A group of more than 400 City Council staffers seeking to unionize to improve working conditions asked Council Speaker Corey Johnson to recognize them on Monday, a key milestone in their organizing efforts.

The organizers explained in a letter that the newly-formed Association of Legislative Employees, or A.L.E. will cover aides to Council members and select Finance staff titles, a majority of whom signed cards agreeing to have the union represent them in collective bargaining.

If Johnson recognizes them, organizers believe they would be making labor movement history. While there are a handful of other unionized legislative staffers across the country—in Berkeley, Denver and the state of Delaware—they all joined larger, existing organizations. City Council staffers are forming a completely independent entity the likes of which can’t be found elsewhere in the city, or the country.

Listen to Brigid Bergin's report on WNYC:

“We will be the first unaffiliated legislative staff union,” said Wilfredo Lopez, legislative director for City Council Member Ben Kallos. “So we're excited and also scared by that prospect. But it's momentous.”

The group represents a subset of the roughly 600 staffers who work for the Council, and includes only full and part-time staff who work directly for one of the 51 members, plus certain members of the Finance division. Members of the central staff are not included in this initial unionization push, which launched its membership card campaign just two months ago.

Conversations about increasing pay and establishing a minimum standard for working conditions have been going on for more than a decade, including a protest for higher wages in 2016 when Council members voted to raise their own salaries by 32 percent —from $112,500 to $148,500.

On that vote, several staffers from then-City Council Members Rosie Mendez and Inez Baron’s offices stood on the balcony of the Council chambers during the vote wearing t-shirts that said, “’#PayCheck2PayCheck Raises 4 All.” Current City Council Member Carlina Rivera, who replaced Mendez, was among the staffers rising in protest.

In the first year of Johnson’s speakership, organizers said they gathered signatures petitioning for a 33 percent increase to staff pay and better working conditions. That led to raises for some staffers. But members had discretion over how to spend money allocated to their offices, and there was no minimum salary for staff, some of whom were making the equivalent of minimum wage despite long hours and frequent night and weekend work.

The average salary for Council staffers is $47,784, according to an analysis by Politico, which also found 42 staffers were paid between $27,300 and $35,100.

City Council Members hold a meeting, December 19, 2019

City Council Members, including Speaker Corey Johnson, hold a meeting, December 19, 2019

City Council Members, including Speaker Corey Johnson, hold a meeting, December 19, 2019
NYC Council / Flickr

“It became clear somewhere in the summer [of 2019] that we had to organize ourselves, and that would mean we would have to go unaffiliated, which means there's no larger union that is backing this,” said Zara Nasir, director of the Council’s Progressive Caucus and a key organizer.

“We are a completely new entity. We had to form a tax I.D. We had to open a bank account. It's new. Everything is new...and then things started happening with Andy King,” she added.

In the fall, the Council voted to suspend City Council Member Andy King for 30 days and fined him $15,000 after an investigation by the Council’s Standards and Ethics Committee found he committed a series of offenses including misusing funds, making homophobic remarks, and retaliating against staff who filed complaints against him.

“The incident with Andy King just made everyone aware that we're not protected,” Lopez told Gothamist/WNYC during a joint interview with Nasir. “That helped us get organized faster.”

Those efforts involved forming a core committee of seven members, and then a larger organizing committee of 150 staffers. Their goal was to collect signatures from 51 percent of the staff who would be covered in the first bargaining units by the end of last year, which Lopez said they did before the holidays. So they took a week off.

“We come back,” said Lopez, “and former Mayor Bloomberg poached several staffers for his [presidential] campaign.” Those staffers included people who signed membership cards. “We were like, ‘Oh, my God, we have to kick into high gear and make up not only those cards, but also get more cards.’”

Just last week, the organizers collected a full 60 percent of membership cards for the covered positions, including 236 of the 391 Councilmembers' aides, and 24 of 30 Finance titles. The bargaining units are based on specific, qualifying civil-service titles where employees are neither in managerial roles nor are responsible for confidential information, like personnel matters.

Nasir said the final cards were the hardest to collect and the last one came from a part-time staff member whose office she called to thank. “They were super excited. They were cheering in the office,” she said.

Johnson said he remained open to staff unionizing.

“Speaker Johnson continues to be supportive of the staff’s efforts to unionize,” said Jennifer Fermino, a spokesperson for the speaker. “He looks forward to working with them as the process moves ahead with the goal of achieving voluntary recognition.”

If and when Johnson recognizes A.L.E., the Council would file notice with the city’s Office of Collective Bargaining. Then the organizers would need to begin building the infrastructure of the organization so they could set goals and negotiate a contract.

But before any of that begins, the next major milestone is a fundraiser on February 4th.

To ensure that they were following all the necessary legal steps, organizers retained a lawyer from Strook, Strook & Lavan. Dina Kolker, a partner at the firm, has been providing legal guidance to the organizing committee, which the core team paid for out of their own pockets.

While the investment of time and money has been a lot for people like Lopez and Nasir, they said it’s been worth it. “We care about the Council as an institution,” said Nasir.

“There will come a time, many years in the future, when I retire,” said Lopez, “and I’ll just sit back and kind of tell these stories to my grandchildren about the time that, you know, a group of us got together and decided to start a union. I’m looking forward to that.”