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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Report recommends that unionization of Washington legislative staffs focus on partisan workers

Lights come on in the domed Legislative Building on the Washington Capitol Campus as evening approaches in Olympia.  (Jim Camden/For The Spokesman-Review / For The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Roughly 300 people employed in the Washington state Legislature may begin union bargaining discussions next year, a union representative announced this week.

On Monday, the director of the Office of State Legislative Labor Relations presented a few recommendations from a 100-page report in a meeting with the state’s Joint Committee on Employment Relations.

The biggest recommendation mentioned by union office director Debbie Brookman was that employee union bargaining at the state Capitol be limited – at least initially – to partisan employees in the House and Senate, and that each chamber organize separately. That group would include full-time and session-only partisan employees, granting hundreds of employees the right to form union shops.

A law passed in 2022 made Washington one of the first U.S. states to allow employees of the House, Senate and legislative offices to form unions and collectively bargain. The law passed 28-20 in the state Senate and 56-41 in the state House of Representatives during the legislative session that year.

Oregon and Maine allow legislative employees to unionize. Brookman said in her presentation that her office is studying union organizations in those states to inform decisions in Washington.

The Office of State Legislative Labor Relations was created after the law passed allowing legislative employees to unionize. Brookman said her office has surveyed current legislative employees to get their takes on the unionizing process. Some survey responses inspired the group to leave nonpartisan employees out of beginning union bargaining talks.

“Many nonpartisan staff are concerned that their decision to join or not to join a union could be viewed as a political position by senators and representatives,” reads one employee’s union response, according to Brookman. In another survey response, one legislative employee reportedly wrote that if nonpartisan staff are perceived as partisan, it would impact the work group’s “reputation as a trusted resource for high-quality, nonpartisan service.”

Brookman said she hopes legislation will pass next year to “fill in the gaps” in the current legislative employee collective bargaining law.

The bargaining chapter is set to fully take effect on May 1, 2024.

“That’s when legislative employee unions may begin filing representation petitions, legislative employees could begin filing unfair labor practice charges – fingers crossed that doesn’t happen,” Brookman said. “But that’s when all the pieces of the law go fully into effect. … We’ll be presumably seeing bargaining unions being formed and certified.”

July 1, 2025, is the earliest date that a legislative union collective bargaining agreement could take effect.

“That’s a really short timeline for a first contract,” Brookman said. “It’s not impossible, but I’m just putting it out there that we should all be on notice that we are going to have to hit the ground running if anybody expects to actually have an agreement go into effect on July 1, 2025.”