Council staff union stages silent protest during stated meeting to push for fair contract

The union wants the pace of negotiating a brand-new contract to pick up after roughly 18 months of bargaining.

Members of the Association of Legislative Employees hold up signs reading “Fair Contract Now” during a stated meeting of the City Council on Dec. 6, 2023.

Members of the Association of Legislative Employees hold up signs reading “Fair Contract Now” during a stated meeting of the City Council on Dec. 6, 2023. Annie McDonough

As the City Council’s two-year session soon comes to a close, the council staffers’ union is working to keep eyes on their ongoing fight to secure a brand-new contract. On Wednesday, they brought that effort inside Council Chambers during a stated meeting.

Several dozen members of the Association of Legislative Employees – which represents around 400 aides to council members and central staff finance analysts – held up “fair contract now” signs in the balcony during the stated meeting as Speaker Adrienne Adams took the floor. They didn’t, however, disrupt the meeting or yell chants over the speaker or other members. Earlier on Wednesday, the union brought out the infamous inflatable labor icon Scabby the Rat outside City Hall, while some members handed out flyers to passersby. 

City Council staffers officially unionized in the summer of 2021, towards the end of former Speaker Corey Johnson’s tenure. Bargaining for a first contract began in earnest in the spring of 2022, with newly elected Speaker Adams. Now, after a year-and-a-half of negotiations, the union is ramping up pressure on the council to pick up the pace of bargaining and secure a contract. Union leaders said that bargaining sessions have occurred roughly every month, but the most recent scheduled session was canceled because someone on the council side was sick. The final bargaining session before the end of the year is scheduled for Dec. 21, and the union is now calling for a minimum of two bargaining sessions per month.

“It doesn’t seem like they’re being serious about really getting to the finish line,” said Vinuri Ranaweera, vice president of the ALE and a scheduling director for a council member. 

Adams and her office have so far declined to talk in detail about the status of bargaining, preferring not to negotiate in the press. “The bargaining session that was rescheduled because of an unforeseen illness was agreed upon by ALE without issue or request for it to be held sooner. So it’s unclear why they would be expressing something different in the press,” a council spokesperson said in a statement on Wednesday. “The council will continue to conduct itself professionally and negotiate with the ALE in good faith at the bargaining table, not through the media.”

The successful effort to unionize City Council staff began four years ago, though it took about 21 months before the ALE was officially certified as a union, and bargaining for a first contract only began in earnest 18 months ago. Within the labor movement, it’s not uncommon for negotiations for a first contract to drag on for two years or more.

But union leaders have argued that a council that champions pro-worker causes and legislation should be doing more to champion those values for its own workers too. Over the last few months, members of the union have picketed outside City Hall before every stated meeting of council, and drawn on support from some council members and other labor unions in the city to call attention to their demands. 

Though the union reports slow progress, bargaining sessions over the last 18 months with representatives for the speaker’s office and the city’s Office of Labor Relations have resulted in some favorable developments for the union, and leaders said they remain optimistic about reaching a fair contract.

Grievance policy

Remaining sticking points in negotiations include asks for minimum salaries, a strong grievance policy and overtime compensation. “We want to see the council value its staff in practice,” said Daniel Kroop, president of the ALE and a finance analyst in the council. “This contract is the way to reflect that.”

Politico previously reported that the council has offered a grievance policy for staffers, but it would kick in following a one-year probationary period of at-will employment, and those protections would be revoked for six months after an election. 

The union conceptually agrees with the first piece – that there should be some period of time after hiring where a staffer is an at-will employee – though they want that period to be shorter. But union leaders outright oppose the post-election six-month reset. “That is a critical issue,” said Matt Malloy, the union’s stewards’ representative, and a constituent services director for a council member. (Malloy noted that the union has long accepted the obvious premise that when a new council member is elected, they get to pick their own staff.) 

Malloy said that staffers are currently instructed to report complaints to the council’s Equal Employment Opportunity office. But the inherent structure of the council, with its individual members’ offices run by lawmakers, means that mistreatment can happen out of view of council leaders. “It’s really as if you are stranded on an island when it comes to these 51 offices. Most often, the sort of activity we see, it happens in district offices, where there’s really no oversight,” Malloy said, noting that the union wants staffers to be able to bring cases to independent arbitration.

Minimum salaries and overtime

Union leaders gave the council credit for lifting its minimum salary offer from $44,000 to $50,000, though they’re still pushing for higher, having initially called for $75,000. The union’s leaders said that the council has also agreed to wage increases along the pattern set by other recent municipal union contracts, as well as a ratification bonus. “I think that’s an area where both sides have done a good job making some movements towards each other,” Malloy said of the salary issue.

Spokespeople for the council didn’t comment on the specifics of the negotiations. 

Hybrid work flexibility was also one of the union’s early asks. Last year, the council dropped plans to make central staffers return to full-time in-person work, though council members have their own policies for aides.

According to the union, 45% of council aides earn less than $55,000 annually. Because council members are given a lump sum for hiring staff, there can be a lot of variation in salaries depending on how many staffers a member hires. Council members themselves currently earn $148,500 a year. A current posting for an analyst in the council’s central finance division includes a salary range of $57,000 to $66,950.

The union has argued that the council has the budget to put towards its salary demands, pointing to more than $15 million in the council budget that wasn’t spent in fiscal year 2023. (Spokespeople for the council also didn’t comment on that.) Ranaweera invoked the maxim often used by lawmakers during budget season that a budget is a statement of values. “If money isn’t allocated for staff salaries or for overtime, then clearly the council doesn’t value our work or our time or our energy,” she said. 

Union leaders said that while the council has made an offer of compensatory time, it would be capped at staffers making under $65,000 and would have to be used within three months – a structure Ranaweera called “unusable.”

Low-paid, high-demand jobs in the council produce a vicious cycle of burnout, brain drain, and more overworked staffers, the union said, arguing that cycle won’t stop until there’s a fair contract. 

Between Wednesday’s demonstration and their work continuing to build coalitions with labor and lawmakers, the union’s intensifying strategy is aimed at ensuring their ongoing contract fight doesn’t get lost. “We know that we have to stay visible,” Ranaweera said.