A YEAR AFTER being rebuffed in their efforts to form a union, legislative staff members on Beacon Hill are making another run at the goal, this time pursuing legislative change that would open a path for their organizing efforts.
Last July, Senate President Karen Spilka refused to recognize a union push by staffers to affiliate with IBEW Local 2222. State law allows employees in the executive or judicial branch to unionize, but not those who work in the Legislature.
Legislation filed by Sen. John Keenan and Rep. Patrick Kearney would change the law and allow legislative staff to unionize.
“All workers including legislative staff deserve the right to bargain collectively to ensure that they can have safe and healthy workplaces, good benefits, and that they can earn livable wages,” Keenan said at a hearing Wednesday on the bill before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.
Morgan Simko, the chief of staff to Sen. Mike Moore and one of the original organizers in the unionization push, said union representation is crucial to securing better conditions for legislative staff. “I have spoken to dozens of Senate staffers about why they’ve joined the union,” she testified. Simko said staffers have talked to her about “being unable to afford to live in Boston, experiences of harassment, and being shut down if they try to advocate for change…Every story I heard had a common thread running through it. Staff desperately need a seat at the table.”
Along with legislative staff members, state Auditor Diana DiZoglio and a number of legislators, including Sens. Paul Mark and Jamie Eldridge, and Reps. Mike Connolly, Carol Doherty, Rodney Elliot, Sam Montaño, and Erika Uyterhoeven, testified in support of the bill.
DiZoglio, a former state representative and senator who has recently been at odds with lawmakers on Beacon Hill over her push to audit the Legislature, has been outspoken about her allegations of sexual harassment when she was a legislative staffer herself and her feeling that she had nowhere to turn to. “It’s very disappointing to hear that some legislative employees still feel as though they don’t have adequate representation or a place to turn for some challenges, and it doesn’t have to be the same thing I went through, but for some of the challenges they themselves are facing,” she said.
Montaño, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, said unions play a role in diversifying the workforce. “We should be making sure that the diversity of Massachusetts is reflected in the staff that we have by allowing folks to negotiate for higher wages, have better support, and recognition as workers in the State House,” Montaño said.
Legislative staffers spoke about the difficulties of working in what they described as a toxic work environment, struggling to make ends meet on low and inconsistent salaries and benefits, harassment, and other challenges that could be mitigated through collective bargaining.
Simko said that the organizing efforts last year had already secured wins for staffers like insurance in the first month of employment, a standardized pay scale, and an HR position that focuses on the retention issues in the Senate.
Low retention rates were cited by some staffers as one of the reasons in favor of unionizing. They argued that having a union would improve salaries and working conditions for staff and encourage employees to remain in their positions longer, keeping institutional knowledge in the State House.
“The House and the Senate have a dire talent retention problem,” said former staffer Evan Berry. “Massachusetts taxpayers are ultimately paying the price.” With high turnover, Berry said, the Legislature ends up paying more in order to hire, onboard, and then potentially still not retain employees.
State House staffers in Oregon and California have recently won the right to unionize. Staffers in the Massachusetts Legislature say they are determined to follow that path and argue that failure to pass the legislation allowing them to unionize would be at odds with the pro-union stands of many legislators.
“Anything short of passing this bill is anti-labor, anti-union, anti-tax payer and anti-staff,” said Berry.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Rep. Tommy Vitolo was among those testifying in favor of the bill.