Democrats have enjoyed complete control over lawmaking in Olympia since 2018. A consistent priority since then has been rewarding government unions — one of the party’s most significant sources of campaign contributions and electoral muscle — with the ability to unionize additional classifications of public employees.
But as fewer pockets of government remain union free, these efforts have become increasingly creative, extending to employees for whom collective bargaining hasn’t traditionally been viewed as appropriate.
This year, Democrats introduced bills to unionize legislative staff. Though the proposal’s future remains uncertain it has already caused quite a stir at the capitol.
While the Senate bill died without much fanfare, the failure of HB 1806, the House version, to survive past a key deadline ignited a revolt among Democratic staffers, dozens of whom staged a sickout Feb. 16 in protest.
Progressive activists castigated House Democratic leaders for the inconsistency of supporting unions for all except legislative staff. Even Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a fellow Democrat whose staff unionized in 2019, chided his legislative comrades.
For conservatives, watching labor activists deploy Saul Alinsky’s fourth rule for radicals against liberal leadership is a popcorn-worthy spectacle.
This week, panicked House Democrats introduced HB 2124, which would spend $1 million per year on a new “Office of State Legislative Labor Relations” to study how to implement collective bargaining sometime in 2025.
It may take that long to figure it out.
The Legislature’s diffuse structure makes it difficult to act as a single employer. HB 1806 directed 13 components of the Legislature to jointly develop a unified bargaining process. Exactly how that would work in practice is anyone’s guess.
Further, specific outcomes of any future union negotiations are unknowable. One version of the legislation would have allowed union contracts to supersede all legal authorities except statutes. Would ethics rules or codes of conduct be affected? Would individual lawmakers lose the ability to select their staff? Would the Legislature be less responsive to constituents?
Since Democratic leaders have already expressed a desire and ability to “address staff needs and concerns” and staff have shown an ability to exercise collective power without collective bargaining, is legislation even necessary?
One guaranteed beneficiary would be IUPAT District Council 5, a stridently partisan union looking to organize legislative staff. In addition to representing Democratic Party employees, nearly all 143 candidates the union endorsed in 2020 were Democrats. Using members’ dues, the union and its national affiliate have spent $700,000 influencing Washington elections.
For professional, nonpartisan legislative staff, representation by such a partisan organization could taint the perception of their impartiality.
The arrangement poses additional challenges for GOP staff.
While federal courts now recognize that mandatory union dues requirements for public employees are unconstitutional, unions only permit participation by members. Consequently, GOP staff could have to choose between joining a union seeking their party’s electoral defeat and foregoing a voice in workplace matters.
Such concerns aren’t hypothetical. When Oregon became the first state to unionize legislative aides last year, minority Republican staff found themselves represented by a union chosen by their majority Democratic counterparts.
Making matters worse, legislative employees almost certainly wouldn’t get to vote on unionization thanks to a union-backed bill adopted in 2019 — a deeply ironic reality given that members of the Legislature are selected by their constituents in secret ballot elections.
Despite the difficulties GOP staff might face, Democratic leadership also faces a no-win scenario. Not acting means labor and party activists will keep attacking them as hypocrites, but unionized staff would inhibit their ability to efficiently churn out progressive policy.
Still, after years spent trying to unionize everything else, it’s hard to feel too badly about their predicament.