Workers are organizing across the country. Could California Legislature staffers be next?

SACRAMENTO — Every year, Democrats who control the California Legislature pass long lists of bills backed by unions, a powerful political force in the Golden State. They often work to earn high marks and endorsements from labor organizations, including drafting and supporting legislation to boost union participation.

But the staffers who work for these lawmakers and help craft these pro-labor bills are not allowed, under California law, to form a union themselves.

“It’s a form of hypocrisy,” said Alan Moore, who works as a legislative aide for Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco.

Moore and many of his colleagues hope that a bill due to be heard in committee this week will pass and allow them to form a union. The bill, AB1577, appears likely to move forward, as the majority of lawmakers on the committee have signed on as co-sponsors.

It would be the furthest bill a bill allowing legislative staff to form a union has ever gone. Several previous attempts have failed to even gain a hearing, meaning lawmakers haven’t had to take sides publicly. This is what happened last year, when a version of the bill never went to committee.

Lawmakers and others who support the bill say an outpouring of support for unions across the country, including among workers at big companies such as Starbucks and Amazon, has helped push the bill forward.

“We see that energy, and that’s what makes me so confident that we’ll have the opportunity to really get things done,” Assemblyman Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, said during a press conference in support of the invoice.

Additionally, concerns about working conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the #MeToo movement against workplace harassment have also increased interest in a union among some legislative staff.

Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath, D-Encinitas, spoke about the potential for a union to help legislative staff deal with sexual harassment issues at a press conference in May announcing the bill.

The Encinitas Democrat told the story of her mother, who was sexually harassed while working as a math teacher. It was her mother’s colleagues, not the school administration, who helped and protected her, she said.

“I grew up knowing that women will never have a chance in the workplace if we don’t have the right to bargain collectively,” said Boerner Horvath. “If we want equality for women, if we want fairness for our staff, we have to give you the right to negotiate.”

Lorena Gonzalez drafted the original bill to allow staff to unionize when she represented San Diego in the state assembly. Gonzalez, a Democrat, has since stepped down to lead the California Federation of Labor. Amid the #MeToo movement, the Legislature held hearings to address staff sexual harassment and formed a new unit, the Workplace Conduct Unit, to handle investigations into alleged misconduct. The unit has since come under scrutiny after The Chronicle published stories about several women who say the unit mishandled their demands.

“I’ve always been concerned that the people most affected, our staff, didn’t have a say,” Gonzalez said of WCU. She told The Chronicle she felt the same way about how workplace decisions were handled during the pandemic, when there were no reimbursements for cellphones or laptops.

Shubhangi Domokos, a former legislative staffer, said that when she worked at the Capitol, she was lucky enough to work for Gonzalez. But she said many legislative staffers have very different experiences.

“There are countless staff I know who cannot share their stories because of the very real fear of retaliation and, frankly, of being blacklisted simply for standing up for the fundamental right to join. to a union,” she said at the press conference. “Even after experiencing #MeToo and surviving this pandemic, staffers have never had a protected forum to weigh in on how the legislature deals with issues of sexual harassment, workplace bullying and health protocols. and safety.”

Domokos said she knew staff members who sometimes worked 14-hour days and had to work second jobs. She said they have been doing extra work during the pandemic, helping to run crisis helplines and dealing with problems with unemployment benefits.

Aubrey Rodriguez has worked at the Assembly since 2015 and currently serves as Legislative Director to Assemblyman Alex Lee, D-San Jose. He told The Chronicle he wanted to form a union to ensure he and his co-workers were paid fairly.

“Although we get very good benefits, we often don’t have a collective voice, and it shows in the pay gaps within the same office,” he said.

Not all staff are in favor of unionization. George Andrews, chief of staff to Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, said there are pay inequities among legislative staff, but he doesn’t think this bill will address that.

Andrews said Republican staffers are often paid less than Democrats, although he said he thinks they do more work because there are fewer of them. Republican lawmakers make up a small minority in the Legislature, meaning there are far fewer Republican staffers than Democrats.

While in control of the Legislature, Democrats failed to address this pay disparity. He said he doesn’t believe this bill, which is being pushed by Democratic lawmakers, will fix that either.

“The language has no protection for the real minority in this building,” Andrews said of the bill. “I think it’s a scam.”

AB1577 is to be heard Wednesday before the Senate Labor Committee, its first test. It must pass through the full Senate and Assembly and be signed by Governor Gavin Newsom to become law.

Sophia Bollag is editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @SophiaBollag

Toya J. Bell