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For more than 20 years, California lawmakers wouldn’t let their staffers unionize. That’s about to change

Legislative staffers at work on the Assembly floor on April 24, 2023.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
Legislative staffers at work on the Assembly floor on April 24, 2023.

Legislators appear ready to finally give their staff the right to unionize. But a final change would allow new lawmakers to dismiss their predecessor’s staffers.

The effort to allow California’s legislative staff to unionize — at least 23 years in the works — is nearly across the finish line.

But to win enough support from their bosses, significant changes are still being made: New lawmakers would be able to dismiss their predecessor’s staffers. In July, the bill was amended to push back when the union could organize from 2024 to 2026.

The watered-down version passed the Senate today on a 30-3 vote, and awaits a final vote in the Assembly before it goes to the governor.

The bill’s author, Assemblymember Tina McKinnor, a Democrat from Inglewood, pumped her fists outside the Senate chamber, and said this bill was the reason that she ran for office last year.

“I have tears. This is like my baby,” McKinnor said.

“It’s just time that we support our staff, that we see them, that we make sure that they don’t have a hostile environment to work under,” she told reporters after the bill’s passage. “Because this is some tough work. And we need the brightest and the best to do the people’s work.”

During the debate, Sen. Brian Dahle, a Redding Republican, said he was conflicted about the bill, but noted that during the long days leading up to adjournment on Thursday, staffers don’t get paid overtime.

This is at least the fifth time a bill to allow staff to unionize has been introduced. The first such attempt was in 2000. Critics have pointed to the absence of collective bargaining for their own employees as one way legislators don’t follow the laws they pass for everyone else.

Past efforts have failed because of concerns that a union could get in the way of elected officials representing their constituents, as well as undermining the autonomy of how lawmakers run their offices.

What changed this year?

In addition to dozens of amendments over the past few years, McKinnor, a former legislative staff member herself, is the new leader of the Public Employment and Retirement Committee where the bill has repeatedly failed. The Assembly’s leaders made it Assembly Bill 1, and it has more than 40 co-authors from both chambers — including both the former and current Assembly speakers.

McKinnor is among 21 Assemblymembers and five senators who previously worked as Legislative staff members.

The Legislature this year has made several efforts to boost workers in other industries, including proposed deals this week to increase pay for workers in the fast food and health care industries.

Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher — a former Assemblymember who carried legislative unionization bills in 2018, 2019 and 2021, and who is now head of the California Labor Federation — said this bill is one of the most important for the group this year.

If the bill is signed into law, about 1,800 full-time staffers employed by the Legislature would join statehouse workers from Oregon, the first state to allow unionizing. And congressional staffers won the right to unionize last year — which helped convince some lawmakers.

The bill allows collective bargaining, but it would be up to staff to organize and win approval for a union.

And while some concerns remain about the “constitutionality and functionality of the bill,” according to the Senate floor analysis — such as a lack of language addressing strikes, mediation, or arbitration — Gonzalez Fletcher said those details need to be addressed through contract negotiations, and would be inappropriate to include in legislation.

The analysis also notes: “While other issues remain, it is also true that very few legislative projects pass in perfect form. The need for ongoing clarification and improvement would not be unique to this bill.”

McKinnor said she isn’t worried about the bill winning final approval in the Assembly, and is similarly optimistic about the governor signing the bill, though she acknowledged there was still work to be done.

“I don’t want to jinx myself, again, I don’t want to get too excited, because I have one more step to go.” she said. “I have faith that he will sign the deal. But I look forward to meeting him and his staff to talk about it.”

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.