Should California Legislative Staff Be Unionized?

California is struggling with its Covid-19 recovery efforts.  More than 941,000 people are still waiting for their Covid unemployment benefit claims to be processed.  A recent San Francisco Chronicle headline proclaimed, “Newsom’s $2 billion plan to reopen California schools fizzles.”  California now ranks dead last in vaccine distribution according to a Bloomberg survey.

Surely there are enough serious problems here to keep the Legislature focused these days.  Think again.  While Californians struggle, lawmakers are spending their days on an issue that hits closer to home – unionizing legislative employees.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, has proposed Assembly Bill 314, which would, according to a press release, “extend the right for all employees of the Legislature to organize into a union if they choose in order to improve their wages, working conditions and bargain over other terms of their employment.”

Gonzalez argues, “every other employee in the state has the right to organize their workplace and join a union if they choose — legislative staff should be no different.”

When one thinks about unionizing, one usually imagines Sally Field as Norma Rae holding up the union sign in the middle of the factory, or efforts to alleviate brutal, often-inhumane working conditions and low wages in factories that gave rise to labor unions during the Progressive Era.

Few would say the California Legislature is a “sweatshop” in need of union organizing by any stretch of the imagination.

As regular readers of Right by the Bay know, I worked at the State Capitol for 18 years before coming to PRI.  I can attest that working for state lawmakers is not an easy job, and you definitely need a thick skin.

A typical routine for a legislative staffer is spinning more plates in the air than a circus act.  Working for lawmakers, you’re asked to be their secretary, counselor, encyclopedia, and personal assistant.

But legislative work conditions are not like laying down asphalt in 110 degree heat.  The Legislature works on deadlines, so late nights can be planned for far in advance.  On Friday or when the Legislature is in recess, the Capitol is a casual, 9-to-5 work environment.  Legislative staff also receive better benefits than even the already-generous plans offered regular state employees.

Then there are the “privileges of membership” as they used to say on the old American Express commercials.  Legislators and staff are frequently invited to lavish receptions, lunches, and happy hours. Early in my legislative career, staff had easy access to free tickets to amusement parks, sporting events, and concerts (access to freebies is tougher though still readily accessible today.)

To be sure, there have been many, well-documented issues of legislators behaving inappropriately toward staff in recent years, including multiple, high-profile sexual harassment cases involving members and staff.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded settlements have been paid.  As a result, lawmakers have taken steps to strengthen whistleblower laws.  A union isn’t going to solve these problems – only lawmakers stopping “behaving badly” will.

So, what’s behind the push to unionize legislative staff?  It’s really about generating more members and more dues for California’s public employee unions.

Covid-19 has hurt public employee union membership.  According to the Sacramento Bee, public employee union members in California dropped 2 percent between February and November 2020.  In addition, public employee unions have also been threatened by the landmark Janus decision, which gave worker freedom rights to millions of disaffected workers.  California’s legislature has worked overtime since the ruling was handed down to make it as difficult as possible for members to quit their union.

More union members, power, and money are really what’s behind this latest unionization push.  It’s surely not benign concern about the wages or working conditions of legislative staff by lawmakers who could right any labor issues at the State Capitol today with the snap of a finger.

Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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