Trailblazing aides at the Oregon Capitol voted overwhelmingly in May to form the nation’s first-ever legislative staff union, a victory that’s captured the attention of statehouse workers coast to coast.
Now, the new members of Seattle-based Local 89 are preparing to bargain a landmark contract, bringing clarity and equity to salaries, job rules and more in a workplace with 90 bosses and 90 separate ways of doing business.
“I think it could be game-changing,” said Claire Prihoda, aide to Portland Sen. Kate Lieber. “Sometimes I think, ‘Wow, we’re the first.’ We’re part of something historic not just in Oregon but possibly across the county.”
More than possible, perhaps, if the inquiries Local 89 organizer Tony Ruiz is fielding are any indication.
“Absolutely weekly, if not daily, we’re getting emails and phone calls from legislative aides reaching out to us — ‘Hey, congratulations, and how do we do this?’” Ruiz said. “We definitely recognize the significance of it and are humbled to have gotten to this point.”
Oregon’s 30 state senators and 60 House members each employ a year-round staffer and most hire at least one more when the Legislature is in session. Depending on the calendar, the bargaining unit will represent about 90 to 180 workers.
A core group of staffers began making phone calls last July, kicking off a campaign that was virtual from start to finish due to COVID-19 restrictions at the Capitol.
They were pleased but not necessarily surprised to find a groundswell of support. Aides to Democrats and Republicans alike soon began signing union cards.
“It’s not partisan,” Prihoda said. “The work we do, helping constituents navigate agencies and bureaucracies, is pretty nonpolitical. We have all the bread-and-butter issues in common.”
As the pandemic made even greater demands on their time and energy, staffers grew closer.
“People were really connecting, asking each other, ‘How did you manage this problem?’” said Zoe Klingmann, aide to Eugene-area Rep. Julie Fahey. “There was a lot of solidarity even before there was a formal union.”
Beyond their professional duties, shared concerns range from parking and travel expenses to workplace harassment and pay equity, an issue the Legislature tried and failed to resolve by way of committees and consultants.
“We tried to engage leadership and HR and were rebuffed,” said Logan Gilles, who’s worked for Portland Sen. Michael Dembrow since 2009. “It felt like we’d tried every other way to do this, so it made sense to join a union.”
Gilles said staffers had whispered for years about organizing, but thought they were prohibited by state law. That was a misconception, as Ninth District organizer Ray Lister helped clarify last year.
Lister, a journeyman wireman out of Portland Local 48, ran for the Oregon House in 2016. He didn’t win, but the race plugged him into the Capitol grapevine, where he heard that staffers were contemplating a union.
He knew how badly they needed one. In terms of balance of power, he said few workplaces are as lopsided as a statehouse.
“People who get elected to office are people with big personalities, big egos, and they’re very powerful,” Lister said. “Labor representation is key where there’s the greatest power differential. And there’s a huge one where you’re dealing with workers who have no voice at all and elected leaders who have the power to make law.”
Staffers were excited to team up with the IBEW, but worried about being high maintenance. Or as Klingmann put it, “being such a weird workplace.” Would unionizing amid the chaos of state laws, rules and traditions, policies and politics take its toll?
“The IBEW, and especially Local 89, have been awesome, even with all our idiosyncrasies,” Prihoda said. “We’ve had millions of questions, thousands of scenarios — we come from organizing and political backgrounds ourselves — and they’ve been very patient with us.”
Their fears stemmed from hearing that another union walked away from a similar organizing drive in Delaware. So, when the Oregon Department of Justice filed objections to their union on Constitutional grounds last December — weighing in at the behest of unknown lawmakers — staffers held their breath.
“We were waiting to see if the IBEW was going to stick with us,” Gilles said. “But they had our backs. They really went to bat for us.”
IBEW organizers were proud to do so. “They were a phenomenal group to work with,” Lister said, also praising Local 89 and Salem Local 280, which offered invaluable support.
In April, the state Employment Relations Board rejected DOJ arguments against the union, clearing the path to the May 28 election. The vote was 75-31 — a margin so wide it didn’t matter that another 30 ballots were set aside when state lawyers raised eligibility issues.
John O’Rourke, Ninth District International Vice President, said he’s excited by the new unit and hopes it leads to more legislative staffers being organized, as well as workers in other non-traditional fields.
“Anytime, anywhere, there are workers who want to be unionized, the IBEW is the right choice, and we’ll walk with them every step of the way,” O’Rourke said.
Local 89, which represents an eclectic mix of units in the Pacific Northwest, was seen as the perfect fit for workers in jobs with strict government ethics rules.
“It was better for them to have a local that didn’t have a political tilt,” Ruiz said. “We don’t have a PAC. We don’t make endorsements. We don’t support candidates financially.”
That was a big selling point, Gilles said. “This isn’t a traditional public-sector union. Their lobbyist isn’t going to show up in our offices asking for a monetary allocation. It helps avoid even the appearance of conflict.”
The Freedom Foundation, one of the Pacific Northwest’s most aggressive enemies of unions, claims otherwise. A lawsuit filed Aug. 5 aims to derail the unit as “fundamentally incompatible” with the Legislature’s work.
The lawsuit came as no surprise to organizers and, for now, is low on the list of concerns going forward.
They know that one of their bigger challenges will be sustaining a strong unit over time in a workplace with high turnover among legislative aides, who are typically in their 20s and early 30s.
Gilles, who has worked at the Capitol an exceptional 12 years, is hopeful that a union contract will slow down the churn.
“I’m an uncommonly tenured staffer,” Gilles said. “Three or four years, two sessions, is more standard. But people might choose to stay longer if there’s more security and equity.”
There’s a greater good, too, he said. “One of the things that happens with lots of turnover, is that it gives more power to the lobbyists. The lobby becomes the place where institutional memory is vested.”
As their success drew national headlines, staffers took turns speaking to the media. Gilles, in a radio interview with Prihoda on Oregon Public Broadcasting in June, explained that legislative aides are no different than other workers in needing a voice on the job.
“Part of my interest in this is just codifying some of the status quo elements that we have, because without a union, legislative leadership can change our pay, our health care benefits, our premiums, our retirement benefits. They could change them tomorrow,” Gilles told listeners.
“If we have a signed contract where both sides agree that this is what it is, and if it’s going to change, we’re going to talk about it, I think that’s a huge step forward.”