Legislative unionization effort stalls

DOVER — Looks like Delaware’s legislative union won’t be going forward after all. But if even the effort is truly dead, it should leave behind some hard feelings in the state capitol.

Last month, a group of employees in Legislative Hall announced their intention to form the first nonpartisan union in a state legislature in the country. Organizers, who have not publicly identified themselves save for a few media interviews with out-of-state publications, had been hoping to join the 8,000 or so people already covered under the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 81.

Recently, however, the situation changed.

“Yesterday, we were forwarded a letter from AFSCME Council 81 and their attorney outlining a legal opinion that suggests one path to our ability to formally organize under the current Delaware code may be in question,” organizers said Friday in a statement.

“During the past six months of this organizing process, AFSCME Council 81 and their legal counsel repeatedly assured us that we had the legal right and ability to organize and promised us legal protections afforded to all organizing workers under the law. Now that we are in the early stages of the process that was laid out for us, they appear to be withdrawing that support.

“It goes without saying that AFSCME’s assurances leading up to our public announcement were a key part of the group’s decision to sign cards and begin discussing the opportunity before us with the rest of our co-workers. Like any other group of organizing workers, we took the promise of union support at face value. That they would have a different legal opinion now than during the several months leading up to our announcement is disappointing and dangerous for everyone involved.

“We are discussing next steps in a democratic fashion between our members, who make up a majority of the full-time caucus staff in Legislative Hall.”

In a statement, AFSCME acknowledged “it does not appear that legally, there is an available path forward.”

The union did not address the claims made by the legislative staffers.

“We worked with the legislative staff to try to create a new and innovative model of organizing that would allow us to work with the legislative staff and the General Assembly outside the, perhaps, outdated constraints found in the law,” AFSCME said.

“Ultimately we could not secure consensus on that approach. AFSCME Council 81 will, however, continue to work with the General Assembly to make certain that no member of the legislative staff is treated unfairly due to their effort to raise their voice during this process.”

The legislative staffers declined a request to show the letter, while Mike Begatto, the executive director of AFSCME 81, did not immediately respond to a request to share it.

Mr. Begatto said last month organizers initially approached AFSCME and had been looking for general advice and guidance.

Background

January’s declaration by some of the aides and other personnel working for General Assembly came as a surprise to most people in the building.

Though a release from organizers said the effort had support from “a majority of the Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan staff of the Delaware House of Representatives and state Senate,” Republicans disputed that claim. Organizers later said they intended the release to reflect they had support from a slight majority of the 45 or so full-time staffers who they believe would be covered under the union but admitted they had not yet spoken to any GOP staffers.

Top Democratic staffers were not informed of the news ahead of time either.

Organizers said they wanted to keep discussions condensed at first and painted their desire to form a union not as stemming from unhappiness with their jobs but out of a wish to codify current duties and privileges.

“In all four caucuses, our staffers work tirelessly to make Delaware’s legislature one of the best in the nation. From constituent service to legislative research, communications, drafting and more, our group spends every day working full-time, nights and weekends for the people of the First State,” they said in a statement when first announcing the effort on Jan. 14.

“But even in a state led by elected officials friendly to the labor movement, partisan and nonpartisan staff alike continue to be employed at-will in non-merit positions. Moving forward, we know that a union will help us do a better job of retaining talent, providing basic worker protections and delivering results for the people of Delaware.

“We are lucky to have House and Senate leadership — some of them union members themselves — who already understand this and we look forward to their voluntary recognition of this organizing effort and an amicable start to contract negotiations with their hard-working staff.”

Legions of questions quickly formed as to whether the staff had the ability to legally unionize, with doubters highlighting the fact workers in the legislative branch may not be considered “public employees” as defined by Delaware Code and even if they are may not fall under the jurisdiction of the Public Employee Relations Board.

Some observers also questioned why employees in some of the other entities under the legislature, such as the Controller General’s Office and the Division of Research, would not be included, as well as if the union would cover all or just some of the General Assembly’s personnel.

Before voting on forming or joining a union, a petition must first be filed with the state. From there, the Public Employment Relations Board verifies whether the effort is supported by the requisite 30 percent of affected workers. Should at least that level of support be found, a vote on unionizing is scheduled.

A simple majority is required to form an organization from there.

The situation in Legislative Hall has created a quandary for Democratic leadership, which has close ties with organized labor and naturally doesn’t want to be seen as rejecting a collective bargaining effort. Nonetheless, some of the building’s most powerful individuals are strongly opposed to the idea of a legislative union, if only because they’re skeptical as to the legality of the effort.

Sam Barry, a House Democratic digital media staffer and an organizing committee member, tweeted several weeks ago, “Most of the electeds in Leg Hall were very vocal about union support until approximately 3 weeks ago and now they will not talk about it at all.”

(Mr. Barry identified his involvement in an interview about the union with The American Prospect. Also described as an organizing committee member in the article was Dylan McDowell, a Senate Democratic communications staffer.)

A separate issue and what’s next

The would-be union founders also stirred up trouble last week when the Delaware General Assembly Union Twitter account accused House Democratic leadership of terminating without explanation “a long-time employee who has signed a union card and attended organizing meetings.”

“Since going public with our organizing drive just over a month ago, staff have dealt with changing work conditions and intimidation from senior staff and elected leadership,” organizers tweeted. “They do not want this effort to succeed.”

The House Democratic caucus strongly denied the allegations. While the caucus declined to answer many questions, citing “confidential personnel information,” House Democrats said no worker would be fired for unionizing. Furthermore, the caucus said, lawmakers do “not know the identity of employees who sign union cards because per its own rules, that information is only known by the union.”

House Democrats also called the idea no reason was provided “100% inaccurate and untrue” and rejected the claim of intimidation and unfair working conditions: “As previously stated, these public tweets contain information that is blatantly untrue and inaccurate, including the changing of work conditions and intimidation of staff. Senior staff and elected leadership have been extremely cognizant of maintaining the positive, collaborative working environment that has been established throughout the past decade.”

Neither the tweet nor the House Democratic caucus identified the staffer.

Such firings are rare in the General Assembly, with most workers leaving of their own volition, often for bigger and better jobs in Delaware government or politics.

At any rate, the union’s path forward appears filled with hurdles. Still, organizers said they remain hopeful and “are proud to be on the leading edge of this centuries-old movement and confident that there is a path forward.”

They aim to meet with legislative leadership soon.

“If there is one advantage we have in this state, it is that our leaders have been open about their support for increasing union membership and workers’ rights in the past,” the union brain trust said in the statement Friday.

“We still believe that they will offer that same enthusiasm for organized labor to their own staff and we anticipate that we will be able to find a way forward together.”