The municipal workforce has shown just how essential it is during this pandemic. From sanitation workers to teachers, and nurses to subway conductors, public sector workers have kept New York running in the face of the biggest public health crisis in over a century.
Importantly, these workers have been unionized. Unions have helped address workforce issues like inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and hazardous working conditions. Without municipal unions, undoubtedly we would have lost many more lives to COVID-19.
Throughout the pandemic, a group of public-sector workers has continued organizing to form a new union at the New York City Council. Nearly 400 Council Member Aides—the often low-paid staff who field constituent questions, organize community events, and connect the city's legislative body with the grassroots—have been meticulously working towards union recognition. A majority of staff signed union membership cards twice over the past year: once before the pandemic, and then again in late 2020, despite not being able to physically interact with colleagues due to COVID-19. This consistent majority reflects the democratic will of aides to form a union.
Member Aides' Turn
In December, the first slice of Council workers, 23 analysts in the Council's Finance Division, were recognized as members of the Association of Legislative Employees (ALE), becoming New York State's first cohort of unionized legislative workers. Now it's time for the nearly 400 Council Member Aides to get recognized.
Council staff's reasons for organizing are familiar to those of us with experience in the labor movement: they seek an organized voice to establish equitable workplace standards pertaining to grievance procedures, work hours, salaries, training and advancement, and harassment. The average Council Member Aide salary was $47,784 as of July 1, 2019, according to data obtained by POLITICO via a Freedom of Information Law request. The meager amount masks a number of particularly low-paid staff, for whom the strength of a union contract would bring potentially life-changing benefits.
Staff have also battled against bullying, sexual harassment, and retaliation on the job. Former Council Member Andy King of The Bronx was expelled last October after he was found to have harassed staff, misspent taxpayer dollars, and retaliated against staff who cooperated with investigators. Action to remove King was propelled by the brave statements of female Council staff who refused to be silent in the face of abuse, with the support of their co-workers.
COVID-19 further demonstrated why staff want a union: to advocate for their safety and well-being. In the weeks after the pandemic started, Council staff continued to work in direct contact with members of the public. They performed essential work for the Council, with aides helping distribute thousands of pieces of PPE to the city's most-vulnerable populations, often in locations with high infection rates. Many more kept working behind-the-scenes, connecting home-bound older adults to home-delivered meals through GetFoodNYC, or providing real-time COVID-19 testing information to constituents without internet access. Staff were infected with COVID-19 during this period, and tragically, one aide died in April.
Still Served Public Well
Council Members' District Offices have been allowed to re-open since last July, with some employees resuming in-person work to provide key constituent services. Like many essential workers, these staff are at risk of contracting COVID-19 in the line of duty.
While everyone has the right to disagree with a Council Member, there's no denying that their staffers have served New Yorkers proudly during the pandemic. We thank the Council Members who have been vocal supporters of the unionization effort. Indeed, 29 of the current 48 Members have committed to vote to empower Speaker Corey Johnson to expedite the voluntary recognition process. We call on all Members to give Council staff the union they seek.
Sometimes, politicians come to the labor movement, but at other times, the labor movement comes to them. The Council union effort is a labor issue right on Council Members' doorstep. Now is the time to welcome these hardworking public servants into the family of unionized municipal employees.
Ms. Washington is a Council Member Aide and organizer for the NYC Council Staff Union.
Mr. Trainor is Vice-President, Communications Workers of America, District 1.
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