27,000 Virginia Teachers Win Historic Union Election with Presidential Election Implications

Fairfax Education Unions rally for a union in Fairfax County (Fairfax Education Uniions)

This morning, it was announced that Virginia Education Unions, a joint coalition of Virginia-based AFT and NEA locals, had won a historic union election to represent over 27,000 teachers and school staff in Fairfax County, Virginia.

97% of all teachers voted to unionize and 81% of all support staff voted to unionize.

“Today marks the culmination of a 47-year-long fight to win collective bargaining at Fairfax County Public Schools. The reason our campaign was successful was because we all took agency over our own lives,” says David Walrod in a statement.

The union victory in the 9th largest school district is one of the largest teachers union elections in decades. It also has the potential to dramatically reshape the politics of Northern Virginia. 

“I think people are realizing that they are not respected and want to be able to have the American dream,” said Fairfax Education Association President Leslie Houston. 

Fairfax County, the Virginia suburbs of DC, is the 5th richest county in America. However, most public employees say that they can no longer afford to live in the communities where they teach. This has helped motivate many public employees, particularly after the pandemic, to get involved

“Every educator should have the right to live where they work, and every educator should be able to live on their pay and not have to go and get a second job in 2024,”’ says Houston. 

(Listen to our full interview with Leslie Houston here)

The union election is the result of decades of organizing. For decades, collective bargaining has been outlawed for public employees on Virginia. 

However, as the state of Virginia began shifting more Democratic, unions began to heavily push the Democratic Party in Virginia to allow collective bargaining rights. 

In 2020, former Democratic Virginia Governor Ralph Norrham signed a bill allowing municipalities to grant collective bargaining rights to public employees in Virginia. Since then, tens of thousands of public employees across Virginia have joined the labor movement, making it the fastest growing state for unions in the country. 

“We’ve been working toward this for years. (Since) back in 2017, when Governor Ralph Northam was elected, we’ve been working to try to get a Democratic legislature here in Virginia,” says Fairfax County Educator Coalition President David Walrod. “In 2019, we spent a lot of time working on lobbying to try to get on the path to a collective bargaining bill, And once it went into effect in May of 2021, we then had to work with our school board to try to get a resolution through and try to get them to approve collective bargaining.”

He says that the union had to work overtime to educate people in Virginia about collective bargaining rights. 

“For 50 years, we weren’t allowed to engage in collective bargaining. So you’ve had folks that have come in, grown up, went to public schools, graduated, got their degrees, spent their entire life teaching, and are retiring. And during that entire time, collective bargaining was never legal. And so what we’re trying to do right now is to get folks to see that Virginia is a collective bargaining state,” says Walrod. 

Walrod credits cooperation between unions as being key to the historic union election there. 

In a show of solidarity, both the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of AFT, and the Virginia Education Association, an affiliate of NEA, decided to work together to form a combined union for all teachers and school staff, rather than compete against each other. 

“We’re stronger together, we’re stronger when we’re all pointed in the same direction. We’re stronger when we are working with a collective voice. And so the idea that we could be getting 27,000 folks a voice that they haven’t had before is definitely a pretty powerful feeling,” says Walrod. 

Now, the union says that it will target other schools throughout the state of Virginia, particularly in the Democratic-heavy DC suburbs of Northern Virginia, which had once been a stronghold of ant-unionism. (Walrod says that his union is literally located a little over a mile down the road from the headquarters of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation). 

The union feels that the historic victory will inspire other workers in Virginia’s rapidly unionizing public sector to organize. 

“I certainly hope that’s gonna have a ripple effect elsewhere,” says Walrod. 

After the pandemic, Fairfax Education Association President Leslie Houston says that many teachers would be receptive. Controversy over school closings during COVID and book ban attempts have led to many parents attacking teachers in the affluent Virginia suburbs of Fairfax County. 

“I remember, as the teachers feeling so loved, right, for the first month [of the pandemic] until people found out that they weren’t going back to school for the year. And then when Fairfax County Schools decided that we weren’t going back until there was a vaccine, then we became the villain,” says Houston. 

Now, teachers say that they will have more support with a union in place. 

Now, with growing public sector unions in the state, the Democratic Party is likely to be strengthened in Virginia, with unions run by Democratic allies. 

“It is my hope that the reason that the politics of the state is changing is because people are realizing they’re righting a wrong.” says Leslie Houston. 

Payday will have more on this historic union election later in the day.

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]