OLYMPIA — Early this year, as he watched legislation to grant collective bargaining rights to staffers at the Washington Legislature stall yet again, state Rep. Mike Sells decided to send a message to his fellow Democrats.
Back in 2011, Sells, a union champion who chairs the House committee dealing with labor issues, had co-sponsored perhaps the first bill to grant legislative staffers collective bargaining.
Despite years of proposals and internal talks between staff and management — where legislative workers have complained about insufficient pay, long hours, a confusing management structure, mistreatment by lawmakers and, lately, an increased workload due to the pandemic — the efforts went nowhere.
But the death of the collective bargaining bill in mid-February struck a new nerve. Scores of Democratic legislative workers — who are not allowed to lobby for themselves under state law — held a one-day sickout in protest. And Sells took his colleagues to task.
"Not working through it sent a huge message that our words around respect for labor come across as a bit hollow when we consider our own employees," Sells, D-Everett, wrote in an email to fellow House Democrats, obtained through a request for public records. "It's like, 'that's for other folks,' not us because we're really nice people who care.
"It looks more than paternalistic to those bright, sharp, intelligent people that make what we do possible," added Sells, who announced his retirement earlier this year.
The blowback led Democrats to a reckoning.
Lawmakers quickly assembled and passed a new bill aimed at setting up a process to allow at least some legislative workers to unionize. That legislation, House Bill 2124, also lifts the state's prohibition on collective bargaining for legislative workers beginning May 1, 2024.
Washington's new law comes amid fresh pushes for organizing at places like Amazon and Starbucks. That sentiment is expanding into politics, too: Last year, workers at the Oregon Legislature became the first in the nation to vote to unionize, according to news reports. Meanwhile, in the other Washington, U.S. congressional staffers are looking to secure collective bargaining rights.
But in Olympia, questions and obstacles remain.
Much of the movement in recent years has been spurred by Democratic legislative assistants — the often young workers who answer emails and calls by constituents and schedule meetings — and partisan staff who work for that political caucus.
It remains to be seen how and whether Republican staffers will want to be included in collective bargaining. Ditto for nonpartisan staff, such as policy analysts for legislative committees and the workers who actually write and release the bills sponsored by lawmakers.
With public-sector unions being one of Democrats' biggest allies and campaign donors, the collective bargaining movement also promises to raise questions about the prospect of bringing (more) politics into the crafting of legislation.
To figure those things out, HB 2124 creates the Office of State Legislative Labor Relations to research and make recommendations to state lawmakers about how staffers might unionize and which workers might be part of that group. Lawmakers and others acknowledge they'll likely need to pass another bill next year before collective bargaining begins.
Meanwhile, the Oregon Legislature's collective bargaining provisions have drawn a legal challenge from the Freedom Foundation, a conservative group that has fought against public labor unions for years.
A lawsuit against Washington's new law could come from the Freedom Foundation, according to Maxford Nelson, director of labor policy for the group. But it's too early to know.
"I suspect the litigation in Oregon will be further along or resolved by 2024, the outcome of which may also influence our thinking on litigation," Nelson wrote in an email.
For the ranks of legislative workers who have for years sought to address concerns about pay, overtime, the Legislature's management structure and how it handles complaints by employees, this year's turnabout was a welcome step.
Brandon Bannister, a former legislative assistant who filed an ethics complaint against his former lawmaker, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, alleging she mistreated him, said the new legislation was a welcome change after years of talk.
"Any ability that can be given to them to create representation ... is huge," said Bannister, whose complaint was ultimately dismissed. "I think it's a big step forward."
Bannister, now 27, is one of several former legislative assistants to speak out in recent months after the death of the first collective bargaining bill.
In his ethics complaint against Tomiko Santos in 2019, Bannister said he was made to work more hours than a specific work plan that had been designed for him. Tomiko Santos meanwhile made demeaning remarks that, according to the investigation by the Legislative Ethics Board, "several other witnesses agreed" that the representative's "wording, tone and length of emails could make an LA [legislative assistant] feel humiliated."
"She would make minor comments like, 'you're not getting this straight,' or 'our personalities are clashing,' or 'your issues and my issues don't line up, and they're creating problems for us,'" said Bannister, currently an executive assistant for a community college who also does some campaign and lobbying work.
The Legislative Ethics Board ultimately dismissed the complaint. But the dismissal letter acknowledged another complaint by Bannister: that Tomiko Santos violated state and federal confidentiality laws in sharing a medical diagnosis that Bannister had with some House staff.
"The board is troubled by the ease with which House staff appeared to share the fact of Complainant's disability with others," according to the February 2020 letter dismissing the complaint. "The Board urges House administration to better train its staff and legislators to ensure that all supervisors have adequate training in the proper handling of disability issues in the workplace."
After that incident, the House gave trainings to both lawmakers and staff supervisors on those responsibilities, according to Bernard Dean, House chief clerk and top nonpartisan official in the chamber.
In an interview, Tomiko Santos declined to discuss the details of the complaint, citing personnel issues.
The representative — one of the longest-serving in the Legislature — said she found herself feeling frustrated by lack of clarity surrounding management issues and said she had never gotten much training on managing her workers.
"For me it always struck me as strange, but it wasn't a situation where I questioned it, until the lack of having something like that was not serving me very well," she said, adding: "I did share that frustration with the chief clerk's office a number of times."
Other legislative staffers have pointed to an increase in workload in recent years, which only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, as state residents sent a deluge of inquiries over unemployment benefits and assistance programs.
And some point to an overtime system that they say requires them to track overtime weekly across the year in order to qualify to receive compensated time later on.
But that system requires staffers to get weekly approval from their lawmaker, and some legislative staffers say it discourages them from logging hours. In an interview, one current legislative assistant said they don't have a good relationship with the lawmaker they're assigned to, and that creates pressure not to log overtime.
"Because I don't want it to be a, 'You're just slow'" situation, said the worker, who declined to be named for concerns about jeopardizing their career. "As opposed to looking at the bigger picture of like, it's just me in this office, and we are very, very busy.
"And there's no humanly way possible that I could actually move at the pace that I'm expected to move at," added the staffer.
Dean acknowledged that some Democratic lawmakers hadn't yet approved overtime sheets after this year's legislative session, "and we have worked to try and ensure that those get turned in."
Staffers have also complained about pay. In 2018, during talks between legislative workers and management, the Legislature had conducted a salary survey by National Conference of State Legislatures.
That review found "that the current pay plan for the House and Senate is uncompetitive ... at the entry level but also is very competitive at the upper levels of each range ..."
Since then, the House boosted pay for those entry-level positions, according to Dean.
And then there's the working conditions that various lawmakers impose on their staff.
Sells, the longtime lawmaker and labor organizer, said experiences can be different for legislative workers depending on their lawmaker: "It can be easy, or it can be particularly difficult."
During the Legislature's late-night sessions, Sells said he had always been struck by "some lawmakers asking their staff to sit there till midnight, even when they aren't doing anything."
Recommendations to come
The new legislative office of labor will consult with legislative workers and prepare recommendations for the state lawmakers on how to implement collective bargaining and consider what types of workers might be able to unionize. A first draft of those recommendations is due to the Legislature by Dec. 22.
House and Senate administrators are preparing to hire for that position, according to Dean, and will solicit input from legislative workers as the process goes.
Dean said he has heard concerns from some nonpartisan staff who might not want to be included in collective bargaining.
"It's possible that the recommendations or the considerations will outline some of those concerns," he said. "And then perhaps it would be structured to specifically target specific classes of employees, like legislative assistants ..."
In an email, Nelson, the labor policy director at the Freedom Foundation, also raised questions about when politics enters the equation.
In a union, workers with similar job titles and classifications would be included together in one unit, Nelson wrote.
"However, the explicitly partisan nature of the legislature isn't found elsewhere in government employment and poses some unique challenges," he wrote. "In Oregon, for instance, lawmakers' aides are all included in the same unit, meaning minority Republican staff are stuck being represented by a union chosen by their majority Democrat counterparts. If the legislative majority changes, the reverse could be true."
Sells said he's heard the concerns about politics over the years, but he's not persuaded.
"You can do that in collective bargaining," he said. "And you say no political activity."