City Council staffers have reached a crucial milestone in their months long effort to unionize and on Monday will call on Speaker Corey Johnson to be formally recognized.
The employees began a card campaign in late November, a key step in the process that involves collecting signatures to show support for forming a union. Council staffers tell POLITICO they now have more than enough support to be formally recognized, propelling the legislative body into new political territory that could upend how it functions.
Proponents of forming a union have said it’s the best option for addressing continued unrest over working conditions, large pay disparities among Council employees and low salaries in a job that often requires long hours and weekend work. Some full-time and part-time employees in member offices make salaries that border on minimum wage, a POLITICO analysis found.
Labor law only requires 30 percent of employees to sign cards before a union election, but most campaigns wait for a majority to ask for recognition. Organizers have secured signatures from more than 60 percent of staffers working directly for members and the finance division in the Council’s central office, said Zara Nasir, director of the Council’s Progressive Caucus and a leader behind the unionization effort.
“I think it’s a testament that in two months we were able to organize 60 percent of the staff to sign cards,” Nasir said. “It’s a testament to how ... aides feel about their working conditions presently and how much they need to improve.”
In a Monday letter, organizers will call on Johnson to immediately recognize the bargaining units for staff members seeking representation from the union, called the Association for Legislative Employees. The organizers had originally met with large international unions in 2019 to gauge their interest in representing staff, but were concerned over organized labor’s strong ties to Council members and ultimately chose to form an unaffiliated union.
Johnson has previously said he supports the unionization effort.
“If the staff here at the City Council wants to take that step, I wholeheartedly support them,” he said in November. “I want to make it as easy as possible to do that, to engage with them in a way that is prescribed by law ... to make sure we do it properly and correctly.”
His spokesperson said Friday that Johnson “looks forward to working with them as the process moves ahead with the goal of achieving voluntary recognition.”
The development places the Council in uncharted waters.
It’s unusual for legislative bodies to unionize because the nature of the job involves heavy turnover, where staff members are typically replaced when Council members leave office.
“People understand this is a job you serve with your member and there’s term limits,” Nasir said. “We don’t want to fundamentally mess with the way that the Council works.”
The organizers have been working with Dina Kolker, an attorney with Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, to assist with the intricate unionization process. The law firm agreed to get involved for a reduced fee of $7,500, and organizers held a fundraiser to help pay for the retainer, Nasir said. Organizers have raised more than $3,000 to-date and have also contributed their own money toward the cause.
Nasir said 236 of members' aides signed on, out of a possible 391, and 24 out of 27 employees in the finance division also submitted cards.
Organizers weren’t successful at unionizing the legislative and community engagement divisions of central staff they had also sought to include.
“Other folks wanted more time — they wanted to talk to their colleagues, they wanted to fully understand what this would mean for them,” Nasir said, adding that other employees could join at a later date once the effort is off the ground.
She noted that staff in Council members’ offices have also been talking about unionizing for years, creating a greater political appetite.
Efforts to unionize heated up last year after Council Member Andy King was fined and suspended for 30 days in late October when investigators found he misused Council resources and retaliated against staffers whom he saw as disloyal. In an open letter, a group of 137 unnamed current and former staffers called on King to be expelled and said his behavior was representative of larger issues many staffers regularly face.
Staffers have also previously attempted to address disparate pay among employees, calling on Johnson to address the issue in a 2018 letter as part of a package of proposed reforms.
Johnson has boosted operating funding for member offices both years he has been speaker — a pot of money that each of the 51 Council members can divide as they see fit to pay for salaries and other expenses such as rent, supplies and furniture. But the increase in funding only trickled down somewhat to employees. POLITICO’s analysis found top salaries in offices ranged anywhere between $45,000 and $115,000.
Council aides behind the union effort hope to set minimum salaries in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. and create a grievance process for workplace issues.
The finance division is pursuing unionization to address concerns over the lack of overtime pay in a job that regularly requires late hours and weekend work, particularly during budget season, said one employee who requested anonymity to speak freely.
They also see a need for greater workplace protections to prevent mass staff turnover between speakers, feeling there's a benefit to having a staff with institutional financial knowledge.
“That’s where central staff differs from [staff for] Council members — I don't think anyone thinks that Council members shouldn't be able to hire who they want to hire," the employee said. "With central staff, the longer you stay here the more you know about how everything works and I think that’s super valuable.”
Employees who worked in the Council for years said the momentum behind the union has been a long time coming. They credited Johnson’s vocal support for the effort as helping move the process forward.
“To be able to reach this point where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel of staffers being in the position to be part of a union is tremendous,” said M. Ndigo Washington, another union leader and the legislative director for Council Member Inez Barron. “It speaks volumes of the integrity and the will of both the staffers who know they deserve to be in an environment that respects their work.”