My memory says it was the last week in August. It was 2:00AM. The California Legislature would adjourn for the year on August 31. The fate of hundreds of bills hung in the balance. In the Legislative Office Building across the street the from the State Capitol, we in the Assembly Republican Office of Policy toggled between two TV channels to watch the latest action on the floors of the State Senate and Assembly.
When the Assembly adjourned later that morning, we knew we would have to be back in the office in only a few hours for another long day. It was exhausting. We squeezed in catnaps on a couch when we could. There was nothing new about this. The same routine occurred every year as legislators chose to wait on acting on most bills only when the adjournment deadline loomed like Damocles’ sword over their heads. But as legislative staffers we had signed up for this gig. We loved participating in making public policy for Californians. My fellow policy consultants, all of us “at-will” employees, had been doing this work in for the last 10-15 years. For us, the benefits far outweighed the costs. Win or lose, we were in the arena where Teddy Roosevelt said we should be. During a lull in the action, one staffer grabbed another cup of coffee and factiously suggested to us that we should start a union for legislative staff. We laughed.
This is no laughing matter now. AB 1577 by Assemblyman Mark Stone, (D-Monterey Bay), which would allow employees of the California Legislature to create a union, could be sent to the Governor to sign into law or to veto in the next three weeks.
Is it a good idea? No. I’m struck by the lack of debate about what impact unionizing legislative employees would have on lawmaking on behalf of 39 million California residents. Instead, supporters argue that the Assembly and Senate can only be good employers if forced by a union. Are legislators powerless to act right now? Nothing is stopping them from creating better working conditions and grievances procedures for legislative employees. There are many good employers with non-union workers across California.
The central problem with AB 1577 is that it will degrade lawmaking and put the general interest of over 39 million Californians in second place. Right now, there is a direct connection between the elected legislators, legislative staff, and California residents. Every at-will employee knows that he or she must assist the elected legislator in crafting legislation, conducting oversight of the state government, and responding to constituent needs. There must be a high level of trust between the legislator and the staffer.
Unions are designed to serve the narrow interest of their members and to collect dues to financially support itself. Unionization in the Capitol would hamper the ability of legislators to hire and promote legislative staff based on merit rather than on seniority and other cumbersome rules. Expertise will also decline. Because Proposition 140 of 1990 limits appropriations for the California Legislature, unionization would eventually compress the salary, putting a lid on salaries earned by most experienced and expert staffers. They will then exit to become higher-paid lobbyists.
Lastly, strikes and walk outs by staff timed by union officials to put pressure on legislators will hamper lawmakers in their need to pass urgent legislation to serve their constituents and the state. I find it amazing that legislators who work so hard in their campaigns to get to the California Capitol and make laws would consciously make it harder to do so.
If we have learned anything over the last several years, it’s that we must build more effective, focused, transparent and honest institutions, including those at the local, state, and federal levels, even if the other party is in charge. The bottom line is what is best for Californians; hampering the legislative process in California isn’t the answer.