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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

New bill to allow legislative staff to unionize passes state House

A jogger runs past the Legislative Building just before dusk on Dec. 21 at the Capitol in Olympia.  (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – Legislative staff could soon begin collective bargaining if a bill that passed the state House of Representatives becomes a law.

A previous version of the bill died earlier this session, but Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, revived the idea after more than 100 staffers called in sick to protest. That bill passed the House 56-41 on Tuesday.

“This legislation gets us one step closer to fairness and justice in the workplace,” Riccelli said on the floor.

Currently, legislative staff are not covered by state civil service laws that grant some state employees the right to unionize.

The bill that passed Tuesday doesn’t go as far as the original proposal, but does start the process for allowing staffers to unionize.

Under the proposal, staffers can begin bargaining on May 1, 2024. Agreements would take effect on July 1, 2025.

The bill gives employees the right to organize, bargain collectively or to refrain from doing so. It does not give them the right to strike or refuse to perform.

The proposal creates an Office of State Legislative Labor Relations, which would be charged with conducting collective bargaining negotiations for the Legislature, as well as consider frameworks for grievance procedures and disciplinary actions. The office must also study issues related to the implementation of bargaining and give a final report to the Legislature by Oct. 1, 2023, according to the bill.

This would allow the Legislature to come back in the 2024 session and pass additional legislation outlining the bargaining process as recommended by the new office. If the Legislature does not pass any additional legislation clarifying the process, staffers’ bargaining rights will go into effect automatically on May 1, 2024. Under an amendment passed Tuesday, the Public Employment Relations Commission has jurisdiction to deal with issues once collective bargaining rights are granted.

“It is a benefit to all when people join together and speak with a more collective voice to have a say about their compensation, and the environment they work in,” Riccelli said.

The new bill brought support from the Washington Federation of State Employees and the Washington Public Employees Association during a public hearing in the House Appropriations Committee, but drew some criticism from former staffers who said it does not go as far as the original bill does in protecting staffers.

The new bill also pushes bargaining a year later than the original proposal, something Riccelli said he understands the frustration around.

Republicans on Tuesday were not supportive of the bill.

Rep. Skyler Rude, R-Walla Walla, said the Legislature has made many improvements in recent years on being supportive of staff. He said their caucus sent out an anonymous survey to their staff and didn’t see a lot of support for the bill. Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, said she was worried about the unintended consequences of the bill and how it could affect legislators.

She said she recognized the importance of supporting staff, but she didn’t believe this legislation was “the best path” to get there.

The most ideal ways to handle issues with staff is through human resources and personnel departments, she said. The House is in the process of hiring its first human resources director.

The bill still needs to pass the state Senate. The 60-day legislative session is set to end March 10.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story had the wrong day of the week the bill passed. It passed on Tuesday, not Monday.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.