New York City

Union organizers gear up for negotiations with New York City Council leadership

After an initial meeting in May, the Association of Legislative Employees wants higher pay and overtime compensation.

Association of Legislative Employees organizers

Association of Legislative Employees organizers Association of Legislative Employees

What do you do after forming the largest legislative staff union in the country? Keep organizing, if you’re the New York City Council staffers’ union.

The Association of Legislative Employees, which represents around 350 council member aides and central staff members, was officially certified by the city a year ago, and as of July had 138 dues-paying members. While the union’s leaders are hoping to make more progress this fall on hammering out the terms of a contract, much of the union’s work over the past year was dedicated to learning more about its own membership and what they wanted to get out of a contract.

After an initial meeting in May between the union leaders and representatives of the speaker’s office – internal council attorneys and human resources, along with the city Office of Labor Relations – at which union members laid out some of their broad concerns and priorities, the union has spent the past few months gathering its members for in-person socials and analyzing the results of a bargaining survey.

The union is not affiliated with existing municipal unions like District Council 37, so its democratically elected bargaining committee is, to some extent, starting from scratch. “For the first time, we’re going to be setting standards,” said Daniel Kroop, president of the Association of Legislative Employees and a senior financial analyst in the council’s finance division.

While the union is still working on their specific demands, feedback from the council staff union members highlighted a few key issues that they’ll want to include in an eventual contract: pay raises and overtime compensation. The members of the union come from different corners of the council – not just from council members’ offices, but central finance staff as well – and represent racial and ethnic diversity too. According to the results of the bargaining survey, the union’s membership was roughly 40% white, 27% Hispanic, 24% Asian, 16% Black, 4% two or more races, and 1% American Indian/Alaskan Native.

Among that cross section, some common themes emerged. “Over 120 staffers in the City Council in our unit, whom we represent, earn under $55,000 a year,” Kroop said. “There’s really strong consensus on the bargaining committee about the need to make sure that people can live in New York City and that there is equitable access for people to actually see a job path in public service, and that includes the City Council.”

Another top concern was the lack of a system for compensating staffers for overtime work. “I think for a really, really long time, council staffers have been overworked and underpaid,” said Matt Malloy, the stewards’ representative on the union’s executive board, who has served as a constituent services liaison in Council Member James Gennaro’s office since January. “What we’re hearing a lot of is that that leads to a lot of turnover, which really isn’t helpful for running an office, and it’s not good for New Yorkers who want good services or who want a council with staffers who know what they’re doing.”

Although the standard week for a council staffer is 35 hours, union leaders said it’s rare to see staffers actually keep those hours. “A lot of folks are regularly working as many as 60, sometimes 70, hours a week for no additional compensation,” Malloy said, adding that council members’ offices vary widely in how they deal with overtime. While some members attempt to compensate with time off after a staffer has worked extra hours, others seem to be less aware of it, he said.

“I think everyone kind of works at least 10 hours of overtime generally, but for some folks it’s more,” said Vinuri Ranaweera, union vice president and scheduler for Council Member Rita Joseph. “If you’re a constituent services person and you’re dealing with a case or an overload of cases, you can’t leave sometimes – and you really want to help people if their needs are urgent.”

Unlike staff at New York City agencies or members of Mayor Eric Adams’ administration, City Council staffers are mostly still able to work remotely or on a hybrid schedule. Maintaining that flexibility – or at least some sort of hybrid schedule – was another goal that union leaders identified, as was setting standards across council members’ offices for the level of training that staffers get or how termination works.

But the specifics of the union’s asks – putting a dollar value on pay raises or structuring an overtime compensation system, for example – are still being determined. While some union leaders said they hoped to have a contract by this fiscal year, a long process of negotiating their specific demands still lies ahead.

So far, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams’ office hasn’t been vocal about how it will approach these negotiations. “We are in the early stages of negotiations,” a spokesperson for the speaker said in a statement. “Both sides are eager to reach a fair contract.”

While the union hasn’t had formal negotiations with the council yet to lay out specific demands – something they hope to do this fall – the initial meeting between the union’s bargaining committee and the council representatives in May left some of the union’s leaders feeling cautiously optimistic. “It felt really encouraging that our union has been recognized, that we did get OLR, and we did get the speaker’s office to sit down at the table with us for us to officially begin this process,” Malloy said.

The union was publicly supported last year by then-City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and Adams was among the majority of council members who voted in favor of a resolution that allowed the speaker to collectively bargain with staffers. “I feel like there’s a similarly hesitant but receptive speaker’s office,” said Ranaweera, when asked whether there was any difference in how Johnson and Adams approached the union. “Both Corey Johnson and Adrienne Adams are like that, where they’re responsive to any issues that we send to them – we still communicate often because in the interim there are going to be workplace issues that we tell them about and advocate on behalf of staffers – and they’re always open to meeting and definitely responsive. But they’re still hesitant to admit that they’ve done anything wrong.”

Earlier this year, the City Council voted to increase its own operating budget to $100 million for the new fiscal year – a move that opens up funding in individual members’ budgets for salary increases for staffers. “A major part of the increase in the budget for the next fiscal year that will begin on July 1 is connected to my commitment to invest in promoting staff leadership, providing raises to the hardworking public servants on the council staff that help council members represent their districts and oversee agencies and are central to the council’s operational health,” Adams said in March. While Adams said the budget increase was decided internally, the union also considered it a victory.

Although the union is charting its own course to a first contract, it’s far from alone. Staffers in the state Senate – as well as legislative staffers in several other states – are organizing, largely around similar concerns about salary and overtime hours. Last year, staffers at the New York City public advocate’s office formed a union.

Despite the long road ahead, Malloy said legislative staffers were ready for this work. “We have a lot of people who are organizers. We have people who are finance analysts that can model the data. We have people who know the labor territory and have worked with other unions in the past,” Malloy said. “I think our membership is really uniquely set up with the skills we use every day for work to help us win this contract.”