STAFFERS IN THE Massachusetts Senate – and soon the House – are pushing to unionize. But in an ironic twist, their ability to unionize is dependent on the agreement of Senate and House leadership – the same people who will sit on the opposite side of any bargaining table. 

Senate staffers say part of the reason they launched their unionization drive now, though it has been in the works for three years, is they hope Senate President Karen Spilka will be amenable to recognizing a union. The question will put to the test the pro-labor attitude that the Senate has generally taken under Spilka, and will provide a similar test for House Speaker Ron Mariano, whose chamber has the reputation of being more business-friendly.  

Last Thursday, representatives of the Quincy-based IBEW Local 2222 informed Spilka that a majority of Senate staffers had signed cards indicating their desire to form a union and requesting that she voluntarily recognize them as a bargaining unit. Multiple people confirmed that a similar effort is underway in the House. 

The problem is the state law establishing public employee bargaining rights only applies to executive and judicial branch employees, not legislative branch employees. 

The IBEW maintains that Spilka can voluntarily accept the union, should she choose to do so. If she does not, it will require legislation passed by the House and Senate and signed by the governor to change the law.  

“We do have legislation drafted and ready to be asked to be filed if it’s necessary. But we hope the Senate President will do the right thing and voluntarily recognize the bargaining unit,” said Keith Bonasoro of IBEW. 

Spilka was noncommittal. “As a lifelong advocate of workers’ rights and a champion of organized labor, I have worked very hard with my colleagues to make the Senate a fairer and more equitable workplace,” Spilka said in a statement. “I am aware that a union’s effort to organizeSenate staff is underway, and I have asked Senate Counsel to carefully review.”  

Spilka said she will continue efforts she has taken to standardize the staff pay scales and modernize and professionalize staffing procedures.  

Mariano declined to comment.  

Under House and Senate procedures, it is House and Senate leadership who decide whether a bill is brought to the floor for a vote.  

Tara Wilson, a Senate legislative and budget director, said staffers are “fairly strategic people” who are familiar with how the building operates. She said the staffers identified now as a time when they might be able to work with Spilka to convince her to voluntarily recognize a union. “Senate President Spilka has in the past shown a capacity for hearing what staffers are saying and making change to that effect,” Wilson said. 

Members of the Massachusetts State House Employee Union’s organizing committee and the IBEW are still determining which lawmaker would sponsor a bill to allow them to unionize, should Spilka choose not to recognize them. Senators Sonia Chang-Diaz and Diana DiZoglio have already said they support the staffers’ union push. Both Democrats are also running for higher office, Chang-Diaz for governor and DiZoglio for auditor. 

Senate staff organizers union say they hope they will be able to get support for legislation. Practically, there could be public pressure to avoid the optics of a generally pro-labor Legislature opposing a labor-organizing movement within its own ranks. 

Shelly MacNeill, a Senate chief of staff who has worked on Beacon Hill for more than two decades, said she does not see the existing law as a barrier to unionization. “We work for legislators. They create laws. They change laws,” MacNeill said. MacNeill said there is strong support for organized labor in the building. “When we see a law that’s not effective or it needs a change, that’s what we do,” MacNeill said. “If we need a bill, we’ll have a bill.” 

Union organizing committee member Morgan Simko adopted a similar stance. “The good thing is we work in the Legislature, and the Legislature makes the laws for this state. We are hopeful we can work together with Senate leadership and members in the Senate to change the law should that need to happen,” she said. 

“The Senate has a strong background in supporting workers and their rights, so we are hopeful that that support will extend to staffers in the Legislature,” Simko added. 

The effort to unionize legislative employees began in 2019 but was paused due to COVID-19, before being revived recently. The push started after the State House was rocked in 2017 and 2018, when women came forward alleging sexual harassment amid the #metoo movement. Senate President Stan Rosenberg was forced to resign after the Senate Ethics Committee concluded that Rosenberg knew or should have known that his husband was sexually harassing Senate employees, yet Rosenberg failed to act. Both chambers made structural reforms to their human resources processes to address employee concerns.  

Over the last couple of years, additional concerns have emerged about the opacity of staff pay scales, a lack of diversity among staff, and the low pay and long hours State House staffers must work. During the COVID-19 pandemic, additional concerns emerged about remote work.  

For example, MacNeill said, she had to buy her own laptop computer to do her job, and only got a state-issued computer a couple months ago. While staffers got a $500 stipend for working remotely, MacNeill said that did not cover her technology expenses. She said during the height of the pandemic, she was working 50 to 80-hour workweeks and using her personal cell phone to return constituent calls. 

“We all want the basic things everyone else wants – fair and consistent pay grades, clearly defined job roles and responsibilities, a safe workplace free from harassment, and clear processes to address those things when they happen,” MacNeill said. 

Wilson said a big part of the problem is that human resource-related requests are run through the Senate president’s office, so staff hesitate to put their bosses in the position of having to use political capital to ask the president for improved working conditions. “I never want to put my boss in a position where they need to decide whether to ask about what their staff needs or be pushing something their constituents are asking for,” Wilson said.