In this house we delay the right of our workers to collectively bargain until we see the results of a study.
In this house we delay the right of our workers to collectively bargain until we see the results of a study. Lester Black

Earlier this week the effort to allow legislative branch workers to unionize took a step forward, but the track got longer.

Last Wednesday a bunch of people who work for Washington's Legislature — aides, communications staff — called out sick in protest of poor working conditions. The action came the day after Democrats killed a bill that would have removed the prohibition against those workers collectively bargaining, which was a weird thing for ostensibly pro-union Democrats to do. During a press conference later that day, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins and Majority Leader Pat Sullivan sounded like any other boss dragging their feet on negotiations. Though they expressed confidence in passing the bill next year, they declined to do so this session due to the "complexity" of their workplace, concern over who to include in the bargaining unit, and a lack of clarity over what workers could bargain for — all concerns directly addressed in the bill.

Determined to offer more certainty than flimsy expressions of confidence from leadership that may not be around next year anyway (depending on how 2022 goes, and depending on whether Sullivan wants to run for reelection), the bill's prime sponsor, Rep. Marcus Riccelli, woke up the next day and tried revive the dead bill through talks with Jinkins and Sullivan. Those conversations yielded House Bill 2124, a compromise proposal that could pass this year but leave everybody grumbling.

To understand the new bill, it helps to understand the old bill.

The old bill named the legislative agencies that would be included in the bargaining unit, required them to bargain under an existing statute that applies to other public sector employees, defined the stuff they could bargain for, and allowed contracts to take effect in 2024.

The new bill doesn't do any of that stuff. Rather than prescribing bargaining units and spelling out procedures, it establishes a new agency run by a director who would be tasked to commission a report that would study the best way to prescribe bargaining units and define conditions. (Lol.) That report would come due in the autumn of 2023. The new proposal also pushes back the contract timeline by a year to align with the negotiation cycle of every other public sector union.

Matthew Hepner, a lobbyist for the electrical workers' union, praised the bill for "starting the clock that ends the prohibition on these workers being able to collectively bargain," but he also expressed disappointment about the lawmakers pushing back the timeline for contracts. "Many advocating for this bill and taking risks will never get to see and feel the fruits of their labor here, but I think they realize it'll make it better for the [legislative aides] further down the line, and it's incredibly noble of them," he said.

Rep. Riccelli also acknowledged his disappointment in the new timeline, but he looked on the brighter side. "Less than a week ago this bill was dead, and now it's not. I believe in trying to move this forward, and sometimes the art of compromise is painful," he said. That said, he encouraged other lawmakers to "look at the timeline" and see if they couldn't move it back to its original place.

He also detailed some of the "concerns" that emerged after organizers said they were set on authorizing the broadest bargaining unit possible to bargain over both wages and working conditions — Riccelli said a bill that would have covered just aides and wages may have passed more easily. Those "concerns," which he said came from some of the legislative agencies that would have been included in the bargaining unit under the old bill, involved a worry over the political leanings of the union with whom the workers would choose to organize, a fear of nonpartisan staff appearing partisan merely for participating in a union, a desire to align negotiating timelines with other public sector unions, and an urge to write a new statute under which the workers would organize rather than including them in an existing one so that lawmakers could spell all this stuff out.

After all, Riccelli said, the Legislature would be "trailblazing" with this legislation, given that no other state has passed a law allowing legislative workers to bargain. (Legislative aides in Oregon organized without the state passing such a law, but lawmakers did pass a bill that named who would act as the employer's negotiator. Colorado legislative aides organized a sort of nontraditional "open" union along with campaign workers and political organizers, but they don't bargain for contracts.)

That said, the "concerns" Democratic lawmakers raised appear to be minor. Workers get to choose who they organize with, so the Legislature shouldn't need to concern itself with that, though there was some talk in Oregon of creating "an independent, stand-alone union" to remove the appearance of any conflict of interest between unions that contribute to politicians and the aides who work for them. No law compels public employees to be members of the union, pay dues, or participate in the process, so if nonpartisan staff members wanted to project militancy, they could just not participate. And the timeline issue could be resolved in half an hour.

Nevertheless, the new bill with its new agency is moving right along. The House Appropriations committee heard it yesterday afternoon, it's necessary to implement the budget (so it can never die), and it's got 45 co-sponsors, which constitutes the vast majority of the Democratic caucus. And so, if all goes according to the compromise, in a couple years the legislative workers of the future will get a seat at the table.