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We need collective bargaining in Fairfax schools

Reports from the front

On Thursday, September 1st, 2022 Janette Corcelius, an at-large member of the board of directors of the Fairfax Education Association (FEA), testified in front of the school board during the first meeting of the 2022-2023 school year. The testimony concerned the urgent need for a collective bargaining resolution to be passed for Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). The following is a transcript of her speech and additional commentary. This is a lightly edited version that originally ran in the Virginia Worker.


My name is Janette Corcelius and I am a music educator and an alum of FCPS. I am a member of FEA speaking as an individual.

As Labor Day weekend is upon us, I wonder why this school board still hasn’t passed a meaningful collective bargaining resolution yet. The ban was lifted 16 months ago.

This board has been delaying and kicking the can down the road for far too long. We are not begging or pleading— we are demanding that you pass a meaningful resolution and hold the hearing as soon as possible.

Educators love what we do, but love doesn’t pay the bills. Every day I watch my fellow educators perform heroic and herculean tasks and yet– we are paid 20 percent less than other college-educated peers.

Virginia’s educators are some of the lowest paid in the profession, because politicians value business interests over workers’ rights. But I am seeing school districts like Richmond, take ownership in changing the culture. RPS starting teachers’ salary is the same as FCPS now* & they gave new teachers an $8k bonus.

They passed a resolution in December 2021 and 99 percent of the units voted in favor of the union. They are in the midst of contract negotiations. Arlington passed their resolution in May. We are tired of waiting and we are sure that educators will leave to the surrounding jurisdictions that passed resolutions.

71 percent of Americans are in favor of unions. the highest in six decades. Face it: unions are popular! In a time of greed, corruption, and hoarding of wealth– choose to be different, dare to be different. Value public education and our workers. We need collective bargaining now!

*Page 22: RPS step 00 is $51,182. FCPS step 0 is $53,313 now because of the step increase and MSA/MRA/COLA. It was $51,000 last year in FCPS.

Some Background

Virginia has had a sordid labor history because it is the birthplace of American capitalism. In 1619, the first ship of enslaved Africans arrived against their will, signifying a recurring theme in U.S. history: race and class are inextricably linked. Right-To-Work in the Jim Crow south added a racist element to at-will employment.

In 1977, when the courts banned public sector collective bargaining, it was during Mills Godwin’s second term as Governor of Virginia. During his first term, he was a Democrat and he ran as a Republican for his second. Democrats at least pretend to care about labor while Republicans are openly hostile to our unions.

Public sector workers and their unions are predominantly Black women and other people of color. It is imperative that we center Black, Indigenous, Latin American, Middle Eastern, North African, Arab, Southeast Asian, and Asian Pacific Islander workers in this fight.

Sixteen months ago, the ban on public sector collective bargaining in the commonwealth of Virginia was lifted on the auspicious date of May 1, 2021 (which is May Day/International Workers Day).

May Day is internationally known as Labor Day and simultaneously serves as a day of remembrance of the Haymarket Riots that took place in Chicago, Illinois in 1886. The Haymarket Riots were the culminating events of a general strike for an eight-hour workday.

Although the ban has been lifted, securing collective bargaining rights across Virginia has been fraught with challenges. Due to a stipulation in the bill, the local board of supervisors/city council and school boards must pass collective bargaining ordinances and resolutions.

Essentially, workers must lobby and beg for their local elected officials to allow them to bargain. Begging your bosses only goes so far as many local political leaders across the commonwealth are anti-union and have reportedly attended union avoidance meetings and conferences– like the one that was presented by the Virginia School Board Association in Charlottesville on December 7, 2021. To combat these challenges, workers must organize their building sites and mobilize community members.

The collective bargaining ordinances and resolutions are a way to limit what the workers can bargain for and against. Since last year many localities have made strides towards getting ordinances and resolutions passed.

One of the most exciting developments has been the Richmond Education Association’s ability to win their union election with a 99 percent yes vote in favor within units filed which happened on Saturday, April 16, 2022.

They were the first Virginia Education Association (VEA) affiliate to win collective bargaining back in the Commonwealth of Virginia. This super-majority win was accomplished through deep, intensive, thoughtful, and strategic organizing done on behalf of the Virginia Caucus of Rank & File Educators (VCORE).

VCORE is under the United Caucus of Rank & File Educators (UCORE) and Labor Notes. The caucuses are class struggle opposition caucuses with the purpose of transforming the two education unions, the National Education Association (NEA), and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) from the failed business union model. There are many VCORE chapters throughout the commonwealth of Virginia in various stages of development and Fairfax has a VCORE chapter.

Fairfax County, like much of the rest of the Commonwealth, is flush with cash. Before former Governor Ralph Northam left office, Virginia ended the fiscal year of 2021 with a budget surplus of $2.6 billion. This happens to be the largest in the state’s history.

Virginia was also number one for business for quite some time– until Glenn Youngkin became governor. Greed, exploitation, and austerity measures have ensured that Virginia’s teachers earn $9,032 under the national average.

We must reject austerity measures and privatization imposed on public education and other public goods and services by organizing to protect and uplift the communities we serve. The only way to raise educator pay substantially is through collective bargaining.

In Fairfax the collective bargaining ordinance was passed on October 19, 2021, for county workers, however, the collective bargaining resolution has not yet passed for educators. Both education unions in Fairfax, the FEA, and the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers (FCFT) are pushing for the most inclusive, wide-scope, broad-based, and permissive collective bargaining resolution.

Workers should be able to negotiate wages, benefits, working conditions, and wrap-around services. Public sector unions not only bargain for their workers, but they also bargain for the communities that they serve. Public school educators are in a particularly unique situation to bargain for the common good.

One way public school education unions can bring communities into the fold is by participating in open bargaining. Open bargaining is when the negotiations are open to the public. This means public education employees, union members, students, families, and community members can attend. This allows for transparency, honesty, integrity, and a chance for the community to see that teacher unions really do fight for students.

On Thursday evening, April 28, 2022, both the FEA and the FCFT held a Rally for Collective Bargaining before the school board meeting for FCPS.

At this rally, both unions — which are local affiliates of the NEA and the AFT — announced an exciting development in their quest to achieve collective bargaining rights. They unveiled their joint bargaining agent name: the Alliance of Fairfax Education Unions (AFEU).

This formation was supported by the rank and file membership of both unions as well as union leadership, potential members, and community allies. Just a week earlier, they announced their decision to become a joint-bargaining agent for FCPS employees for the purposes of a union election.

This is a huge development because both FEA and FCFT have been in conflict over members, feuding for years since the FCFT came to be in the 1970s. The hope is that the sibling rivalry will end completely if the two unions decide to merge.

Before the rally on Thursday, April 28th, FEA and FCFT members met up at the Gate House Plaza Starbucks in Merrifield that just voted (30-2) in favor of SB Workers United, becoming the 6th Starbucks to unionize in Virginia.

There are 13 total Starbucks that have successfully unionized in Virginia. At that Merrifield Starbucks: The educators created signs, showed solidarity to the workers, and ordered some food and drink.

On Labor Day weekend (September 2-5, 2022), SB Workers United held sip-ins nationally at Starbucks that have unionized or are in the process of unionizing. Many Virginia Education Association (VEA) local affiliates promoted and participated in sip-ins across Virginia this past Labor Day weekend.

It is important that we connect the struggles of all workers during this time of labor resurgence. Solidarity is brewing in Virginia between the public and private sector unions. In order to win a better life for working-class people, we must stay the course, holding the bosses and elected officials accountable.

If you are…

  • an educator in FCPS and/or a resident of Fairfax County, sign up to speak at a school board meeting in favor of a strong collective bargaining resolution!
  • not already in an education union in Fairfax, join FEA today!
  • already a member of a VEA local and looking to transform it by learning how to organize, contact VCORE!
  • not an education worker, but want to organize a union ASAP, contact EWOC!

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Janette Corcelius View All

Janette Corcelius is a music educator in Virginia and an at-large member of the board of directors of the Fairfax Education Association. She is a member of the Tempest Collective.