Plan to allow legislative staff to unionize awaits Inslee’s signature

The Washington State Legislative Building in Olympia. (By Albert James / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Beginning in 2024, legislative staff can start the process of collective bargaining, if Gov. Jay Inslee signs a bill passed by the Legislature on Thursday.

The bill passed 28-20 in the state Senate on Thursday, and changes made were OK’d in the state House of Representatives. The proposal received attention this session after more than 100 staffers called in sick to protest the bill originally dying. A different version was since revived.

Legislative staff are currently not covered by state civil service laws that grant some state employees the right to unionize.

“This will make our state Legislature stronger, and it will make our state stronger,” Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, said on the floor.

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, refuse to perform or participate in work stoppages during the legislative session or committee assembly.

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 state budget sets aside $1 million a year for the office.

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.

Bargaining cannot include management rights, according to the bill. Those include the size and composition of standing committees, the employer’s budget and size of the workforce, hours worked during the legislative session and retirement plans.

Republicans spoke against the bill. Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said there are other ways to address staff issues than collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is not the logical next step, Braun said.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said the bill leaves a “big question mark, a big risk” about what staff will bargain and how it will affect the Legislature.

“I’m afraid the bill will dramatically alter how the Legislature operates,” Padden said.