Upadated July 29, 6:03 p.m.

State Senate staffers seeking to unionize said they are undeterred by Senate President Karen Spilka's refusal to recognize the union and say they'll keep up the fight.

Spilka invited staff members to meet with Senate counsel Friday afternoon to discuss a legal review that she said found no path forward for union recognition because of the unique structure of the senate.

Two staffers who attended the closed-door meeting, Morgan Simko and Evan Berry, said afterwards the lawyers identified which state laws create hurdles to union recognition. They said changing those laws is a question of legislators' willpower.

"Ball's in their court," Berry said. "If they really want to say to the unions that have supported them election cycle after election cycle that they are pro-labor, they will show up and say, regardless of where you are in Massachusetts, you deserve a union and Beacon Hill is no exception."

Simko said staff are energized, want to move forward and are talking about their next moves. Many staffers who joined the meeting wore union pins and dressed in red to show solidarity.

As Massachusetts State House staffers buckled down for the last remaining days of the legislative session, Spilka had delivered a decision four months in the making: The Senate would not recognize the legislative staff’s unionization effort.

“The Senate does not at this time see a path forward for a traditional employer-union relationship in the Senate as we are currently structured,” Spilka wrote in an email sent Thursday evening, inviting senators and staff to attend the meeting Friday afternoon to learn more about “an exhaustive review” conducted by Senate counsel on “this complex legal area.”

Staffers first filed a petition to unionize with IBEW Local 2222 in late March, joining a wave of legislative union efforts across the country. Though Massachusetts law prohibits legislative staff from collective bargaining, some staffers didn’t buy Spilka’s reasoning for closing the door on the union movement.

“Senators are in the business of making laws. They have the power to make any legislative change that is necessary,” said Berry, a union organizer and communications director for Sen. Becca Rausch. “For them to not act when a majority of their staff has clearly stated that they need the protection of a union is not a question of legality, that is a question of willpower.”

The proposed union effort presents a myriad of issues that extend far beyond existing law, said Senate President Pro Tempore Will Brownsberger.

“Yes, you could change the law, but then you have to think through how that would work,” Brownsberger told GBH News. “All the states in which [legislative] unionization has made some real progress are states which have a different structure from Massachusetts.”

Because Senate staffers work closely and directly with Senators “in a very hand-in-glove way,” Brownsberger said the presence of a union would disrupt the current structure and create ethical issues.

Laws prohibiting conflicts of interest for union officers and members working in government roles were established by the U.S. Department of Labor in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which put a finer point on regulations established in the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959. Still, Brownsberger said he’s wary of staff involvement with the IBEW, which publicly lobbies on issues including environmental policymaking through the union’s Government Affairs Department and contributes donations to political campaigns and Political Action Committees.

“There would be a whole lot of conflict of interest issues if they're working with a union who has its own political agenda,” Brownsberger said. “You can't have people serving multiple masters, that’s just not acceptable.”

Because state senators are elected every two years and often bring in their own staff, Brownsberger said the process of renegotiating a union contract would be “an incredible amount of work” to do every two years.

“You know, we actually have other things to do here, things that are difficult,” Brownsberger said. “We're not just here to negotiate a new deal every few years and talk about how we're going to operate.”

After years of failed attempts at unionization and a four-month period waiting for Spilka’s response, pro-union staffers have made it clear: they want to talk about how the Senate is going to operate.

The decision not to recognize the union was described as “retraumatizing” by a former Beacon Hill legislative aide who was sexually assaulted by Bryon Hefner, the estranged husband of former Senate President Stan Rosenberg. In 2019, Hefner pleaded guilty to charges of sexual assault, distributing nude photos and criminal lewdness, following a lengthy trial that highlighted cultural issues at the state house. Rosenberg stepped down as Senate President in 2018 following a scathing report from the Senate Ethics Committee.

“It’s a deep betrayal to the current and former staff who work in conditions where their safety is not a priority,” the former aide told GBH News. “The power dynamics in that building are insidious and people sometimes are forced to compromise their safety and their protection in order to protect their career.”

When Spilka was elected to replace Rosenberg, she vowed to make workplace culture issues a “major priority” for her office, and created a commission to look into sexual misconduct. In 2020, she appointed Diana Kasule as human resources manager of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Senate.

Despite changes made since the Rosenberg days, union organizers maintain that union representation is the only way to amend “decades-old issues” in the state house, including calls for an independent human resources department: currently, the human resources department and Senate counsel are overseen by the Senate president and are not independent entities.

“They hold Stan Rosenberg accountable because it was becoming a political issue for them, but then it didn't fundamentally change much, people still have nowhere to turn,” the former Beacon Hill aide told GBH News. “Who do you go to if the Senate president harasses you? Or the Senate president’s husband?”

In early April, State House Employee Union organizers secured support from a majority of the nearly 300-person workforce and set goals for better pay and benefits, a more transparent and equitable pay structure and a workplace free from sexual harassment and identity-based discrimination.

Additional changes have come from Senate leadership since then: last month, Spilka announced an upgraded pay scale that will provide Senate staffers with a mandated starting annual salary of $50,138 and a salary increase of at least 10%. The pay bump comes in response to a November 2021 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures that detailed a “mysterious” compensation structure, fraught with discrepancies and inequity across positions.

"This party does have the ability to self-correct," Brownsberger said, and has come a long way since the days of Rosenberg.

“Are we perfect? No place is perfect, and we have to keep listening, and the Senate president has been doing that.” Brownsberger said. “Perfect? No. But it’s a heck of a lot better than it was.”

In a statement, organizers for the State House Employees Union said they plan to meet with staff in the next few days to plan next steps, adding that “our pursuit of an equal, just, and supportive legislative workplace is just the beginning.”