A New Try for Unionization of Legislative Staff
It’s fair to say that Democrats would not have attained their immense majorities in the California Legislature – more than 75% of its 120 members – were it not for money and other resources from the state’s labor unions.
In return, Democratic legislators have bent over backwards to help unions increase their memberships and expand members’ wages and benefits.
Notable examples are the famous – or infamous – Assembly Bill 5, which tightly restricted employers’ use of contract workers, this year’s bill to make it easier for the United Farm Workers Union to win representation elections, legislation making child care and home health care workers employees so that they could become union members, and innumerable measures essentially mandating union labor in public and private construction projects.
While the alliance of Democratic politicians and unions has been a dominant factor in legislative politics for nearly a half century, ever since then-Gov. Jerry Brown fostered collective bargaining for state and local government workers, teachers and farm workers in the mid-1970s, there is one notable exception: The Legislature’s own employees.
Unionization advocates have made multiple efforts to pass enabling legislation, but all have been sidetracked. Generally, state senators have been amenable to having their staffs become union members, but the Assembly has refused.
The final hours of the 2022 session saw the most recent failed attempt. Assemblyman Mark Stone, a Scotts Valley Democrat, did a “gut and amend” maneuver, using a bill that had already passed the Assembly and was pending in the Senate as a vehicle. The Senate then passed the revised bill handily, sending it back to the Assembly for a final vote on the last night of the session.
The California Labor Federation, headed by former Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who had championed legislative employee unionization while in the Legislature, made Stone’s bill a high priority. However, the chairman of the Assembly’s Public Employees and Retirement Committee, Jim Cooper, bottled up the measure, denying it a floor vote.
Cooper, a Democrat from Elk Grove, is now gone from the Legislature, having been elected sheriff of Sacramento County. Last month’s election also saw a major turnover of legislative membership, thanks to term limits and retirements. Advocates of legislative unionization are geared up to take another shot.
As the Legislature reconvened this month for a new biennial session, Tina McKinnor, a newly minted assemblywoman from Inglewood who was once a legislative staffer, introduced a new version, Assembly Bill 1, with 26 co-authors.
“Legislative staff aren’t looking for special treatment. They are looking for the same dignity and respect afforded to all represented workers,” McKinnor said.
“We ask our staff to write legislation and staff bills that expand collective bargaining rights for other workers in California, yet we prohibit our own employees from that same right. It is time to stand up for our staff and create a fair, equitable and safe work environment for our hard working and dedicated legislative employees.”
Even those who oppose the pro-union policies of the Legislature should support allowing the Legislature’s employees to join a union, as other states have done. It is simply hypocritical for a Legislature overwhelming controlled by Democrats to be so willing to help unions grow their memberships in other private and public sectors while refusing to allow their own employees to unionize.
If nothing else, unionization of the Capitol would give legislators some real world experience in being employers of union members.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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