilities and Human Services departments led the action demanding collective bargaining rights.

City workers and supporters rally on the steps of Virginia Beach city hall, Jan. 18. (Photo: Chris Hollis)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took his last stand supporting Memphis, Tennessee, city workers who demanded these same rights in 1968. Their 1,300-strong sanitation workers’ strike was sparked by the deaths of two Black city workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who had been crushed on the job by a malfunctioning truck. 

As the country celebrated the King holiday, the Jan. 18 rally honored his real legacy by requesting that the Virginia Beach City Council pass a resolution in support of collective bargaining. 

With a new Virginia law effective May 1, 2021, that allows workers these rights for the first time in history, workers across the state have an historic opportunity to overcome a racist Jim Crow era legacy. Five local governments across Virginia have passed similar resolutions to date.

Alfred “Red” McClenny speaking on bullhorn. (Photo: Dante Strobino)

“We have to confront this systematic racism and racial disparity that manipulates the city’s decision making when it comes to social and economic equality,” stated Alfred “Red” McClenny, equipment operator IV, Waste Management, Public Works. McClenny continued, “I feel collective bargaining is a step to help us bridge that racial divide.” 

A report by the UE Research Department from 2021 showed that compared to other cities of a similar size, in southeast Virginia Beach a sanitation operator IV, with 20 years of experience, earns $17,327 below the market average.

In November 2021, the Virginia Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis released a report that found that nine out of 10 city employees cannot afford to raise even a single child within the Virginia Beach city limits. For the last several months, hundreds of city workers quit their jobs out of frustration with the stressful work environment, low pay and lack of a real voice. 

On top of that, workers are now facing ongoing dangerous working conditions with the omicron variant of COVID-19 rapidly spreading and the city doing little to nothing to protect workers. 

‘Right to Work’ destroys labor unions

“We must guard against being fooled by false slogans such as ‘Right to Work.’ Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone,” said the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1961.

“Working in the Water Department is becoming completely impossible due to so many staff leaving. The city used to have eight water crews; now we are down to less than three crews to cover the whole city. We are working lots of overtime to cover all the water main breaks and keep the water running for the residents. We need a real voice on the job through a union to help retain staff and dignified working conditions,” stated Terry Green, utility mechanic II, Water Distribution, Public Utilities.

“In Human Services we are currently experiencing over a quarter of our staff testing positive with COVID-19 due to the omnicron variant,” stated Patricia Thebert, behavior specialist I, West Neck Intermediate Care Facility, Human Services. “The city has not done enough to keep us safe through the pandemic. When I read about Dr. King’s support for workers organizing a union to challenge unsafe work conditions in Memphis and their fight for collective bargaining over 50 years ago, I can’t help but be disappointed that we still have to fight for those same rights today.”

Solidarity from faith-based community 

At the Jan. 18 rally and inside the Council meeting, several prominent local faith organizations showed up in support of the city workers’ demands. Two leading ministers from the Interdenominational Ministerial Conference, including its president Rev. Dr. James Allen, spoke in support of collective bargaining rights. Others from the Tidewater Sowers for Justice and Dismantling Racism working group, a coalition of area Catholics also participated.

“As faith leaders in our beloved city, we implore you to search long and deep in your hearts to consider the many contributions from our city employees, who have maintained our city through a devastating pandemic, as a cherished tourist destination,” stated Minister Gary McCollum and President of Due the Right Things. 

He went on to say, “Last year’s Waste Management work stoppage highlighted for all of us the overarching concerns for city employees to have their voices heard around wages, systemic racism, benefits and working conditions. Dr. King reminded us that ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’ There is now a historic opportunity to right the past injustices by allowing city workers to collectively bargain.”

Teresa Stanley, Tidewater Sowers for Justice and a parishioner at Church of the Holy Apostles and member of the City’s Human Rights Commission, remarked: “The sin of systemic racism has resulted in a disproportionate number of the lowest-paid workers in essential public sector employment being people of color and women. It is a moral imperative that as people of faith, we stand in solidarity with those that are working to dismantle oppressive economic practices for the common good of all. We believe that the economy must serve people (all people), not the other way around. This is why we stand firm in support of collective bargaining.”

Also speaking before the city council was Devon Conley, Equipment Operator from Highways/Stormwater in Public Works. In support of the workers was Latasha Holloway from the Virginia Beach Coalition, who recently successfully won a lawsuit against the racially gerrymandered city council at-large districts. 

Other speakers included George Waksmunski, UE Eastern Region President; Mel Borja from the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis and Blaizen Bloom, Green Party member. Longtime local civil rights activist Rev. Carlos Howard, from the United Front For Justice, also spoke.

Mayor Robert Dyer refused to address the workers directly, instead choosing to read out the rules of the meeting including a note about speakers remaining “civil.” Workers vowed to return to work to sign up their co-workers for the union and return again to City Council soon to keep the fight moving forward.

The writer is a longtime organizer with UE 150. 

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