Here’s how collective bargaining for Washington legislative staffers could go

Partisan staff should be allowed to form unions next May but not their nonpartisan colleagues under guidance sent to lawmakers ahead of next year’s session.

By: - October 30, 2023 4:30 pm

The Washington state Capitol building in October 2023. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

Employees of the state Legislature will be able to unionize next May but not every one of them should be allowed to do so.

That’s according to recommendations in a new report from the leader of the Office of State Legislative Labor Relations. Only partisan staff in the House and Senate should be permitted to organize, and they should have separate bargaining units, the report says. 

And while employees will be able to negotiate on wages and working conditions, any collective bargaining agreement should contain no-strike language, concludes Debbie Brookman, director of the labor relations office, in the 100-page analysis delivered to lawmakers earlier this month.

A 2022 law made Washington one of the first states to allow employees of the House, Senate and legislative agencies to form unions and collectively bargain. Maine and Oregon allow legislative employees to unionize but their laws are not as expansive as what’s envisioned in Washington.

Lawmakers said they will introduce a bill in the next session, which starts in January, to address subjects covered in Brookman’s report, although passage is not guaranteed.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, authored the 2022 legislation. Enacting another bill to put up some “guardrails” is the most sensible approach, he said.

“This is a unique work environment,” he said. “Doing a follow-up bill was always the intent.”

Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, the Senate’s floor leader, called the anticipated follow-up bill “pretty close to a must-do.”

“It will be very awkward to try and implement if we haven’t provided guidance,” he added.

Brookman, who has previously represented public employee unions and local government in contract talks, was directed by the Legislature to provide guidance on all aspects of the bargaining process with legislative staff.

“The report is my best effort to take feedback from employee survey data and other research, including my personal experience with the practical impacts of collective bargaining, and provide a thoughtful approach for the Legislature’s consideration,” she said.

The nitty gritty

Starting May 1, 2024, legislative workers can petition to form unions and, if successful, begin bargaining. Any completed agreements would take effect on July 1, 2025.

The law allowing for this – which majority Democrats pushed through over the objections of Republicans – also created the office Brookman leads to represent the Legislature in any collective bargaining.

The Public Employment Relations Commission would decide who’s in the unions, who is not and other issues if the Legislature doesn’t. The commission is the independent state agency that carries out Washington’s collective bargaining laws and resolves disputes involving employees of the state, local governments and schools. 

“If we do nothing there would still be a pathway,” said Sen. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell, who sponsored the Senate companion to Riccelli’s bill. “But it would make more sense for us to pass something because it will make it easier for employees and for management.”

Brookman recommends the Legislature enact its own statute covering collective bargaining for legislative branch employees.

She suggests the roughly 225 regular, full-time partisan staff in the House of Representatives and Senate, plus any additional partisan staff hired each session, be eligible to form a union. These employees work for the Democratic and Republican caucuses, and in the offices of the 147 lawmakers.

House and Senate employees should have separate bargaining units and the Chief Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate would be the employers. Brookman’s office would represent the employer in any negotiations.

Unions would negotiate on economic terms, but on health care benefits they should abide by agreements negotiated by an existing coalition of state employee units, the report says.

Any legislation should include language to bar negotiations on overtime during session and to prohibit strikes at all times, she wrote.

Nonpartisan staff as well as interns, pages and most temporary employees, should be excluded.

An employee survey conducted as part of Brookman’s research found the employees “most interested in collective bargaining” were partisan staff, she wrote in the report. 

That same survey found far less interest among nonpartisan employees of the Senate Committee Services and the House’s Office of Program Research who work closely with lawmakers on developing policies, including the collective bargaining legislation. They are the ones who draft bill reports and the public sees making presentations at committee hearings.

Several expressed concern that “the choice to unionize – or to not unionize – will undermine the objectivity they work hard to foster,” Brookman wrote. “It is fundamental that OPR and SCS staff be able to form relationships with all members based on trust and confidentiality.”

She called out several agencies whose employees should not be allowed to unionize. Staff of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee is one example.

“Allowing JLARC’s auditors to affiliate with a union that may have an interest in the outcome of their audits would be a conflict of interest,” she concluded. 

To lobby or not to lobby

Brookman didn’t offer guidance on the extent to which legislative employees can engage in union activities, such as rallies or lobbying in support of collective bargaining agreements. She sought advice from the Legislative Ethics Board which tackled the subject last week.

Board members wrestled with how to maintain existing prohibitions on staff lobbying in the soon-to-be-new environment. While the ban should remain in place, a majority of the board acknowledged individuals will be able to interact, on their own time, with those lobbying on their union’s behalf.

Some ethics board members also expressed discomfort with allowing a legislative staff union to make endorsements. Others pointed out a new union may affiliate with an existing statewide or national organization whose leaders make such decisions. 

Currently, there are legislative employees who serve on boards of organizations that make endorsements and advocate for bills. They are advised to abstain when the board votes on what bills or candidates to back. The ethics board is expected to provide guidance for union members in similar situations.

A formal advisory opinion is expected before the Jan. 8 start of the 2024 session.

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Jerry Cornfield
Jerry Cornfield

Jerry Cornfield joined the Standard after 20 years covering Olympia statehouse news for The Everett Herald. Earlier in his career, he worked for daily and weekly papers in Santa Barbara, California.