Union Station: Senate staffers announce formation of New York State Legislative Workers United

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Senate staffers announce formation of New York State Legislative Workers United

Seventy-nine New York State Senate staffers announced the formation of the New York State Legislative Workers United (NYSLWU) and said they intend to seek voluntary recognition from Senate leadership when a majority of staffers sign on.

The unionization effort

In a July 15 public letter to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D), the staffers wrote

“We are the newly formed New York Legislative Workers United, a collection of staffers in a range of positions representing senate offices across the state. … [W]e write to you today to share our intention to present our union for voluntary recognition, and put our trust that your long history of fighting for the working people of New York will guide your decision making as we take our organizing efforts public. 

“At this stage, we have collected cards from both constituent service staffers and legislative staffers representing multiple regions in the state. Given the nature of our work and the strong culture of union support in New York State, learning our rights as public sector employees under the Taylor Law has been central to our organizing to date[.] … We have retained counsel, and look forward to presenting you with a critical mass of signed cards for voluntary recognition in the near future. … 

“In the coming months, we will share more on our democratically decided demands, anticipated bargaining unit, and timeline for voluntary recognition. At this stage, our intention is merely to make ourselves known, so that we can continue to organize in public without fear of retaliation.”

According to the Albany Times Union’s Chris Bragg, attorneys from Levy Ratner represent the NYSLWU. 

City & State’s Sara Dorn wrote, “Members said talks among staffers began before the pandemic, and the first official meeting was held in January. Union organizers said they hope to enlist a majority of the 700-some staffers before seeking official recognition from the Senate Majority Leader. If the leader recognizes the union, bargaining would begin. If the leader rejects the union, it could file for an election with the Public Employee Relations Board, which requires the support of 30% of all state Senate staffers. A bargaining contract would likely be approved as part of the state budget process, members said.” 

According to Bragg, “New York legislative employees’ jobs do not carry the same civil service protections as many executive branch workers.” 

Democrats have had trifecta control of New York state government since 2019. From 2011 to 2018, Republicans held a majority in the state Senate. The NYSLWU tweeted on July 15, “We are proud to announce both bicameral and bipartisan support for our movement—a movement made up of bicameral and bipartisan staffers and organizers.” 

Gothamist’s Jon Campbell wrote, “The Senate organizing effort comes on the heels of the [New York] City Council staff’s efforts. Staffers won recognition for their union late last year and are currently bargaining for a contract.” According to Dorn, “Organizing members of the state Senate staffers’ union said they have taken guidance from the [New York City Council] union.” 

Legislative staffers in Oregon were the first in the country to unionize when they voted to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in May 2021. (In Maine, legislative employees who perform nonpartisan duties have been able to unionize since 1999.) Massachusetts legislative staffers began a unionization effort earlier this year. 

Taylor Law questions 

The staffers’ letter said, “We have heard from many corners a false understanding that we do not have the right under state law to unionize[.] … [A]fter careful consultation with a range of legal experts we have learned that we do not need a bill in order to form a union as we are already included within the definition of ‘public employer’ under the Taylor Law.” 

The Taylor Law, or the New York State Public Employees’ Fair Employment Act, governs public-sector labor relations in the state. According to Campbell, “The law lays out a number of public employers whose workers can collectively bargain, but it does not specifically mention the state Legislature.” 

The Empire Center’s Ken Girardin wrote that the question was “far from settled,” saying, “Absent a major change to the Taylor Law (and possibly the state Constitution), any arrangement that binds legislators or a legislative body to the terms of a union contract would raise a list of practical and legal issues, and a union would struggle to get state courts to enforce them.” The Empire Center says it “[promotes] public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.”

William A. Herbert, who directs the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining at Hunter College CUNY, said, “The exclusions are specific and there’s nothing under the Taylor Law that excludes legislative employees from unionizing, just as the employees of the judiciary in New York are unionized.”

Perspectives

Support

Astrid Aune, who serves as communications director for Sen. Jessica Ramos (D), said, “People come into this work really intending to do public service in a real way – write bills, serve constituents, get people resources, put money in their neighbors’ pockets. … That drive is very easily taken advantage of. So what we are looking for is some sort of uniformity and structure and really the same rights that we fight for for [sic] our constituents and every other public sector employee to be applied to us.” 

Sen. Julia Salazar (D) tweeted, “Every worker deserves a union, and legislative staff work extraordinarily tough jobs without job security. I support the state senate staff who are organizing as @NYSLWU and seeking to unionize.”

Sen. Jabari Brisport (D) said, “The inherent imbalance of power between individual workers and their bosses is a recipe for unjust treatment; when that boss is a lawmaker, the imbalance of power is even greater and more dangerous.”

Sen. Mike Martucci (R) tweeted, “Proud of this new effort & hope my staff signs on.”

Opposition

Girardin wrote: “[I]f a union contract were to spell out the hours of operation for the Senate (the way teachers union contracts often regulate the length of the school day), enforcing that would mean interfering with the legislative process—a major separation of powers issue. Of course, nothing can stop lawmakers from voluntarily agreeing to things they or their leadership might negotiate with a union (as members of the New York City Council so far have). Here lawmakers might soon get an unvarnished education about the added costs and reduced flexibility that public-sector collective bargaining has imposed on local governments and school districts for a half-century. And in that specific respect, ending the Legislature’s immunity from collective bargaining could have benefits for all New Yorkers.”

What we’re reading

The big picture

Number of relevant bills by state

We are currently tracking 148 pieces of legislation dealing with public-sector employee union policy. On the map below, a darker shade of green indicates a greater number of relevant bills. Click here for a complete list of all the bills we’re tracking. 

Number of relevant bills by current legislative status

Number of relevant bills by partisan status of sponsor(s) 

Recent legislative actions

No public-sector union bills saw activity this week.


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