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In the Capitol, new push to unionize staff members

The chambers of the Assembly in the state Capitol, Sacramento. (Photo: Felix Lipov, via Shutterstock)

The first time, she had just one co-author; the second time, a dozen. Now, on her third attempt, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez has convinced nearly half of the California Assembly to co-author her bill to grant collective bargaining rights to rank-and-file Capitol staffers.

 Assembly Bill 314 has 38 co-authors. With her, that’s 39, just two short of the number needed for full Assembly approval. If the bill makes it to the floor, it’ll pass, she says. “I have the votes for the floor.”

The PERS committee has long stymied efforts to give rank-and-file legislative workers the same bargaining rights as nearly all other state employees.

 But first the bill must pass through the Public Employment and Retirement Committee, where her prior two bills died. And the chair of that committee is not among the co-authors.

 “I don’t necessarily have the votes to get it out of PERS,” she told Capitol Weekly. “That’s the trickier part.”

 It always has been.

The PERS committee has long stymied efforts to give rank-and-file legislative workers the same bargaining rights as nearly all other state employees. In 2000, then-Assemblyman Dick Floyd sought to put legislative staffers under the Dills Act, but that act, adopted in 1977, applied specifically to civil servants. Legislative employees are not civil servants, so the bill died.

 In 2017, Gonzalez introduced AB 2048, written to avoid the civil service trap, but it died nonetheless. In 2019, her AB 969 met the same fate, the committee analysis noting that the Legislature has a Constitutional spending cap and collective bargaining could force the Legislature to spend more than the voters allowed.

“Conditions of bargaining can be set within those limits,” Gonzalez-Fletcher contends.

But the Legislature — like everybody else — has been through a lot recently, and Gonzalez thinks her colleagues may be seeing worker relations in a new light.

 The PERS Committee has seven members, five of them Democrats. One of those, Sabrina Cervantes, is a co-author. Another, former chair Freddie Rodriguez,has been supportive in the past, said Gonzalez. Assemblywoman Lisa Calderon is new to the issue. But Jim Cooper, the new chair, has not been supportive in the past, nor have Ken Cooley nor Patrick O’Donnell, she said.

None have made their position clear, and all declined requests for comment Tuesday.

 But the Legislature — like everybody else — has been through a lot recently, and Gonzalez thinks her colleagues may be seeing worker relations in a new light.

She said the #MeToo movement, the pandemic and a summer of unrest may have “opened some eyes.”

Gonzalez said reluctance among some members and senior staff is the same pushback that labor organizers encounter everywhere.

 “It’s no different from what you’d hear from any bosses,” she said, “‘We’re a family.’ ‘It’s different here.’ ‘Our workers are well paid.’ ‘They’re happy.’”

Several Democratic presidential hopefuls had collective bargaining agreements with campaign staff, most notably, the campaign of President Joe Biden.

 Her bill would apply only to rank-and-file employees, as is the case in other branches of state government. Managers, chiefs of staff, district directors, chief consultants, and the like, would not be eligible for bargaining.

 “It’s kind of new,” she concedes. “There aren’t a lot of examples out there.”

 There’s only sparsely populated Maine. But, perhaps more resonant with Democratic members, Gonzalez is reminding colleagues that several Democratic presidential hopefuls had collective bargaining agreements with campaign staff, most notably, the campaign of President Joe Biden.

 The bumper crop of co-authors may be a sign of growing support, but it could also be a sign of Gonzalez’ ability to work the votes.

 Typically, legislative offices circulate co-author request letters in advance of introduction deadlines. Those requests are reviewed by staff and presented to the member with a recommendation to become a co-author or not. In the case of AB 314, Gonzalez reasoned that would put staff in an awkward position, so she did it herself.

 “I talked to every single Democratic member,” she said, adding, in case the point was not clear, “ which I don’t normally do.”

 She reminded colleagues that in her former life, running the central labor council of San Diego and Imperial Counties, she negotiated contracts with her 40 unionized employees.

 “People aren’t sure how this is going to work, and fear is normal. But I’ve lived that experience,” she said, “and, yeah, you can do it.”


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