New York State

New York legislative staffers optimistic about union

After going public with their campaign in July, organizers say momentum has continued to grow.

Astrid Aune is spokesperson for New York State Legislature Workers United

Astrid Aune is spokesperson for New York State Legislature Workers United New York State Legislative Workers United

Democrats in the state Senate talk a big game about supporting unions and fighting for labor rights. Now, staffers are asking leadership to put their money where their mouth is by recognizing their union. Staff went public with their efforts in July, and although they haven’t gotten an update from state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins on where she stands, organizers feel confident that they’re on pace to get their union recognized.

On July 15, the newly formed New York State Legislative Workers United sent Stewart-Cousins a letter officially announcing its organizing efforts. At the time, nearly 80 state Senate staffers from 18 senators’ offices had signed cards in support of forming a union. In the letter, organizers wrote that they hope Stewart-Cousins’ “long history fighting for the working people of New York will guide (her) decision” as they continue to work toward voluntary recognition. At the time, a spokesperson for the majority leader said she would “review any additional information forthcoming.”

Since then, little news has come out of the organizing effort, overshadowed in part by the August state Senate primaries and soon the November general election that may affect which staff will still have jobs in January. “The initial launch announcement, I would say, had the desired effect,” Astrid Aune, a staffer for state Sen. Jessica Ramos who handles the union’s communications, told City & State of what has been going on behind the scenes. “We saw a real rush of cards and offices that we haven’t been able to make inroads with reach out and start engaging.” Aune wouldn’t say just how many cards organizers have gathered since the launch, but said she was “very pleased with our progress.”

The union has not yet released a list of grievances, but the long hours and inconsistent pay for legislative staffers in Albany is a widely known and oft-discussed issue. Aune added that the second primary was “really draining” for many of its members – government staff is often asked to work on lawmakers’ campaigns when they aren’t on the clock, or to take comp time away from their job to take up a role on the political side. On top of that, Aune said that staffers have their own work and preparation for the new session they have to attend to while trying to ensure they still have a job in January with their boss’s reelection.

Several lawmakers have responded well to the organizing efforts from staffers, offering public support on social media. Although it came from many of the usual suspects on the Democratic side – people like progressive state Sens. Gustavo Rivera and Robert Jackson – the union also has GOP support. “Proud of this new effort (and) hope my staff signs on,” Republican state Sen. Mike Martucci wrote in a tweet following the union’s initial letter. He added that he has tried to introduce legislation that would help enable staff to unionize in the past. Aune said the bipartisan support was welcome. “We’ve been very adamant from the beginning that every worker, every worker, deserves a union,” she said. “And we are workers first, and then we are party affiliated.”

In addition to positive feedback from lawmakers, Aune said that former staffers have also reached out to express their support for the current unionization push. One such person was Erica Vladimer, one of the co-founders of the Sexual Harrassment Working Group that has fought for better protections against harassment and discrimination for workers in the state Legislature. She resigned from her job in the state Senate after former state Sen. Jeff Klein allegedly kissed her without her consent in 2015. “I can’t help but think that had I had a union that I could go to when I was working in the state Senate, I might not have ever left,” Vladimer told City & State. “I would have felt like I had people on my side.” Vladimer said she couldn’t recall participating in any conversations during her time in the Legislature about the prospect of unionizing, but that she and other members of the Working Group have more recently discussed the benefits of current staff organizing. “I’m just grateful to see such a collective effort happening,” Vladimer said. 

As organizers continue to consolidate support for the union, Aune said that first they must all make it through one more election to make sure that everyone involved still has a job and is able to be a part of the bargaining unit. That means that public next steps likely won’t come for a few more months at least. But Aune struck a confident tone about what that will look like. “I’ll say that our organizers, and our members, are really looking forward to next session,” she said.