A majority of City Council Members appear to be following the lead of Speaker Corey Johnson in enthusiastically supporting the move by their staff to form a union, based on City Hall interviews and email exchanges with most of them and their representatives.
Organizers started their card campaign on Nov. 18 and said they were making steady progress toward getting union cards from 51 percent of the workforce of 775 people who are split between two divisions: those belonging to the central Council staff under Mr. Johnson and those employed by the 50 other Council Members in their lower Manhattan offices and in their districts.
Johnson Lays Out Rules
Speaker Johnson has pledged to support voluntary recognition of the union and sent out an internal email on Nov. 22 offering Council Members and staff managers legal guidance for how they were to conduct themselves in a workplace in the midst of a union organizing drive.
He stated, “I am writing to ensure that everyone knows that under applicable law, Council staff are entitled to form, join, and participate in a union of their own choosing. Any deliberate discouragement or interference with staff’s ability to exercise those rights in this regard is prohibited. All Council Members, their Chiefs of Staff, Division Directors, and other supervisors should be particularly aware of this prohibition and ensure that they do not engage in any form of retaliation against any staffer who seeks to unionize.”
Early on, he, Council Member I. Daneek Miller, who also chairs the Council’s Labor and Civil Service Committee, and Council Members Ben Kallos and Costa Constantinides backed the organizing drive, which is believed to be the first for legislative staffers nationwide.
“So, we are right now not seeking member support—it’s totally about the staff,” said Zara Nasir, a City Council staffer who is on the organizing committee. "We have six people on the core committee and 50 more people on the organizing committee and it is growing day by day.” Ms. Nasir, a member of the Progressive Caucus, continued, “There’s been tons of internal support. People are very excited.”
The organizing effort had been underway behind the scenes for months and surfaced as the Council deliberated in the case of Council Member Andy King, who twice in two years had allegations that he sexually harassed and abused his staff substantiated.
The internal Council probe was sparked by the discovery that in violation of its workplace policies, he terminated a staffer who had accused him of sexual harassment in 2015, a charge that was upheld in 2017.
Included in the latest round of substantiated charges were allegations that Mr. King “repeatedly intimidated and punished staff” to prevent them from cooperating with the internal probe, and “routinely required” staffers to use their personal vehicles to chauffeur him.
At the Council’s Oct. 29 meeting, it imposed a 30-day suspension without pay on Mr. King along with a $15,000 fine and installment of a monitor over his office’s operations until the end of his term.
A motion to expel him failed, 34-12.
Tough ‘Power Dynamics’
Several of the Council Members who spoke with this newspaper in support of the union effort said they viewed it through the prism of past experience as Council staffers.
“I was a staff member for seven years and it is a very difficult job being a staff member to a Council Member who is all-powerful,” said Council Member Antonio Reynoso. “I want to be clear. The power dynamics are expansive when it comes to a staff member to a Council Member.”
Other Members cited their own families’ roots to frame their support for staff.
“As someone who was born and raised in a union family and whose father was on the executive board of the Printers and Pressmen Union, it is who I am to support the rights of workers to unionize and organize, and that includes the men and women who work for the City Council,” said Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer.
“As a former shop steward, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists member, and Council staffer, I support the current staff in their campaign to form a union,” wrote Council Member Justin Brannan.
‘A Historic Opportunity’
“I think this is an historic opportunity to establish the City Council as the first unionized legislature in America,” said Council Member Richie Torres.
Of the Council’s three Republican members, only Council Member Eric Ulrich endorsed the union drive. City Council Minority Leader Steven Matteo and Council Member Joseph Borelli's position was “to take no position,” according to Peter Spencer, Chief of Operations for the Minority Leader.
The Daily News reported that at a Nov. 19 closed-door meeting, “a handful of City Council Members railed against staffers’ efforts to unionize.”
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