A brand-new push to unionize New York State Senate employees has the potential to shake up how Albany operates, with organizers hoping it could provide more protections to legislative workers who can find themselves working long hours with little notice.
Since January, some of the state Senate’s more than 1,000 staff members have been organizing to become the latest in a string of legislative bodies across the country whose workers have unionized or are working toward that goal – a list that includes the New York City Council staff.
Last Friday marked their public launch party: Organizers for the newly minted New York State Legislative Workers United sent a one-page, single-spaced letter to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.
Listen to WNYC's Jon Campbell's report on unionization efforts happening inside the state Senate.
For years, the Senate’s Democratic majority has embraced pro-union positions, and organizers are hoping the Senate leadership embraces – or at very least, doesn’t derail – the organizing effort.
"We showed up every day to fight for teachers, firefighters, sanitation workers, every public employee under the sun,” said Becky White, policy director for State Sen. Andrew Gounardes of Brooklyn and a member of the organizing committee. “The fact that that somehow doesn't extend to legislative employees – [you] can't really justify that."
The Senate organizing effort comes on the heels of the City Council staff’s efforts. Staffers won recognition for their union late last year and are currently bargaining for a contract. It also follows similar efforts in Oregon and San Francisco, while the U.S. congressional staff is also organizing.
The formation of a union representing Senate staffers could dramatically change the way major policy negotiations go down at the state Capitol.
Achieving work-life balance
A few times a year, the state Legislature pulls an all-nighter, holding hourslong voting sessions that stretch into the hours of the morning – or even the late morning – after the governor and legislative leaders strike some sort of deal. Many legislative staffers remain on duty, waiting to analyze a late-arriving bill or work up a press release touting a vote.
“I think every one of us who's worked here in Albany has come to work one morning and left work the following afternoon, without really knowing sometimes that that day was going to be a day like that,” said Frank Sainato, deputy communications director for State Sen. Samra Brouk of Rochester. “It’s very hard to have a work-life balance.”
Every one of us who's worked here in Albany has come to work one morning and left work the following afternoon, without really knowing sometimes that that day was going to be a day like that
The most recent all-nighter came just three weeks ago, when Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul called lawmakers back to Albany for an extraordinary session to pass gun-control measures. It was supposed to start at noon on June 30th; the bill wasn’t introduced until 3 a.m. July 1st.
"I'm figuring out this is a very nocturnal place,” Hochul said later that day. “A lot happens late at night, and that's when compromises are made and decisions are made."
In most cases, staffers are compensated for the extra work only with what’s known as “compensatory time” – paid time off to use at a future date. Many staffers, however, build up so much compensatory time that they can’t possibly use it all, while others end up using it to hit the campaign trail for their elected bosses – which doesn’t really end up being much of a break from work at all.
“I'd hesitate to get into specifics, but comp time and work-life balance, as well as basic things like wage floors and salaries – things that every union negotiates for – are all themes that we're starting to see emerge,” White said.
Union organizers say it’s way too early to come up with a formal list of demands. As of late last week, they had received signatures on union cards from about 75 workers – well shy of the critical mass needed to seek voluntary recognition and begin collective bargaining, but a number that’s been rising since they went public.
But the organizers know the compensatory time issue is a major sticking point for many Senate workers, and they say it’s reasonable to assume that’s an area they would want to collectively bargain for – either for guaranteed overtime pay, the ability to sell back compensatory hours, mandatory breaks between shifts, or something along those lines.
The union would not include the elected officials themselves – just their staff.
As of now, the organizers are hoping to include Senate staff who work for individual senators both in Albany and across the state in the union, along with the “central staff” who work for the majority and minority conferences. And it’s a bipartisan affair, with staff members for both Democrats and Republicans welcomed.
Interpreting state law
Union organizers say one of the biggest challenges they faced is state law – or, more specifically, a persistent belief among some legislative employees that state law doesn’t allow them to unionize and collectively bargain.
The confusion is rooted in the state’s Taylor Law, which lays out what unions can and can’t do for public employees, such as teachers or police officers. The law lays out a number of public employers whose workers can collectively bargain, but it does not specifically mention the state Legislature.
Ken Girardin, a fellow at Empire Center — a fiscally conservative think tank — is among those who believe the Taylor Law would have to be changed to allow legislative staffers to bargain. And even then, he thinks any union contract would eventually run into state constitutional issues.
"This would fall squarely within a list of things where an adjustment would be necessary — and still wouldn't be constitutional,” he said.
But union organizers and at least one leading labor expert say that’s not correct. The Taylor Law specifically counts the “state of New York” as a public employer, and it includes narrow exemptions for judges and a handful of other positions that are not allowed to collectively bargain.
Legislative staffers are not among those exemptions. That led William A. Herbert – executive director of Hunter College’s National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions – to conclude they have the right to organize and bargain, and he says it’s not a particularly close call.
“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,” said Herbert, former deputy chair and counsel at the state Public Employment Relations Board.
Now, it will be up to the organizers to continue to collect union cards from employees who support the effort. Once they receive cards from a majority of workers in the eventual bargaining unit, they plan to ask Stewart-Cousins to voluntarily recognize the union and begin negotiating a contract – rather than force the union to go through the lengthy process of a secret ballot election to determine whether employees want to be represented. It’s a process that could take months to complete.
So far, Stewart-Cousins hasn’t said much about the unionization push as it remains in early stages. But how she reacts to the effort and whether she embraces collective bargaining will be closely watched by her staff as well as labor unions, who remain major political players effective at getting out the vote for many Senate Democrats across the state.
All 63 state senators are on the ballot this year, and some have already come out in favor of the union, including Gounardes and State Sen. Julia Salazar of Brooklyn.
In a statement, Stewart-Cousins praised the Senate staffers, saying they have done a “tremendous amount of work in unprecedented times and are an amazing asset to the entire state.” It would be up to her to decide whether to voluntarily recognize the union and begin bargaining.
“Obviously this process is just beginning and we will continue these crucial discussions as the process moves forward,” she said.
Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization representing more than 3,000 unions across the state, praised the unionization effort, saying he was “very pleased” to see legislative staffers were confident enough to send the letter last week.
He said he’s hopeful that Senate leadership will voluntarily recognize the union once it gets to that point.
“I know they are in the very beginning stages of this,” Cilento said. “Look, we'd like to see voluntary recognition for every employer across the country. So the same would apply here.”
This story has been updated to clarify which positions organizers would want to include in the union.