Connecting state and local government leaders
Statehouse employees in at least four states are pushing to organize and Oregon staffers formed a union last year.
A white-collar unionization wave is hitting legislative chambers in Democratic-leaning states across the nation.
Frustrated by low pay and long hours, state house staffers in Massachusetts, California, New York and Washington state are seeking to organize. They hope to join their counterparts in Oregon, who became the first in the nation to unionize in 2021.
The organizing effort in state capitols mirrors a similar push in Congress. In May, the Democratically-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution giving congressional staffers the legal right to negotiate over salaries, schedules, pay disparities, promotion policies and other workplace issues without the threat of retaliation. Since then, aides to eight progressive lawmakers have unionized.
“Congressional staff are underpaid and overworked,’’ the Congressional Workers Union said in a factsheet posted on its website. “Work conditions on the hill are so poor that burnout and turnover are at an all-time high. These systemic issues are long-running and have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, the insurrection, and hostile work environment on the Hill.”
Many of those same factors are driving legislative staffers to unionize. Last month, 79 people who work for the New York state Senate signed union cards and sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins seeking voluntary recognition.
“At this stage, our intention is merely to make ourselves known so we can continue to organize in public without fear of retaliation,’’ the letter states. If Stewart-Cousins declines to recognize the union, an election will be held.
Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said she isn’t surprised that legislative staffers are organizing. She traces the rising interest in unionizing among young professionals to the Occupy Wall Street movement of the early 2010s, the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement, the nascent #MeToo reckoning on college campuses and Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run.
“It’s part of a bigger arc of activity among millennials and Gen-Zers, mostly college educated, who have a very distinctive experience relative to people older than them in terms of when they came of age and began their careers or jobs,’’ said Milkman, who has studied union battles at Starbucks, Amazon and other companies.
“This is a generation that came of age with expectations, like previous generations, that if they went to college and did everything right they would end up in pretty good jobs,’’ she added. “Instead, they faced the post-Great Recession labor market as well as growing precarity for all workers but especially those just starting out, where salaries are not that high and you can't really count on any job security.”
For legislative aides, low pay–and pay disparities–are common. New York State Legislative Workers United, the union representing Senate staffers, recently tweeted a photo of a community relations job posting; the full-time position, based in New York City, listed a salary of $35,000 to $40,000. The average rent for an apartment in Manhattan topped $5,000 a month for the first time in June.
Labor activists have faced backlash from conservative anti-union forces. (Notably, no public organizing efforts have occurred in Republican-led states.)
“Collective bargaining certainly has its place, but the powerful influence of unions should be limited to lobbying from the outside in,’’ wrote Brigette Herbst, organizing director of Americans for Fair Treatment, a group opposed to public sector unions. “Union officials are already 'insiders' in Albany—inviting them to unionize legislative staff would give them more power than anyone should be comfortable with.”
Workers have also faced resistance from a less-likely source: Democratic leaders who control blue state legislatures. The party that has traditionally been a strong ally of organized labor has been reluctant to recognize the upstart unions.
In California, the Democrats in charge of state politics have pushed back against staffers' efforts to unionize.
In Massachusetts, statehouse employees represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 2222, received support from several high profile Bay State Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley. But their quest for recognition has been rebuffed by Senate President Karen Spilka.
Union leaders say they aren’t giving up. “It’s not up to an employer to decide when their workers can form a union—that choice belongs to the workers,’’ the Massachusetts union said in a statement issued after the legislative session ended without an agreement. “Legislative staff organized after decades of unresponsive leadership, who failed to retain talented public servants."
"Our pursuit of an equal, just and supportive legislative workplace is just beginning," the statement added.