Despite state law excluding them from the list of public employees who can collectively bargain, legislative staff in the Massachusetts Senate have told President Karen E. Spilka that they intend to unionize. If they successfully organize — and they face major legal hurdles in doing so — they would be the second group of State House staff in the country to form a union.
Representatives from a local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which is representing some Senate staffers, delivered a letter to Spilka’s office Thursday, saying that a “strong majority” of around 200 staff members had signed union cards and were asking for voluntary recognition. The staff hope for a commitment from Spilka to address what they say are key systemic issues that predate her presidency. They cite unequal pay, gaps in health care coverage, and what they frame as a culture that allows discrimination and harassment.
The group, which staffers dubbed the Massachusetts State House Employee Union, announced its union drive in a statement dated Tuesday.
“The Senate has a rich history of supporting workers’ rights, and I am hopeful that their support will extend to staffers,” said Morgan Simko, a legislative director who has worked on Beacon Hill since 2020.
Legislative staffers who work in the state House of Representatives are actively organizing a union drive, too, according to people involved with the effort. According to organizers, they are working “in tandem” with Senate staff, recognizing that both chambers have similar issues despite being structured differently.
Through a spokesman, House Speaker Ronald Mariano declined to comment.
Massachusetts has a long pro-labor tradition, but state law carves out legislative staff from the definition of public employees who may collectively bargain. Legislation filed to allow staff to unionize has failed to pass the Legislature in the past, though Senate staff told the Globe that they hope Spilka continues her pro-union legacy by granting them a seat at a collective bargaining table.
“We work for legislators who make the laws. It is within their power to make changes,” said Shelly MacNeill, a 28-year State House veteran and chief of staff to Senator Michael O. Moore. “I would hope … that if a law change is required … then we can work together to make that happen.”
In a statement to the Globe, Spilka described herself as “a lifelong advocate of workers’ rights and a champion of organized labor,” and said she has worked to make the Senate “a fairer and more equitable workplace.”
She has asked Senate Counsel to “carefully review” the union’s request, and declined to comment on the letter she was presented with.
“I will continue the efforts I’ve undertaken since becoming President to fairly compensate staff and modernize and professionalize our staffing procedures to ensure greater predictability, fairness and transparency for all Senate employees,” she said in a statement. “I welcome ongoing conversations with our dedicated staff as we continue to make the Massachusetts State Senate a great place to work and build a career.”
Shortly after the announcement, several lawmakers, including statewide candidates Senator Diana DiZoglio, who is running for auditor, lieutenant governor candidate Representative Tami Gouveia, and gubernatorial candidate Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz expressed their support for the effort on Twitter.
“Staffers are the unsung heroes — it’s time for them to have a seat at the bargaining table,” Chang-Díaz wrote.
Labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, who is running for attorney general, also shared her support.
In a statement to the Globe, a campaign spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey said the candidate for governor backed the unionization effort, too.
“Maura continues to support the right of workers, including Senate staff, to organize and collectively bargain,” spokeswoman Maria Hardiman said.
Staff have discussed unionizing for years, organizers behind the push say, but the effort took on new momentum in 2021, following high staff turnover during the COVID-19 pandemic and a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures that concluded Senate staff pay “breaks with best practice.”
“It kind of came to … do you stay and try to make it better for the people who come after you?” MacNeill said. “I am hopeful that having a union in place gives people a better sense of security. They will feel that they have a voice in the workplace.”
Spilka’s office declined to comment on the legality of the unionization effort.
Tara Wilson, a legislative and budget director in the Senate, said she and other organizers are letting Spilka take the lead on next steps.
“Over half the staff have signed onto this effort. This is what we want,” Wilson told the Globe. “We are willing to work, compromise to get there. Step one is to open the door.”
The roughly 200 members of legislative staff who would be covered by a new union perform much of the behind-the-scenes work in one part of the State House, they said. They are the aides, policy directors, spokespeople, and chiefs of staff who draft legislation, interact with residents, and provide constituent services. Staffers said they selected IBEW Local 2222 to represent them in part because the union doesn’t lobby in state politics as actively as other unions do.
The IBEW also represented US Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign staff and currently represents staff in the Massachusetts and New Hampshire Democratic parties, and legislative staff in Oregon, the first State House in the country to unionize.
In February, Congressional staffers launched a union effort citing similar issues to those raised by legislative staff. The effort gained the endorsements of President Biden, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Senate staff say some of the concerns they hope to address at a bargaining include healthcare coverage (new employees must wait 60 days to enroll in the group insurance plan), cost of living increases, diverse hiring and staff retention, and a commitment to a workplace free from discrimination and harassment.
Many of these issues have been raised by staff-led group dubbed Beacon BLOC (Building Leaders of Color) and were again reiterated by the National Conference on State Legislatures, which found fault with the chamber’s hiring and pay practices for its staffers, concluding the approach “can be perceived as lacking fairness” and may lead to “problematic staff turnover.”
Shortly after Beacon BLOC released its own survey results last spring, both the House and Senate implemented a 6 percent pay increase for all staff, raising the minimum salary from $43,000 to $45,580, and provided a $500 pandemic-related stipend for work-from-home costs.
After Globe inquires about the NCSL report in month, the Senate announced that it had hired a consultant to serve as the chamber’s newly created “compensation specialist.”
In their efforts, staff have avoided criticizing Spilka, saying that the issues they hope to address predate her tenure, which began in July 2018. They say Spilka has played a more active role in shaping workplace conditions and promoting equity among staff.
“The issues we are trying to work through in this process are systemic, they are decades old, and we have had many staffers and years worth of effort put into this movement,” said Simko, the legislative director. “Now this is the moment it’s happening.”
But despite the work done in the past, having a say in decision-making is paramount to giving staff agency over their working conditions, said Evan Berry, a union organizer and communications director for Senator Becca Rausch. Having more power, Berry said, will lead to less turnover and better work for the people of the commonwealth.
“Staff are not disposable, and we deserve access to a long, meaningful, and beneficial state service to the constituents we serve,” Berry said. “The way it stands, staff does not have a space for our concerns to be implemented in the workplace.”