On Wednesday morning organizers say 105 legislative workers — including legislative aides, communications staffers, and others — staged a sick-out in protest of poor working conditions. During a press conference later on, Democratic House Speaker Laurie Jinkins confirmed "somewhere near 50" people out sick on her side, and Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle) confirmed "at least 34" out in the Senate.
The demonstration came the day after Democratic House leadership killed a bill that would have authorized those legislative workers to unionize, ending yet another attempt in a decade-long effort to extend collective bargaining rights to the people who basically run the Legislature.
This year's proposal, HB 1806, was sponsored by Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane) and co-sponsored by 39 other Democrats. With that much support from members, comfortable Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, and a prime sponsor on the powerful Rules Committee, Dems should have had few issues passing the bill even with relatively staunch Republican opposition. And yet, they couldn't even get it to the House floor.
At the press conference, Speaker Jinkins, who co-sponsored an earlier version of the bill in 2019, claimed "a lot of issues" stopped the bill from moving forward this year, including "complex" questions around which workers to include in the bargaining unit, what they'd get to bargain over, and who would stand as the employer.
The bill, however, already answers many of those questions. It lists out all the employees of the legislative branch with some exceptions, establishes a process for picking the employer's negotiator, and broadly lays out the kinds of stuff the workers could bargain over. Jinkins called that description "overly simplistic."
Over the phone, Democratic Majority Leader Pat Sullivan wouldn't throw anyone else in leadership under the bus for killing the bill, but he counted himself among those who decided the bill wasn't ready to bring to the floor this year.
Sullivan claimed the bill presented difficult "technical" problems and said he'd heard that Oregon's Legislature, which passed a proposal to let its employees unionize last year, ran into troubles. However, when pressed, he couldn't offer specifics.
He also wouldn't describe backroom discussions on the issue with leadership, but he said he'd heard conflicting information about some aspects of the bill. For example, he said people told him the Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) would decide which workers would ultimately constitute a bargaining unit, so he shouldn't worry about getting too specific about the bargaining units. But "the experts" he talked to said "no, you need to define that and be specific in the statute about who is in the unit and who isn't."
"I want to make it really clear," he added, "The majority of our caucus — if not everyone — was unhappy the bill didn’t pass this year. Despite the fact I didn’t think it was in a form ready to pass... I support the right to collectively bargain. This is not an attempt to prevent collective bargaining from happening with our employees by any stretch."
At the press conference, Jinkins expressed a similar sentiment. She welcomed the protest (noting that the law prohibits legislative workers from explicitly lobbying for the bill), congratulated everyone for pushing the bill farther along than it has ever been pushed, and promised to push the proposal over the finish line next year.
That said, any of the concerns Sullivan and Jinkins raised could have been worked out in amendments or strikers, or else "perfected" in the Senate.
This particular issue has reached a fever pitch partly due to a resurgence in organizing among workers in a tight labor market (including a recent push to unionize among Congressional aides), and because it's been going on in the Washington Legislature for a long time.
Even Sullivan said there was "talk about forming a union" when he served as a legislative aide back in the day, "but the work had never been done." But people did eventually start doing the work. A bill introduced in 2011 by Seattle Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon never made it out of committee. Eight years later, a different version of the bill died in the House Appropriations committee. This year leadership killed the bill in the Rules Committee, the last stop before a bill hits the floor.
Though the bill died again this year, Sullivan said, "The message has been sent...The issue is a priority for sure."
But it doesn't sound like the message is going to stop coming.
Some workers who spoke to The Stranger anonymously for fear of retaliation complained of low wages, insane amounts of uncompensated overtime, policed personal lives, weird power dynamics with members, and they described that impossible situation where you technically have vacation but you can't ever really take it because you feel as if you can't keep up with all the other stuff you need to do. All of that, one worker said, leads to a high turnover rate that drains the body — particularly on the Democratic side — of institutional knowledge and also hobbles efforts to increase diversity.
Though other kinds of workers in the legislative branch would likely be included in the bargaining unit, two of the big ones would be communications staff and legislative aides. Communications staff deal with the press, while the average legislative aide works to serve the constituents in a given member's district, often connecting them to services at state agencies. (If you called your representative to get help with your unemployment check when the pandemic kneecapped your job, then chances are a legislative aide helped you navigate that mess.) Aides also create and oversee their member's schedule, keep track of bills, and greet anyone who comes into the member's office.
When the Legislature is in session, they do all that in an intense, fast-paced environment with weird hours. For instance, some staff pulled an all nighter on Monday as House Republicans dragged out debate on a bill to prevent the Department of Labor & Industries from protecting workers from repeated injury disorders.
Nigel Herbig, current Kenmore Mayor and former House legislative aide, described his experience working for former House Reps. Jessyn Farrell and Javier Valdez as "generally good," but he said he saw his younger and less-settled colleagues struggle. Some people felt as if they couldn't take vacation during the interim (the period of time when the Legislature is not in session) without the risk of falling too far behind on work. They also struggled with low pay. When he started in 2013, he said "a lot of folks coming in were still qualifying for subsidized housing." Furthermore, working for powerful elected officials creates an "out-of-whack power dynamic" that "makes it hard to push for improved working conditions."
Current legislative workers lodge nearly the same exact complaints. One worker who's been in the Legislature for "years" said the legislative pay grid starts with a salary in the mid $30,000s. (A 2020 job ad listed an Associate Legislative Assistant for Rep. Sharon Shewmake starting at $42,732 per year, but that doesn't get you too far, even in Bellingham.) The same worker also called overtime "excessive" and complained about a lack of tools and resources to support the aides and other staff when they run into HR problems.
Another worker highlighted the problems that arise when working for elected officials who may make compelling politicians but bad managers. Over the years, lawmakers have put staff in horrible positions that prevent them from speaking up for fear of losing their job.
Though Sullivan seems set on keeping HB 1806 dead this year, one legislative worker rejected that narrative. "When there’s a will there is a way, and there’s avenues to put things forward legislatively when you want to. This is a clear showing of their lack of care for their own staff, who are all extremely overworked," this person said.
And that person is correct. Any lawmaker could sponsor a resolution to exempt the bill from cutoff, and that resolution would only need to pass with a majority vote. Though such a move would save the bill for now, it would risk opening the floodgates for saving other important legislation that died yesterday. Leadership could also declare the bill "necessary to implement the budget," but even then the bill would be subject to an objection on the floor, and leadership would need to be able to defend the designation.
But if lawmakers don't get caught trying to do either of those things, the bug going around the legislative offices might keep going around.