Oregon legislative employees' historic union vote could pave way for nation

"Every employee has the right to organize their workplace."

June 8, 2021, 5:03 AM

Oregon's state legislative employees made history by becoming the first in the nation to unionize, and labor experts are predicting it will have major ripple effects across the country.

With a vote of 75-31 on May 28, staffers for state legislators, employees who work at the state Capitol offices in Salem and other public employees joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 89. According to the state employees who spoke with ABC News, they will now negotiate a contract on various issues, including wages and scheduling for 180 staff members.

“There have been some changes in professionalizing the workforce. They took a lot of steps for improvements," Claire Prihoda, an Oregon state legislative aide told ABC News. "But there was no input from the staff.”

"There was a lot of frustration among us, because we couldn't get answers on questions like pay," she added.

Labor and legislative experts predict that Oregon's unionization effort will spark other organizing efforts in other public offices and change the way statehouses work with their employees.

People hold "Vote Union Yes!" signs during a protest in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate and the unionization of Amazon.com, Inc. fulfillment center workers at Kelly Ingram Park, March 27, 2021, in Birmingham, Ala.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

"What happens in these situations is that people say 'You can’t do this, you can't organize, it won't succeed,' and then one state finally does it," Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told ABC News. "Word gets out, and state employees are looking at this."

Oregon workers band together

Logan Gilles, an Oregon legislative aide who was part of the unionization process, told ABC News there was no single factor that spurred him and his colleagues to organize.

There has always been an unspoken rule among employees that they would have to work long hours and not be compensated with higher pay, because that is the nature of working in politics, according to Gilles. In past instances, some workers were underpaid or had to wait for back pay due to disorganization, he claimed.

"I think for a long time, the imbalance of power within the Capitol was unquestioned and unchallenged," Gilles told ABC News.

The Oregon state employees reached out to IBEW Local 89 this year with their intentions to unionize and began to organize. Tony Ruiz, IBEW Local 89's organizer, told ABC News that while his organization has never undertaken an effort with state legislative employees, he didn't hesitate to help these workers.

"Regardless of your trade or where you work, every employee has the right to organize their workplace," Ruiz told ABC News.

Empty House of Representatives chamber of the Oregon State Capitol building. Aug. 9, 2013, in Salem, Ore.
Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

Organizing was done mostly virtually, and there were some challenges, including from some legislators who argued before Oregon’s Employment Relations Board that a potential union was "fundamentally incompatible" with how the legislature works. Department of Justice lawyer Tessa Sugahara, who represented the opponents, argued in February there was no clear person or body that would negotiate on behalf of the legislature.

The board, however, rejected this argument and allowed the unionization vote to go forward, citing that the current laws gave them the right to organize.

Ruiz said its members are planning to start contract bargaining with the legislative leaders this week and the union is confident state leaders will be receptive to their members' needs. Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney put out a joint statement after the vote indicating that they will be negotiating in good faith.

"We are committed to supporting the needs of the Legislature’s dedicated staff. The people’s work could not be done without them," the statement read.

A spark around statehouses

Gilles said his colleagues are aware of the impacts their campaign could have on other statehouse employees.

"I think we know that people watch efforts like this, and something like this could be a bellwether for other workers across the country," he said.

Bronfenbrenner, who served as a labor organizer in the '80s, predicted that other statehouse employees will soon be holding similar organization drives. She said the rise in unionizing efforts in the political and public service sector was inevitable, given recent events in the sector.

Over the last few years, political campaign staffs have organized to form unions during their tenure, including some during the 2020 presidential election season.

The Oregon State Capitol Building in Salem, Oregon.
Jordan Mcalister/Flickr Vision/Getty Images, FILE

Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign affiliated itself with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren's campaign affiliated with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 2320.

"As political campaign staffers follow into the legislatures, some of those people would start saying, 'Well, we were organized on the campaign, we should organize once we’re in the legislature,'" Bronfenbrenner said.

Other statehouse employees will likely be more interested in unionizing efforts, Bronfenbrenner added, because of the overall change in attitudes among younger employees when it comes to unionization. A recent Gallup poll found that while the national approval for unions in the U.S. dropped from 65% to 48% between 2000 and 2010, that approval rating returned to 65% between 2010 and 2020.

Bronfenbrenner said many employees are also now more enticed to seek unionization after living through two economic recessions and having more open discussions about workplace issues such as harassment. She noted that recent unionization efforts are popping up in newer job sectors that previously had no collective bargaining, such as digital media, tech and academia.

"The argument has always been 'Oh you’re doing it for a cause, you shouldn’t organize.' That same thing was said about nursing, social work [and] teaching, and yet those workplaces benefited after they formed a union and started collective bargaining," she said.

Challenges for future campaigns

Bronfenbrenner and other experts noted that organizing for statehouse employees, however, does run into its own idiosyncrasies compared to other unionization efforts.

Labor laws differ from state to state when it comes to the employment structure of state legislative staff and labor organizing, according to Josh Cunningham, the program manager for employment, labor and retirement for the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.

Some statehouses may have a set of rules for employees who work specifically for a state legislature and another set of rules for those who are nonpartisan employees that work in the legislature, such as researchers and aides assigned to committees, he said. Other statehouses have different rules between their assembly and senate chambers, according to Cunningham.

"It comes to the decentralized nature of legislatures," Cunningham, a former legislative aide for a Denver state legislator, told ABC News. "There are 50 states and 99 legislatures, and each has its own staff structure."

Another hurdle is local labor laws, Cunningham said.

No state has laws that explicitly give statehouse employees the right to organize, and there are some that bar it. In Maine, for example, nonpartisan statehouse employees are allowed to unionize, but employees who work for elected officials are prohibited, Cunningham said.

A union supporter stands before sunrise outside the Amazon.com, Inc. BHM1 fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, March 29, 2021.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

States with murkier laws have had a hit-or-miss record.

A unionization effort by Delaware state employees in 2020 failed after a law firm hired to evaluate their efforts concluded that the state laws prohibited them from forming one. The staff was "exempt from classified service," The News Journal reported, and that status is crucial for collective bargaining wages, according to labor law.

In March, Colorado state legislative employees and campaign workers formed a minority/open model union, the Political Workers Guild of Colorado, after trying unsuccessfully to create a regular union. The state would need statutory change for the employees to be able to form a collective bargaining unit, but in the meantime, 60 legislative aides are part of the guild, according to the group's spokeswoman.

Oregon's laws were also not clear cut, which is what led to the court battle before the vote, but judges ultimately sided with the staffers.

"It's a very unpredictable business," Cunningham said.

Some states have worked to rectify those legal loopholes, including in Oregon, Cunningham noted. Senate Bill 759 would name the Capitol’s legislative administrator as the person responsible for bargaining with an employee union. The bill passed in the state Senate in April and is awaiting a vote in the Oregon House.

Gilles said there has been more interest in debating the bill since the unionization vote took place.

"We feel confident something will be worked out," he said.

Cunningham said he foresees other states will keep an eye on Oregon's bill and come up with legislation to clarify collective bargaining rules. Elected officials will have to rectify these issues soon, he added, especially if more state employees begin talking about unionization efforts.

"If Oregon can find a way to make this work … it could give other states a framework to work with," he said.