State House aides cite low pay, difficult work as they fight for right to unionize
Becoming the third state in the country to allow legislative staffers to unionize would slow the revolving door of aides on Beacon Hill, improve constituent services and prove lawmakers' commitment to labor causes, about half dozen legislators said in a hearing Wednesday.
"I am incredibly fortunate to work with my aide, Lucas Schaber, as well as many other aides, whether through caucus work, whether through other legislation, who work extremely hard. And it is something that is always on the top of my mind: are they going to continue being able to work in this building? Are they going to find other opportunities elsewhere?" Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven, testified before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight. "It is not in our interest as legislators and it's not in the interest of our constituents."
Uyterhoeven was one of several lawmakers who urged the committee to favorably recommend a bill that would allow staffers the right to unionize, alongside Sens. John Keenan, Jaime Eldridge, Rebecca Rausch, and Reps. Rodney Elliott, Samantha Montaño, and Mike Connolly.
Massachusetts labor leaders, Auditor Diana DiZoglio, legislative staffers from Oregon — who won the right to unionize in 2021 — and Bay State aides also joined their voices to the calls of support.
The bill before the State Administration Committee filed by Keenan and Rep. Patrick Kearney would amend a state law to explicitly allow legislative branch staff the right to organize — a right which is already granted to executive and judicial branch staffers.
Senate staffers moved in the spring of 2022 to organize a labor union with IBEW Local 2222, to which Senate President Karen Spilka responded that "the Senate does not at this time see a path forward" for staff unionization.
"With the information [counsel] have provided to Senators today, the Senate does not at this time see a path forward for a traditional employer-union relationship in the Senate as we are currently structured," Spilka wrote in an email to senators and staff at the time.
Ravi Simon, an aide with Rep. Carmine Gentile, said he is passionate about his work as a legislative aide and working on behalf of his community, but there are challenges.
"I thought it was wrong that I had to take a pay cut in order to work here when I left an entry level nonprofit job in Framingham," Simon said. "My partner and I live in one of the cheapest one-bedroom apartments in our town, but rent still stretches our budget. And I know I'm not alone in this challenge."
Simon said over the last two and a half years he has spoken to dozens of staffers who have said it was unsustainable for them to stay in their jobs on Beacon Hill with the pay and hours.
"This job has challenging days," he said. "Last month, for example, my boss and I helped a constituent move all of her family's belongings out of her home and into storage. She had nowhere to stay for the night with her child, so we desperately spent the afternoon calling everyone we could think of to try to find her housing. ... Those are the days when public service is the most impactful to me. Our union effort is not about shying away from challenging days or from impactful work."
An aide for Rep. Ryan Hamilton, Emily Kibbe, said the unionization effort is not just about pay. Legislative employees are burning out quickly with little support and training, she said.
"I don't need to explain the vital work that staff do in the State House, that your staff do from a first term aide all the way to the clerk. Legislative employees are what make this branch run," Kibbe said. "It's hurting you, our legislators, who can't retain staff, talented staff, for more than a few years, and have to retrain employees on the taxpayer's dollar over and over again. And it's hurting your constituents who don't know if the person on the other side of the phone is a seasoned constituent services director who knows who to call, or a new aide who's gotten no training."
Gov. Maura Healey, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, DiZoglio and the majority of the state's congressional delegation support the unionization efforts, according to IBEW Local 2222.
The union said more than half of Senate staffers have signed union authorization cards, and the number has increased over the past year. They require over half of the employees to sign a card before they will pursue recognition from chamber leadership. In the House, about two-thirds of the number of aides they need to sign up in order to take this step have done so, according to the labor group.