Much has been written about poor working conditions for State Capitol staff and bad treatment by often ill-tempered and inconsiderate legislators.
Having worked at the Capitol for nearly two decades, I know firsthand that working there can be a grind. Staff routinely work long hours, often overnight or on weekends. Working on a legislator’s personal staff can resemble the movie, “Horrible Bosses.”
The “Me Too” scandal brought to light more seriously how some staff members have been harassed or inappropriately treated, forcing some lawmakers to resign over their behavior.
Touted as a way to improve Capitol working conditions is a new law, Assembly Bill 1 by Asm. Tina McKinnor (D-Los Angeles), that will allow legislative staff to unionize.
“AB 1 is about respecting the staff who do the hard work,” Shubhangi Domokos of the California Labor Federation, the bill’s main sponsor, told the Sacramento Bee.
What AB 1 is really about is expanding union power and generating more union dues for cash-rich California unions, not respecting staff.
The bill garnered a surprising amount of Republican support, but GOP staffers should not fool themselves into thinking that unionization will help them.
Republican staffers make less – sometimes substantially – than their Democratic counterparts. When I was communications director for Assembly Republicans, I estimated that I earned between 30-40 percent less than my Democratic counterparts. A recent analysis by Politico found that Assembly Republican staff overall earn about 18 percent less than Democrats in comparable jobs.
If a Capitol union is recognized and negotiates a legislative contract, Democrats and Republicans may well be paid the same wages by the terms of the contract.
But this could backfire on Republicans as the main problem with salaries is not how legislators value their staff, but rather legislative office budgets.
As Politico notes, “each assemblymember receives a base allocation of $340,000 per session year . . . (which can be spent) on staff salaries as well as on operating expenses such as postage, travel, and office supplies.”
“But funds to cover staff salaries can also come from committee budgets — which Democrats control as the majority party. Call it the spoils of war. Republicans don’t hold any committee chairmanships or leadership appointments that come with extra funding to hire extra staff,” the article concludes.
And there’s the rub.
Union contract or not, Democrats aren’t going to increase Republican office budgets so they can pay their staff more.
Ultimately, the GOP may face a Hobson’s choice. The chief of staff or legislative director may earn a pay raise. But junior staff members may lose job opportunities because there won’t be enough money in the budget to pay for everyone at higher salaries.
Conversely, you could see more entry level staffers making higher wages but salaries for senior staff not keeping up with the marketplace. This would exacerbate the problem of the legislative “brain drain” of staff leaving the Legislature for better paid opportunities in the private sector.
On the real problem of ending sexual harassment and other poor behavior by lawmakers, no union negotiating committee or shop steward is going to make badly behaving legislators shape up. While they may initiate some new process that looks better on paper, only when badly behaving legislators initiate change themselves will anything change.
Staff also complain – rightfully in many cases – about having to do things that “aren’t in their job description.” When I was on a member’s personal staff, I did everything from packing the member’s apartment to scrubbing his shower floor. Life is unfair – sometimes you have to do grunt work as part of paying your dues and working your way up the ladder. No union can fix that.
However you look at it, the new Capitol union is not going to solve legitimate issues that Republican staff raise – and it will likely make the problem worse. At the end of the day, it’s all about money, not respecting the Republican staff who do the hard work for their members.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s vice president of marketing and communications.