A new California state worker union? Legislative staff could organize under new bill

·3 min read
Xavier Mascareñas/xmascarenas@sacbee.com

Employees of the California State Legislature would get the right to unionize for the first time under a proposal introduced Monday.

The people who work for California state departments, known as rank-and-file civil service employees, received the right 45 years ago to unionize and collectively bargain over their pay, benefits and working conditions.

But the 1977 Ralph C. Dills Act didn’t include the roughly 1,900 employees of the Legislature, who are still forbidden from organizing.

That’s not fair, said lawmakers who are backing the bill at a news conference outside the Capitol building on Tuesday.

“I’ve gotten up there and spoken about rights for our farmworkers, for our child care workers, for in-home support services to have a voice, and it seems very hypocritical,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, a co-author of the proposal.

McCarty said the measure has been circulating in the Capitol for four years under the stewardship of former Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego. Gonzalez resigned from the Legislature in January with plans to lead the California Labor Federation.

The proposal, Assembly Bill 1577, mirrors the Dills Act. But where Dills gives the governor authority to bargain with state employee unions, the new legislation sets up a process in which the Assembly speaker and the president pro tempore of the Senate would negotiate with a union representing legislative employees.

If the proposal is approved by both chambers of the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, it would enable legislative employees to start the process of forming a union.

The state Public Employment Relations Board would oversee the process and make determinations on issues like how many bargaining units — typically defined by the kind of work a group of employees does — would be created.

Employees would need to form a union or select one to represent them, and the Legislature would deduct union dues from workers’ paychecks, according to the proposal.

Legislative employees currently can elect to opt into CalPERS, the pension system for state and local government employees, and they can purchase CalPERS health insurance. But they don’t have the job protections of the state civil service, and can be fired at will.

Progressive lawmakers supporting the proposal said Tuesday that a union could help legislative employees address inequities and improve working conditions. They said legislative staff sometimes face 12- to 14-hour days during busy periods and often use vacation time, as the law requires, to do campaign work outside of their official functions.

Rep. Tasha Boerner-Horvath, D-San Diego, said a union helped her mother, a teacher, deal with sexual harassment at work.

Boerner-Horvath said the proposal could help women in particular address inequities and strengthen sexual harassment protections.

“Coming off the heels of the Me Too movement … we have to make sure that if we want equality for women, if we want equity for our staff, we have to give you the right to bargain,” she said.