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News / Northwest

Democratic employees in Washington Legislature seek union

Republican staff filed separate petitions for representation earlier this month. Legislative workers are expected to vote before the end of June on whether to join unions

By Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard
Published: May 31, 2024, 4:13pm

Democratic staff in Washington’s Legislature have taken the first step toward unionizing.

Petitions on behalf of workers in each chamber were filed May 17 with the Public Employment Relations Commission, which will certify bargaining units and conduct elections.

One covers 82 legislative assistants, policy analysts and communications staff of the House Democratic Caucus. The other is for 32 legislative assistants in the Senate Democratic Caucus. Both seek to be represented by the Washington Public Employees Association.

“We’re all pretty excited about this,” said Josie Ellison, a communications specialist with the House Democratic Caucus. “We hope this will have a positive impact in creating a better work environment that allows staff to stay on longer.”

Alice Palosaari, a policy analyst for House Democrats, took part in a staff sickout in the 2022 session that jolted lawmakers into passing the law allowing collective bargaining for legislative employees.

“We’re state employees. We’re public servants. This is the best job I’ve ever had. I want to keep doing this” she said.

But changes are needed in areas like compensation, staffing levels, workload requirements and overtime to make it possible for employees to stay put longer, she and other employees said Tuesday.

With these latest petitions, four groups of legislative employees are seeking union representation.

Legislative assistants for Republicans in the House and Senate filed separate petitions for representation by the Legislative Professionals Association on May 1. Mail ballots will be sent to eligible Republican employees Friday and are due back by June 20. PERC will conduct the election at 9 a.m. June 21.

Democratic employees want the Public Employment Relations Commission to conduct the union certification election on June 12. But the commission as of Tuesday had not set a date.

If an election is successful, workers in the unit can begin bargaining on July 1, the same date as other state employee unions. Any completed agreement must be ratified by Oct. 1 in order to take effect on July 1, 2025.

A seat at the table

A 2022 law laid the foundation for employees of the House, Senate and legislative agencies to pursue collective bargaining. Washington has now joined Oregon, Maine and a handful of other states offering legislative employees the opportunity to unionize.

Legislation passed this year filled in details such as which workers are eligible to unionize and what topics can and cannot be collectively bargained.

Full-time partisan employees in the state House and Senate – which include staff of lawmakers and the Democratic and Republican caucuses – plus any additional partisan staff hired each session, are eligible to be in a union.

However, House and Senate employees cannot be in the same bargaining unit. Employees of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in each chamber must be separate as well unless a majority of each caucus votes to be in the same unit. Similar rules apply for legislative assistants.

When bargaining begins, several subjects are off-limits to negotiate, such as the length of the work day during a legislative session, as well as in the 60 calendar days before a session and the 20 days afterward.

And the law specifically bars legislative employees from striking, participating in work stoppages, or refusing to perform job duties.

Jeremy Knapp, an executive legislative assistant in the Senate Democratic Caucus, said three months isn’t much time. But House and Senate staff have worked on this for years and are confident about getting an agreement.

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“We want to be at the table on July 1,” he said. “We’re really excited about having a contract in 2025.”

The Washington State Standard is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that provides original reporting, analysis and commentary on Washington state government and politics. We seek to keep you informed about Washington’s most pressing issues, the decisions elected leaders are making, how they are spending tax dollars and who is influencing public policy.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.