California Politics: Democrats love unions, except when their staffers want to join one

Lorena Gonzalez says goodbye to colleagues after she announced her resignation from the state Assembly.
Lorena Gonzalez says goodbye to colleagues after she announced her resignation from the state Assembly in January.
(Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / CalMatters)

Understatement of the decade: California loves unions.

And Democrats, who hold a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature, especially love the ones that donate to and endorse their campaigns. But the same lawmakers have so far shown no such love for a union within their own workplace.

For the record:

11:10 a.m. July 25, 2022A previous version of this newsletter reported that Mark Stone’s legislation would change staffers’ at-will status. It would allow staffers to start the process of forming a union and, subject to collective bargaining, lead to a change in their “at-will” status.

1:51 p.m. July 22, 2022A previous version of this newsletter reported that Mark Stone’s legislation excluded district directors. It excludes staff directors, but includes district directors.

Not once or twice, but three times the Legislature has rejected a bill to provide collective bargaining rights for its employees, in what advocates have characterized as a blatant display of hypocrisy.

So why should dues-paying hopefuls in the Capitol have any reason to believe this year’s Assembly Bill 1577 will end any differently?


I’m Hannah Wiley, and I cover state government and politics for The Times’ Sacramento bureau.

I’ve talked in recent weeks with current and former staffers about the state of work in the Legislature, and why they’re more optimistic than ever about forming a union. Their confidence is buoyed by recent scrutiny of how the Capitol handles alleged workplace issues, and an upcoming election that promises a massive turnover of lawmakers. This week, eight U.S. House offices started the unionization process, which advocates said reflects a broader push to improve labor standards in political offices.

“[AB 1577] is definitely a step in the right direction,” said one Assembly Democratic staffer, who like several others spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid potential retaliation. “It will not resolve these problems completely, but it is absolutely necessary.”

The proposal would allow staffers to start the process of forming a union and, subject to collective bargaining, lead to a change in their “at-will” status. Currently, employees can be terminated for a legal reason at any time without an explanation.

It’s just a first step, said bill author Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley). The legislation doesn’t dictate what collective bargaining must look like in the future, but does exclude top staffers such as staff directors, chiefs of staff and chief consultants.
Proponents have reason to feel optimistic. The bill passed through two Senate committees in June, with just one “no” vote.
“It’s so scary for workers, any workers, to stand up and say we need a union,” said Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, who wrote the previous three versions of the bill during her tenure in the Assembly. Gonzalez is now advocating for its passage as the incoming chief officer of the California Labor Federation, which is sponsoring AB 1577.

“They’re risking a lot, and I’m just really really proud of them,” she said. “And I think that’s the main difference in why it’s going to be successful this year.”

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) both said they support staff efforts to unionize.

‘Overworked and undervalued’

In my interviews, I heard standard workplace grievances such as a desire for greater work-life balance and additional time off. But some of the workers’ complaints underscored systemic issues in the Capitol, where employees are afraid to report misbehavior for fear of retaliation and staffers of color reportedly feel undervalued.

“Typically Black staff get hired by Black members. If you are not, and you are trying to advocate for Black issues within your office ... you get pushed out,” another Assembly Democratic staffer said.


In a statement, Rendon spokesperson Katie Talbot said the Assembly is “deeply committed to an equitable, diverse workplace,” and has hired a diversity consultant to strengthen internal policies. Atkins’ office said the Senate “continues to work to improve diversity, including retaining and recruiting staff of color.”

The staffers claimed that they’re often misclassified in ways that do not adequately summarize their work responsibilities, a tactic they said is used to limit their salaries and future raises. A common criticism was that employees are “voluntold” to use their paid time off to volunteer for caucus campaigns, which one Assembly aide said keeps you in the “good graces of leadership.”

“We allow ourselves to be overworked and undervalued. The Capitol runs on people who are [bright-eyed] and bushy-tailed, incredibly enthusiastic, wanting to change the world. And the tradeoff is really clear, in that we have to sacrifice a healthy work-life balance to do so,” a staffer said.

Secretary of the Senate Erika Contreras said that the chamber works to ensure the employee classification policy is “adhered to” and that the Senate has taken corrective measures, including pay adjustment, when errors are identified.

“The Senate is committed to ensuring that employees are classified appropriately and paid appropriately within their classification and Human Resources works closely with managers on every step in the hiring process to ensure individual offices are not making inadvertent mistakes,” Contreras said in a statement.

Talbot said that the majority of Assembly staff are in the right classification, and that all staff are paid within the set salary range of their role. Members can submit requests to increase salaries once a year, she said.


Both offices said leadership does not expect or require campaign volunteering.

A major concern among staffers is the reporting process of the Workplace Conduct Unit, an independent investigative panel put in place after the #MeToo movement rocked the Legislature in 2017 with widespread allegations of inappropriate behavior. The unit has in recent weeks faced criticism for allegedly failing to investigate complaints of misconduct in a timely and transparent fashion.

“It’s not worth the effort [to filed a complaint], because there’s the fear of retaliation,” a Senate Democratic staffer said.

Legislative leaders said they are working with the Women’s Legislative Caucus to cull recommendations on how to improve the unit, with a goal to implement the changes by the end of session in August.

“Everyone wants the Capitol culture to get better, and we’ll use all the tools it takes,” Atkins said.

Are Republicans on board?

Most of the staffers eager to talk to me worked for Democrats. That’s because Republicans have a lot of questions.

George Andrews, chief of staff for Assemblymember Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale), said his parents worked in union jobs, and he considers the collective bargaining process “sacred.”


But Andrews said Republicans weren’t consulted in the drafting of AB 1577, and he’s concerned that GOP staffers will continue to be left out of the process. He said he agrees that workplace issues need to be addressed, especially around pay equity, and that better representation is needed to resolve those disparities. But he remains unconvinced that a union would be the best solution.

“Whether this happens, not happens, I want whoever has my job in the future to have the same salary that a Democratic staffer makes. Because [Republicans’] contribution to public service does matter,” Andrews said.

Staffer salaries can vary greatly depending on the office, according to spreadsheets of Assembly and Senate staff salaries. One Assembly legislative director working for a Democratic member, for example, earns a monthly salary of $7,420, while a Republican staffer with the same title makes $4,961. In the Senate, a legislative aide for a Democrat’s monthly salary is $4,010, while a Republican colleague makes $5,138.

Another Republican staffer said finding common ground with the Democrats will be crucial to adding GOP support to the bill. The staffer wanted to know what a union would do to ensure Republican employees have professional advancement opportunities, and how it would address the lower salaries and staffing in their offices.

“From the Republican standpoint,” the staffer said, “we have to look at and ask the question of what does this mean for our caucus and our priorities? And is that going to be in alignment with the Democrats?”

Others just don’t think it’s a good idea.

“The nature of the Legislature is very different,” an Assembly GOP staffer said. “I think [a union] would have a really negative impact on the institution.”


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A long way to go

Three dozen lawmakers have signed on as co-authors to AB 1577. But the legislation’s success has more to do with who doesn’t support it.

Supporters are particularly concerned with what Assemblymember Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) decides to do as chair of the Assembly Rules Committee, a position that affords him a lot of say in how bills move through his chamber.

Cooley doesn’t see a union squaring with how he said the Legislature is designed to function, with its constant churn of new members and a voter-approved requirement to spend money carefully on itself. Cooley said he doesn’t plan to cast an aye vote for AB 1577, but he wants to be part of a solution to improve workplace conditions.

“We actually do need to address these sorts of concerns,” Cooley said. “I do actually feel that I would be a very able person, institutionally, to kind of figure out how do we move things forward in a positive way.”

The bill heads to Senate Appropriations in August. The entire Senate would need to approve it before it’s sent back to the Assembly on concurrence.


California politics lightning round

— Times columnist George Skelton argues that Gov. Gavin Newsom is moving into position to possibly run for president, regardless of what he says or tells himself.

— Democrats are on defense across the country in this year’s midterm elections but appear to believe some of their best chances for flipping GOP congressional districts are in California.

— August is the month when lobbyists are working hardest to sway lawmakers — and that makes it a ripe time for sleazy politics, editorial writer Laurel Rosenhall explains in her latest scoop. It’s hard to see the upcoming “Technology Policy Summit” as anything other than that.

— Law enforcement groups and criminal justice reformers are at odds over a bill signed Tuesday by Newsom that will allow the state to keep tabs on certain “sexually violent predators” through the Global Positioning System.

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