Delaware legislative staffers announce intent to unionize

DOVER — Delaware legislative staffers on Tuesday announced their intention to unionize, joining what they said would be the first nonpartisan union in a state legislature in the country.

While organizers heralded the news as groundbreaking, it’s just the first step in a long process — and the announcement caught many off guard despite a news release painting the effort as crossing party lines.

“No staff member of the House Republican Caucus or Senate Republican Caucus was previously contacted regarding the possibility of unionization. Our staffs only became aware of this action today,” House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, and Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, said in a joint statement. “There are still many questions which need to be answered regarding this proposal.”

Several staffers, both Democrats and Republicans, said they were unaware of the plan until Tuesday.

Organizers said in an email Wednesday morning “All full-time staff who work for any of the four caucuses or in the office of the Chief Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate” would be covered, while individuals with hiring and firing power, such as caucus chiefs of staff, would not be included.

The news release on the initiative did not identify what staffers or how many were involved in the effort.

“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,” organizers said in a statement.

“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.”

If successful, about 50 legislative employees would join the 8,000 or so people covered under the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 81, according to organizers.

In order to hold a vote 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.

If there is at least that level of support, a vote on unionizing is scheduled.

Mike Begatto, executive director of AFSCME Council 81, said several General Assembly employees approached the group a few months ago seeking guidance on unionizing. Those staffers officially informed legislative leadership of their intent Tuesday, he said.

The effort is not due to unhappiness with current working conditions, he noted.

“They all have the same interests in looking at what their working conditions are,” Mr. Begatto said. “They suggested codifying those working conditions, not only for themselves but for those people who come behind them.”

The Senate Democratic caucus in a statement said it “has a lengthy record of supporting the rights of workers to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions” but otherwise opted not to comment due to privacy concerns and “out of respect for” the unionization process. House Democratic leadership declined to comment.

Madinah Wilson-Anton, a former House Democratic aide now running for the 26th Representative District, wrote on Twitter about what she described as a major need for stronger employee safeguards.

“Working with legislators can be uncomfortable – too many are harsh with their staff, and not open to feedback,” she wrote. “Pair that with a lack of job protections and you have a work environment where the staff who are supposed to support our legislators feel unable to voice their concerns.”

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.