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Council staffers look to spread their union movement nationwide

3 years of talks finally yielded an agreement last week


Forming an independent union from scratch in a workplace with high turnover rates and is part of an industry with little history of organized labor is hard work. Settling a first collective bargaining agreement once you form that union is even harder.

Starbucks workers at more than 400 stores across the country have achieved the first step, unionizing their stores in a bottom-up, rank-and-file led approach, but those organizing gains have yet to result in a contract for thousands of workers. Staffers at the New York City Council, a similarly young, educated workforce, started organizing themselves in 2016, formally launched their campaign in 2019 and were certified as a union by the city’s Office of Collective Bargaining in 2021.

The staffers, who were committed to a similar rank-and-file strategy of unionizing as the Starbucks workers, started negotiating with Council officials in May 2022, but quickly found that the two sides were far apart on the key issue of compensation. As the city settled contracts with District Council 37, the United Federation of Teachers and the unions representing the city’s uniformed workforce, staffers didn’t just wait their turn, they rallied — twice a month by the union’s calculation — called for other unions to support them and continued to put pressure on Council leadership to finalize a contract.

And last week, the Association of Legislative Employees defied the odds and struck a deal with the Council that, should the staffers approve the six-year pact in voting this week, will raise the salaries of hundreds of staffers, give them vastly improved job security and compensation for some overtime work.

They did it, Council staffers told The Chief, with hard work, dedication and solidarity.

“Ultimately we’re doing this on a shoestring budget and [with] a lot of elbow grease and a lot of dedication,” Dan Kroop, the ALE’s president, told reporters on a Zoom call last week. “There's a lot of people and rank-and-file members of unions who are looking for a way to fight back and to get what they deserve, what they’re worth, and I do hope the ALE story inspires them to keep fighting, to take back our workers’ organizations for us as workers."

Next: growing the union’s ranks

The ALE’s members will vote on the deal from April 9 to 12 but after that Kroop said, the union has clear goals: growing the ALE’s membership, building the movement of organized legislative workers nationally, continuing to work with the Council within labor-management committees and preparing for the next negotiations.

The union has already succeeded with the first two of those goals. Only around half of the 382 staffers that the ALE represents pay dues to the union but since the settlement was reached with the Council last week, many more have signed up to pay dues so that they can participate in the contract vote, Kroop said.

The ALE, which for now represents Council aides, legislative financial analysts and other titles within the Council’s finance division, is also eyeing adding more than 80 others who work in the Council’s legislative division to the union’s rolls.

“Right now, we have a card-check majority with the legislative division and we hope that the speaker voluntarily recognizes them," Matt Molloy, the ALE’s steward's representative, said during the Zoom call. There are 83 workers across four different titles in that division, a “supermajority” of which have already signed cards, union leadership said. If those workers are added, it would balloon the union’s membership north of 450.

The ALE isn’t the first group of legislative workers to win an initial union contract — unionized staffers in Oregon reached an agreement last summer — but Kroop hopes to spread the gospel of independent rank-and-file organizing to legislative workers nationwide and has been in contact with staffers at the New York State Assembly and Senate who have been organizing into New York State Legislative Workers United.

Astrid Aune, co-chair of the Legislative Workers United’s communications committee, said that the ALE’s contract has been “energizing” for state staffers and that several workers have signed cards to join the union in the days since, with a few people specifically citing the raises that Council staffers got as their reason for signing.

"The mere fact that [Council staff] did it, that they got to that place, has changed people’s conceptions of whether or not it's possible,” said Aune, who described the challenges of organizing legislative workers. "Just the fact that the days are so long, the work is so intensive and that there is so much burnout and turnover means that by the time we get to our limited free time we're exhausted, and the idea of phone-banking or tabling takes a lot of energy and motivation.”

‘Deep care and compassion’

Emmet Teran, the director of communications for Council Member Alexa Avilés, said that the workers’ collective struggle towards a contract brought staffers together in a way he could never have imagined in any other office.

"To be a part of affecting the material conditions of my coworkers feels deeply meaningful,” said Teran, also a member of the ALE’s bargaining team. "I feel the deep care and compassion for my coworkers that's not familiar in political spaces."

Like workers at nonprofit organizations, Teran said, Council staffers are often expected to make sacrifices and take on extra hours or unpaid work as part of their normal job responsibilities because they believe the work they're doing helps people and improves the world around them. This collective bargaining agreement legitimizes the work that staffers do as labor deserving of fair compensation, he said.

"That's baseline and wonderful and I'm incredibly excited to see that work be recognized and honored with what we’re owed for our labor,” Teran added.

Angelica Colón, a shop steward in the ALE and the district director for Council Member Jennifer Gutierrez, said that the tentative agreement was a “positive start” that’s representative of the shifting work culture among Council staffers. "We should all have equal pay and be able to survive especially in this city where rent is so high,” said Colón, who’s been working at the Council for more than eight years.

As part of the ALE’s solidarity push to support legislative workers unionizing elsewhere, Molloy said that he and other members of ALE’s leadership team will meet later this month with staffers from the Illinois legislature who are seeking to unionize.

"We really hope that we can show to everyone across the country this is possible,” Molloy said. “And I think you're going to see this movement pick up a ton of momentum in 2024.”


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