The clerks, receptionists, and those who get the coffee in the Capitol have historically been “at will” employees – meaning the legislators who employ them can fire them whenever they wish.
That may be about to change.
AB 1577, working its way through the Legislature, would for the first time in history allow approximately 2,000 legislative employees to unionize and engage in collective bargaining — a procedure already enjoyed by state government’s vast workforce of civil service employees.
#MeToo “brought to light hidden and not-so-hidden harassment and inappropriate conduct by bosses toward their legislative staff.” — Committee analysis
The Legislature’s workforce could negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions with the members of the Senate and Assembly, and officials would be required to go through a process before firing or disciplining an employee. Managerial employees — chiefs of staff, for example — likely would not be covered.
Proposals to allow the Legislature’s workers to unionize have been around for years and gained little headway.
But the impact of the #MeToo movement, which in California included dozens of descriptions — many of them signed — by current and former employees of sexual harassment and job discrimination, gave unionization proposals traction.
The #MeToo movement “brought to light hidden and not-so-hidden harassment and inappropriate conduct by bosses toward their legislative staff,” said a Senate Judiciary Committee analysis. There has been “fear of, and actual, retaliation against legislative staff for reporting incidents, including #MeToo incidents. Committee staff have received statements of support for this bill from employees of the Legislature.”
The bill granting civil service protection to legislative employees cleared its latest hurdle Tuesday when it won a lopsided 8-1 approval from the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. Its next stop is Senate Appropriations, and if it wins there, it’s back to the Assembly for concurrence in Senate actions.
“The Legislature is the only branch of government that has blocked their employees from collective bargaining.” Mark Stone
The bill’s author, Democratic Assemblyman Mark Stone of Santa Cruz County, gutted and amended an Assembly bill that was already in the Senate,
“It is a shame that the Legislature claims to fight for workers while continuously refusing to grant their own employees with the right to form a union,” Stone noted in a prepared statement.
“The Legislature is the only branch of government that has blocked their employees from collective bargaining,” Stone added.
The bill’s chances of reaching the governor’s desk appear to be enhanced by the lopsided Legislative majority held by presumably pro-union Democrats. The Assembly consists of 60 Democrats and 19 Republicans, with one independent, while the Senate is composed of 31 Democrats and 9 Republicans. Nonetheless, at least four previous attempts have failed.
The move toward civil service status for legislative employees is part of a nationwide movement toward unionization.
Legislative employees are a tiny percentage of state employees. Overall, about 260,000 people work for the state of California outside of public universities, including part-time employees, according to the state Controller’s Office.
The move toward civil service status for legislative employees is part of a nationwide movement toward unionization, exemplified most recently by unionization votes at Starbucks and Amazon.
The main opponent of AB 1577 so far is Govern for California, which describes itself as “a network of political philanthropists whose mission is to empower California state Legislators to govern for the benefit of citizens instead of special interests.”
The opponents contend there are built-in opportunities for conflicts of interest. “As legislative employees play an indispensable role assisting elected officials to serve their constituents, how could they maintain this service if a union representing them could take contrary positions to bills proposed by Assemblymembers or Senators? Politically, these unions could also work to defeat legislators and significantly affect the employment of the very people charged with serving these elected officials.”
But supporters aren’t convinced.
“In any workplace, an imbalance of power leaves workers with little to no opportunity to voice their concerns and shape the conditions of their workplace. The Legislature is no different,” says Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, (D-Sacramento), a joint author of the bill.
The battle for unionization of legislative employees has at least one unique aspect: The people who will have the final say — state legislators – – are the employers.
Among the most prominent supporters of the legislation is former Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat. Gonzalez now heads the California Labor Federation, the principal sponsor of Stone’s bill.