NYC Workers Form Nation’s Largest Union of Legislative Employees

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. September 17, 2021
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New York City skyline

​New York City Council aides became part of a growing trend when they formed the nation's largest union of legislative employees in August.

The union is a recent example of nontraditional workgroups organizing.

Phillip Wilson, president and CEO of Labor Relations Institute in Broken Arrow, Okla., noted that other nontraditional fields with employees who are organizing include digital media, museums and technology.

The nearly 400-member Association of Legislative Employees (ALE) is part of "a huge push for the already growing unionization movement among elected officials' staff," said Dina Kolker, an attorney with Stroock & Stroock & Lavan in New York City, who provided counsel to ALE.

Recently, the New York City Public Advocate's office formed a union and was recognized by the city using an administrative process modeled after ALE's initial recognition, she said.

State legislative employees in Oregon also unionized this year, she noted. "There, an established union took on the organizing and representation effort. Here, ALE has been organized and built from the ground up," Kolker said.

The legislative workers' unions are seeking to professionalize and bring some stability to a decentralized employment experience, Kolker remarked.

"Legislative employees, like other employees, want stability in pay and scheduling. They want to be compensated fairly for their skill and experience level," she said. They want to be informed and consulted about policies that directly impact them, such as remote-work and return-to-worksite policies. "And they want to be protected from workplace mistreatment, including harassment and retaliation," she added.

Unique Challenges

There are several aspects of legislative bodies that are unique and pose challenges to organizing and, once organized, to the negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement, Kolker said.

The main hurdle is the inherently decentralized nature of legislative bodies. "This is less of an issue for those ALE members [who] are part of what is called central staff, who serve the council as a whole and are directly under the control of the speaker," she said. "But the vast majority of the ALE bargaining unit is comprised of council member aides serving, thus far, at the discretion of each individual council member, like 50 separate islands in a chain."

Kolker said all ALE members are city council employees "but, to date, they have been treated with little centralized oversight or support."

Each district office has a budget, and each council member determines his or her own office space, staffing needs, schedules, roles and hours. "This doesn't just pose a challenge from the union side in devising proposals that create more stability and safety while still providing for the needed flexibility in serving constituent needs," she said. "It also creates a challenge internally for the council on how it will bargain, implement and enforce policies councilwide."

New understandings may need to be established regarding council members' responsibility to follow city council policy in each local office.

"While these challenges are not common, they are not entirely unique," Kolker said. "Some of the same issues are present in New York's court system, where chambers staff are hired by the individual judge but employed by the court system. The court system makes it work with their union partners, and we believe it will work here as well."

Robert Tucker, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in New York City, explained that "Unlike most public-sector employees, legislative staff typically have short tenures that follow the terms of the legislative members for whom they work." 

Because the employees in New York City work for individual elected officials, said David Pryzbylski, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis, "one could see issues arising where the public official is not re-elected or leaves office. Does that official's staff remain employed, and what contractual rights will they have if a new elected official wants to hire his or her own staff?" he asked. "These will be very legally nuanced issues."

ALE and other public-sector unions may face challenges as state and local governments address budgetary gaps exacerbated by the pandemic, Tucker added.

Conflict of Interest Avoided

By organizing independently, ALE avoided a conflict of interest with another public-sector union—District Council (DC) 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), AFL-CIO, Wilson said. DC 37 is New York City's largest public union, representing 150,000 members and 50,000 retirees. AFSCME lobbies on issues like paid sick leave, which the legislative aides might be seeking for themselves, Wilson said.

Despite efforts to avoid a conflict of interest, the unionization of the staffers could be "a distraction," he remarked. Statements in the context of the staffers' role as union members might be misconstrued as stances made on behalf of city council members, for example.

'Turning to the Real Work'

For now, ALE has only just been certified as the exclusive bargaining representative for the larger group of council member aides, Kolker said.

"After some brief and much-deserved congratulations to both the ALE core committee and others who have been instrumental in the organizing and recognition effort, we are turning to the real work of studying and prioritizing member concerns and beginning to present them across the table," she stated.

ALE can serve not only as a model for other legislative employees "but can serve a vital role in keeping our legislative representatives—who often tout their support of workers and fair treatment—somewhat honest," Kolker said. "It's easy enough to preach how others should treat their employees. ALE gives voice to a group of government employees who had not been heard from previously on this scale."

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