New York City Council staffers formally launched a union drive on Monday, citing exploitative conditions and widespread pay disparities within the legislative body.
Roughly 150 employees have already signed onto the effort, which has been in the works for nearly a year, according to union leaders. They're hoping to organize roughly 600 staff members in total, including both central staff and those who work directly for council members.
Zara Nasir, director of the council's Progressive Caucus, said staffers are expected to maintain grueling schedules, while often making less than $30,000 annually. Just a few years ago, council members voted to raise their own salaries by nearly a third—from $112,500 to $148,500.
One goal of organizing is to establish a minimum salaries across the council offices, said Nasir, who's helping to lead the union push. Currently, each of the city's 51 representatives receives a lump sum to pay for staff, office space, furniture, and other necessities. It's up to the elected officials to decide how much money their employees should earn.
"There are some members that are great and their staff are happy, then on the other side members that are frankly exploiting staff," Nasir told Gothamist. "As an institution, the council needs to take responsibility for its members."
Staffers are at-will employees, meaning they can be dismissed at any time without justification. Full-time employees are not eligible for overtime, despite frequently working nights and weekends.
While discussions of unionizing have been underway for some time, the announcement was accelerated by recent revelations of misconduct committed by Councilman Andy King. Among a litany of other offenses, the Bronx representative was recently found to have retaliated against employees who participated in a 2017 probe into his alleged harassment of a female staffer.
King was suspended last month for 30 days and fined $15,000. For many employees, the punishment amounted to a slap on the wrist, illustrating how "staff are being deprioritized over members and political concerns," said Nasir.
"There's no real recourse around harassment, mistreatment, intimidation, no one whose job is to protect the staff," she added.
Few legislative bodies across the United States are currently unionized, though the issue was recently raised in the California legislature. Several campaigns working in the 2020 presidential elections have also begun organizing, after Bernie Sanders staff ratified a union contract earlier this year.
Council workers are organizing as the Association for Legislative Employees, an unaffiliated union, to avoid potential conflicts of interest with labor unions.
New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said last week that he would "wholeheartedly support" staffers if they choose to start a union. "I want to make it as easy as possible to do that, to engage with them in a way that is prescribed by law, because these things are prescribed by law, to make sure we do it properly and correctly,” he said.
Nasir said she hopes the speaker's rhetoric lines up with his actions, and that he voluntarily recognizes the unit if and when it receives the support of more than half of the bargaining unit.
"This is an institution that prides itself on supporting labor movement," she added. "They should fix their own house, too."