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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Union votes herald a new era for workers in Washington Legislature

By Jerry Cornfield Washington State Standard

The stage is set for the first-ever contract negotiations between Washington state lawmakers and some of their most trusted employees.

Democratic staff in the state House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to unionize Monday, joining their Republican peers in both chambers who elected to form bargaining units last month.

Now workers in each of the four partisan caucuses will sit down with administrative leaders of the House and Senate to negotiate separate agreements covering wages, benefits and working conditions.

“It’s a historic moment,” said Josie Ellison, a communications specialist with the House Democratic Caucus. “It’s been a lot of years in the making. It means a lot to the folks who are here. It also means a lot to folks who aren’t here because they couldn’t afford to stay.”

Conversations about collective bargaining for legislative employees date back more than a decade. But it wasn’t until a 2022 law that Washington joined Oregon and Maine in offering legislative staff the opportunity to unionize.

This past session, lawmakers filled in critical details such as which workers are eligible to unionize and what topics can and cannot be collectively bargained. When finished, they said Washington had the most expansive law of any state in the nation.

“This is new territory,” said Alice Palosaari, a policy analyst for House Democrats. “We’re really excited to be there and see what we can do with it.”

The scene

In a bit of a surprise, legislative assistants for Republicans in the House and Senate went first, filing for representation by the Legislative Professionals Association on May 1.

Democratic workers in each chamber filed their petitions May 17 with the Public Employment Relations Commission, which conducted the elections and will resolve disputes that may arise in the course of negotiating agreements. The commission is the independent state agency that carries out Washington’s collective bargaining laws.

One petition 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.

Under Washington’s law, employees of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in each chamber must be in separate units unless a majority of each caucus votes to be in the same unit. However, units can negotiate collectively on economic issues, like wages and benefits, with the employers, which are the chief clerk of the House and secretary of the Senate.

When bargaining begins, several subjects are off-limits, 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.

Any completed deals must be ratified by Oct. 1. They would take effect on July 1, 2025, presuming they are funded in the budget lawmakers will pass and the next governor will sign in the spring.

Heading to the table

Monday’s elections were a landslide. House Democratic staff voted 58-1 for representation and their Senate counterparts backed the union by a 23-0 margin. PERC will certify the results and resolve questions of eligibility of some of the voting members.

The results didn’t surprise the Democratic workers.

“We knew this was something people really wanted and they had been asking for this for a long time,” Palosaari said. “I’m just excited we get to go to the table and start fighting for them.

The mood among Republican legislative staff was a bit different. They aren’t necessarily pro-union. Rather they want to be sure their interests are protected.

In the House, legislative assistants voted 18-3 for representation. The vote was 21-1 among their Senate colleagues.

“Most of the Republican Legislative Assistants didn’t support unionization when polled, but if they make us have a union workplace, we want a union reflecting our values. The vote for our own local-only union was overwhelming,” said Jami Lund, spokesperson for the Legislative Professionals Association and a Senate legislative assistant.

Talks are planned this week in the House and in two weeks with the Senate, Lund said.

Initial conversations revealed an early wrinkle: Republicans want to conduct negotiations more openly than either the House or Senate administrations desire.

“We’ve proposed ground rules that include rules on public communication, but we have not yet reached an agreement,” Sarah Bannister, secretary of the Senate, said in an email.

Lund characterized it with slightly stronger terms, saying the employers seek “near-total secrecy about proceedings.”

“In our conversation with the [staff bargaining] teams we preferred more transparency, especially about our ability to make proposals available to members and others who are interested,” he said. “How this will be resolved is still uncertain.”