Massachusetts State Senate staffers seeking to form a union encountered a roadblock in their quest last July, when Senate President Karen Spilka told them the legislative branch didn’t “see a path forward” on unionization.
One year later, though, supporters of the effort to organize State House staff are still forging ahead. They hope to change the law that bars them from collective bargaining, and believe they’ll ultimately succeed in the uphill battle.
“It’s going to take however long it takes, but like I say in our meetings with the elected officials, this thing is going to end either by getting the law passed, or by the legislative staff telling us that they’re done,” said Kevin Holland, vice president and assistant business manager for IBEW 2222, which has been working to organize the staffers. “And the legislative staff is nowhere near telling us they’re done, so we’re here for however long it takes.”
Holland spoke at a virtual briefing for lawmakers and staff Monday, which highlighted a pair of bills that would extend collective bargaining rights to legislative staff.
The state law on collective bargaining for public employees only applies to those in the executive or judicial branch, and Senate leaders last year pointed to that law as one of several complications forestalling union recognition.
IBEW Local 2222 representatives delivered a letter to Spilka in March 2022, asking her to voluntarily recognize a bargaining unit after a majority of Senate staffers signed union authorization cards.
On Monday, Holland said the union organizers haven’t hit that majority threshold among House staffers yet, but are “a little more than two-thirds of the way” there. Near the end of the roughly hour-long briefing, he said three staffers had newly signed cards while on the call.
During the briefing, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley told staffers that she sees their unionization push as a “winnable fight.” She recalled her own experience working as an aide on Capitol Hill, and said she waited tables during some of those years to supplement her salary.
“I know what it is to be a part of a workforce where you feel invisible, and in particular being an aide to an elected official, you are doing the work daily centering the humanity and dignity of people who feel unseen, helpless, hopeless,” Pressley said. “You are their lifeline, you are advancing policies to support their families’ thriving, while at the same time you can be very barely getting by or experiencing and enduring a great many indignity that people have conflated as a part of the experience of being an aide.”
Leaders in both the House and Senate announced pay raises for staffers last summer, on the heels of a cost-of-living increase in 2021.
Former staffer Shelly MacNeill worked on Beacon Hill for more than 20 years and said pay was one of the reasons she left last year. She said another was a feeling of frustration, characterizing some lawmakers’ attitudes as, "‘we’ll support unions and go out and stand at picket lines, but we can’t support our own staff."
MacNeill said staffers want “to have a voice” on Beacon Hill.
Twenty-seven members of the 200-seat Legislature have signed onto the House and Senate versions of legislation to let State House staff unionize, including both Democrats and Republicans. Those bills are awaiting a hearing before the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee.
Legislative employees aren’t the only workers asking lawmakers for collective bargaining rights this year — another set of bills would let gig economy drivers for platforms like Uber and Lyft unionize.