Updated at 4:50 p.m. April 6

Senate employees at the Massachusetts State House launched a petition to form a union this week, hoping to become the second collective bargaining unit of legislative staff in the nation after workers in Oregonunionized last year.

Beacon Hill staff have fought for a union for years but have been stymied by a state law that prohibits legislative employees from collectively bargaining. Legislation to change the law and allow staff to unionize has so far failed to pass.

“We are not disposable. We are people who provide a valuable service to the commonwealth and deserve workplace protections,” said Evan Berry, an organizer and communications director for Sen. Becca Rausch. “At the end of the day, we're still trying to put food on our tables and get by paycheck to paycheck.”

Union organizers secured a majority of support for the effort and are organizing with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local 2222. The nearly 300-person workforce of legislative staffers is hoping to negotiate a contract for better pay, a more transparent and equitable pay structure, a workplace free from sexual harassment and identity-based discrimination, and health insurance benefits starting on the first day of employment. State House staffers currently face a 60-day delay in eligibility for health insurance benefits.

“A unionized workforce means better supported staff, improved service to our Commonwealth, and a stronger democracy for Massachusetts,” members of the Massachusuetts State House Employee Union organizing committee said in a statement. “We are deeply grateful for the work of Senate President Spilka and elected leaders to improve workplace conditions for our chamber, and we recognize that these systemic issues in our workplace are decades-old, beginning far beyond any individual’s tenure. We have seen far too many of our talented colleagues leave their Senate service due to numerous challenges in our workplace. This results in wasted taxpayer funds for hiring and onboarding new staff and the chronic loss of talented staff who write legislation and deliver critically needed constituent services. Our workplace protections and support structures should not be subject to the changing tides of the leadership of our chamber, and we deserve a seat at the table to ensure this."

Organizers asked Senate President Karen Spilka to formally recognize the union in a letter delivered to her office on March 31.

“As a lifelong advocate of workers’ rights and a champion of organized labor, I have worked very hard with my colleagues to make the Senate a fairer and more equitable workplace,” Spilka wrote in an email to GBH on Sunday.

Spilka is “aware that a union’s effort to organize Senate staff is underway,” and has asked Senate counsel to review the petition, though she did not say whether she would formally recognize the union.

“In the meantime, I will continue the efforts I’ve undertaken since becoming President to fairly compensate staff and modernize and professionalize our staffing procedures to ensure greater predictability, fairness and transparency for all Senate employees,” Spilka said. “I welcome ongoing conversations with our dedicated staff as we continue to make the Massachusetts State Senate a great place to work and build a career.”

The Boston City Council passed a resolution Wednesday urging legislators to suspend the state law and recognize the state Senate union.

"Every worker deserves a union," Allston Brighton City Councilor Liz Breadon, who introduced the resolution, said during a city hall meeting Wednesday. "A union would create a work environment... where employees are valued and properly compensated for their work."

Senate staff in Massachusetts echo the issues cited by congressional staffers in their petition filed in February to form a union at the federal level: pay equity, retention issues and cultural problems with diversity, equity and inclusion. President Joe Biden, House Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have all publicly endorsed the federal employees' unionization effort.

After the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act went into effect in 2018, the Senate adopted a new approach to staff salaries, beginning with a standard minimum salary for most staff titles. Last May, leaders in both the Senate and House implemented a 6% cost-of-living pay increase for all staff, raising the minimum salary from $43,000 to $45,580. They also gave staff a one-time $500 stipend to offset costs related to working from home during the pandemic.

In response to years of turmoil over pay equity among legislative staff, Spilka commissioned a salary study, privately releasing results in November 2021 that attributed staff turnover to pay and hiring practices that “can be perceived as lacking fairness."

The report, conducted by the National Conference on State Legislatures and obtained by GBH News, includes interviews with staff members who describe salary determination as “mysterious” and “unclear,” leading to high turnover rates, particularly within individual member offices where staff received disparate pay for performing similar jobs.

Though the Senate does not formally track staff turnover, the report authors noted churn among young professionals using State House jobs to get a "foot in the door."

“We know there's a problem, but we can't mitigate what we don't measure,” Berry said.

There are approximately 106 unique job titles within the Senate, according to the report, and there are no job classifications or a single, uniform approach to job titles or descriptions. The Senate also does not assign salary ranges to staff positions. All hires are approved by the Senate president’s office.

“Senators have had a wide latitude to assign, offer or create job titles that fit the needs of their offices,” the report reads. “As a result, some job titles feature a hybrid element, reflecting either the merging of job duties … or the fact that the job incumbent holds a law degree. The work performed by these positions can vary.”

Berry said State House staff are the "unseen" workers who keep the Legislature running.

"I mean, we write the bills. We conduct outreach within the communities on critical services like healthcare, food stamps, housing and unemployment," he said. "We're seeing this [union] as a way to better serve the commonwealth, understanding that when we're not supported in our workplace, it's difficult for us to deliver to the people we represent.”

Working two jobs to pay the bills

Just 10% of legislative staffers feel they are paid fairly for their work and only 18% reported being able to negotiate their pay, according to a survey of 200 employees published by Beacon BLOC, an organization created in 2020 to fight systemic racism on Beacon Hill.

“Part of the vision when we started Beacon BLOC was to organize to create some cultural change to better support staffers of color, in particular Black staffers," said Mark Martinez, a former Senate staffer who helped create the organization. "But at the end of the day, the goal was always to improve the lives of all staffers, and the only way to guarantee these changes and protections in perpetuity was a union."

When Martinez started as legal counsel and budget director for State Sen. Patricia Jehlen in 2018, Martinez received a salary of $53,000 — a competitive offer in comparison to two other State House positions they were offered at $40,000. Still, the position was a $20,000 pay cut for Martinez, so they maintained a side gig as a bartender to pay the bills. They left the State House last year to pursue a campaign for state representative.

“I made more money bartending full-time than I did working at the State House full-time,” Martinez said. “Essentially, if I wanted to continue to pay rent and all of my bills, I had to have a second job. It would have been extremely difficult to make my life work off of what I was making.”

Morgan Simko has a similar story. In 2020, she accepted an annual salary offer for $45,500 as a communications director in the Senate, while continuing to work as a freelance writer. When Simko was promoted to a legislative director later that year, the position came with a salary bump to $56,000, later nights and less predictable schedule, which meant two jobs were no longer a feasible option.

“If we are in session, if it’s budget season or the end of the legislative cycle, it’s expected that I could be working until 7, 9, maybe even 11 p.m. During a budget week, it would be closer to 50-60 hours per week,” Simko said. “It’s hard to tell how much is typical, because nothing is really typical.”

When Shelly MacNeil started as a legislative aide in 1994, she made an annual salary of $20,000. In her current position as the chief of staff for Worcester Sen. Michael Moore, she makes $79,000 — after a bumpy road that included a pay cut in 2008.

“We have a Senate president right now who initiated a climate survey and a wage study and has committed to addressing those things before the end of the fiscal year, and we appreciate all of that,” MacNeil said. “All we're saying is going forward, we need to make sure that that's available for everybody else who's coming behind us. That's what most of us get into this business for, to make it better for the people who are coming along, to make the place a little bit better than how we found it.”

Pushing for a safe and inclusive work environment

Beyond benefits, pay equity and transparency, the effort to form a union is also focusing on cultural concerns: systemic racism and the handling of sexual harassment and abuse that has long plagued the State House.

“It's been many years in the making, and I think that the staff problems that we are bringing to the surface have actually been going on for decades in this building,” Berry said. “It wasn't until recently that we actually had the willpower and the staff momentum to kind of get it across the finish line.”

In May 2018, the Senate Committee on Ethics published a report finding that Amherst Sen. Stan Rosenberg demonstrated a “significant failure of judgment and leadership” and failed to protect staffers from his estranged husband’s racial and sexual harassment and abuse.

When Spilka was elected Senate president later that year, she made it her mission to tackle racial and gender inequity and sexual harassment in the State House, creating an independent commission to look into sexual misconduct. In 2020, she appointed Diana Kasule as human resources manager of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Senate.

Female legislative staffers have described a climate of harassment at the State House, telling the Boston Globe in 2017 that “aides, lobbyists, activists, and legislators told of situations where they were propositioned by men, including lawmakers, who could make or break their careers; where those men pressed up against them, touched their legs, massaged their shoulders, tried to kiss them, grabbed their behinds, chased them around offices, or demanded sex.”

In its current iteration, the human resources department is overseen by the Senate president and is not an independent entity, and the House and Senate each have separate procedures for handling complaints. Union organizers said this design offers no recourse to staff who are assaulted or harassed by someone in the other chamber.

Berry said he hopes that creating a union for Senate staffers will improve a culture that has long depended on a default acceptance of long hours, low pay and workplace issues.

“In politics, there is a culture of giving your all to prove your worth, working after hours, taking that low-paying job, giving your all for a candidate or a politician, often at the expense of your workplace safety,” Berry said. “I have seen so many colleagues who bust their humps for their bosses and are given crumbs for it; not given the livable wages they deserve or a seat at the table. There’s a fundamental culture that you put your head down and take orders, and that’s not sustainable. We need to change that culture.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story omitted the fact that a state law prohibits legislative employees from collectively bargaining, and also misstated Shelly MacNeil's salary. Both issues have been corrected.