Los Angeles Times
A fight to unionize legislative staffers
SACRAMENTO — Understatement of the decade: California loves unions.
And Democrats, who hold a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature, especially love the ones that donate to and endorse their campaigns. But the same lawmakers have so far shown no such love for a union within their own workplace.
The Legislature has rejected a bill three times to provide collective bargaining rights for its employees, in what advocates have characterized as a blatant display of hypocrisy.
So why should dues-paying hopefuls in the Capitol have any reason to believe this year’s Assembly Bill 1577 will end any differently?
Current and former legislative staffers say they’re more optimistic than ever about forming a union — their confidence buoyed by recent scrutiny of how the Capitol handles alleged workplace issues, and an upcoming election that promises a massive turnover of lawmakers.
Last week, eight U.S. House offices started the unionization process, which advocates said reflects a
broader push to improve labor standards in political offices.
AB 1577 “is definitely a step in the right direction,” said one Assembly Democratic staffer, who like several others spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid potential retaliation. “It will not resolve these problems completely, but it is absolutely necessary.”
The proposal would allow staffers to start the process of forming a union and, subject to collective bargaining, lead to a change in their “at-will” status. Currently, employees can be terminated for a legal reason at any time without an explanation.
It’s only a first step, said Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), the bill’s author. The legislation doesn’t dictate what collective bargaining must look like in the future but does exclude top staffers such as staff directors, chiefs of staff and chief consultants.
The bill passed through two Senate committees in June, with only one “no” vote.
“It’s so scary for workers, any workers, to stand up and say we need a union,” said Lorena Gonzalez, who wrote the previous three versions of the bill while in the Assembly. Gonzalez is now advocating for its passage as the incoming chief officer of the California Labor Federation, which is sponsoring AB 1577.
Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) both said they support staff efforts to unionize.
‘Overworked and undervalued’
In interviews, current and former staffers voiced standard workplace grievances such as a desire for greater work-life balance and additional time off. But some of the workers’ complaints underscored systemic issues in the Capitol, where employees are afraid to report misbehavior for fear of retaliation and staffers of color reportedly feel undervalued.
“Typically Black staff get hired by Black members. If you are not, and you are trying to advocate for Black issues within your office ... you get pushed out,” another Assembly Democratic staffer said.
In a statement, Rendon spokesperson Katie Talbot said the Assembly is “deeply committed to an equitable, diverse workplace,” and has hired a diversity consultant to strengthen internal policies. Atkins’ office said the Senate “continues to work to improve diversity, including retaining and recruiting staff of color.”
The staffers claimed that they’re often misclassified in ways that do not adequately summarize their work responsibilities, a tactic they said is used to limit their salaries and future raises. A common criticism was that employees are “voluntold” to use their paid time off to volunteer for caucus campaigns, which one Assembly aide said keeps you in the “good graces of leadership.”
“We allow ourselves to be overworked and undervalued. The Capitol runs on people who are ... incredibly enthusiastic, wanting to change the world. And the trade-off is really clear, in that we have to sacrifice a healthy work-life balance to do so,” a staffer said.
Secretary of the Senate Erika Contreras said that the chamber works to ensure the employee classification policy is “adhered to” and that the Senate has taken corrective measures, including pay adjustment, when errors are identified.
Talbot said that the majority of Assembly staffers are in the right classification, and that all staff members are paid within the set salary range of their role.
Both offices said leadership does not expect or require campaign volunteering.
A major concern among staffers is the reporting process of the Workplace Conduct Unit, an independent investigative panel put in place after the #MeToo movement rocked the Legislature in 2017 with widespread allegations of inappropriate behavior. The unit has in recent weeks faced criticism for allegedly failing to investigate complaints of misconduct in a timely and transparent fashion.
“It’s not worth the effort [to file a complaint], because there’s the fear of retaliation,” a Senate Democratic staffer said.
Legislative leaders said they are working with the Women’s Legislative Caucus to cull recommendations on how to improve the unit, with a goal to implement the changes by the end of session in August.
Are Republicans on board?
George Andrews, chief of staff for Assemblymember Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale), said his parents worked in union jobs, and he considers the collective bargaining process “sacred.”
But Andrews said Republicans weren’t consulted in the drafting of AB 1577, and he’s concerned that GOP staffers will continue to be left out of the process. He said he agrees that workplace issues need to be addressed, especially around pay equity, and that better representation is needed to resolve those disparities. But he remains unconvinced that a union would be the best solution.
“Whether this happens, not happens, I want whoever has my job in the future to have the same salary that a Democratic staffer makes. Because [Republicans’] contribution to public service does matter,” Andrews said.
Staffer salaries can vary greatly depending on the office, according to spreadsheets of Assembly and Senate staff salaries. One Assembly legislative director working for a Democratic member, for example, earns $7,420 a month, and a Republican staffer with the same title makes $4,961. In the Senate, a Democratic legislative aide’s monthly salary is $4,010, and a GOP colleague makes $5,138.
Another Republican staffer said finding common ground with the Democrats will be crucial to adding GOP support to the bill. The staffer wanted to know what a union would do to ensure Republican employees have professional advancement opportunities, and how it would address the lower salaries and staffing in their offices.
Others just don’t think it’s a good idea.
“The nature of the Legislature is very different,” an Assembly GOP staffer said. “I think [a union] would have a really negative impact on the institution.”
A long way to go
Three dozen lawmakers have signed on as co-authors. But the legislation’s success has more to do with who doesn’t support it.
Supporters are particularly concerned with what Assemblymember Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) decides to do as chair of the Assembly Rules Committee, a position that affords him a lot of say in how bills move through his chamber.
Cooley doesn’t see a union squaring with how he said the Legislature is designed to function, with its constant churn of new members and a voterapproved requirement to spend money carefully on itself. Cooley said he doesn’t plan to vote yes on AB 1577, but he wants to be part of a solution to improve workplace conditions.
“I do actually feel that I would be a very able person, institutionally, to kind of figure out how do we move things forward in a positive way,” he said.