California’s dominant Democratic Party is closely affiliated with the state’s unions, so it’s not surprising that legislators often take steps to help their allies recruit and retain dues-paying members.
Last month, for example, language crept into a very long budget trailer bill declaring the state intends to offer union members who don’t itemize their income tax deductions a refundable tax credit that offsets their dues. In fact, under the “Workers Tax Fairness Credit,” as it’s called, taxpayers would pay some or all of the dues that members pay to their unions.
It’s one of many measures in recent years that clearly aims to make it easier for unions to maintain membership in light of a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that bans state laws requiring officials to pay dues even if they are not union members. And it should be noted that some of the taxpayer-subsidized union money would eventually end up in the campaign bills of the lawmakers who voted for the bill and the governor, Gavin Newsom, who signed it.
However, the Capitol’s mutually beneficial partnership with union organizers has one clear exception: its own employees.
The legislature has sidelined several attempts to allow its workers to unionize, mainly by former councilman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, who recently became the top official of the California Labor Federation. But the problem seems to be gaining ground this year.
Councilor Mark Stone, a Democrat from Santa Cruz, made a “gut and amendment” maneuver on a bill already passed by the Assembly and pending in the Senate. He added language that would allow legislative workers to unite, and the revised bill went on to win the approval of the Senate Committee on Labor, Public Employment and Retirement.
If the full Senate passes Assembly Bill 1577, it could go to the Assembly floor for approval without taking up the gauntlet of the Assembly committees where Fletcher’s union laws died.
“I think giving people a voice in their workplaces is something that is at the core of the values of many in this legislature,” Stone told committee members. “And that’s really what this bill is.”
Legislative workers’ unionization has been aided by the legislature’s listless responses to complaints of sexual harassment and other workplace problems — and the new drive comes just as congressional officials are seeking the same.
In May, the House of Representatives approved HR1096, which gave House staffers the legal protections they needed to become unionized. And when the resolution went into effect this month, workers in eight offices of progressive lawmakers filed petitions with the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, the first step toward unionization.
“Congress has little standing to preach to others about the right to unionize and bargain collectively if we are not willing to recognize that right in our own corridors,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Fremont, at the San Francisco Chronicle. “Every worker deserves the right to join a union.”
That is absolutely true in both legislative bodies. It is simply hypocritical for lawmakers in both locations to advocate unionization and pass laws that help unions gain and retain members, while prohibiting such an organization for their own employees.
Stone’s bill still has a way to go. The unspoken resistance to unionizing in the Capitol, even among lawmakers with unionized backgrounds, is still strong. Many want to hire and fire at will and set their own terms of employment without outside supervision.
But fair is fair and when politicians enter the conversation, they must be willing to take the lead.