Oregon Legislative workers get first union contract

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By COLIN STAUB

Two years after they became the first-ever group of state legislative assistants to form a union, Oregon legislative staffers have ratified a first contract. The workers are public employees who are hired by individual lawmakers in the Oregon House and Senate. They voted 75-31 to unionize with IBEW Local 89 in May 2021. Lawyers for the Oregon State Legislature fought the union campaign by trying to exclude certain workers from union eligibility, but Oregon’s Employment Relations Board (ERB) dismissed those complaints and allowed the election.

The bargaining unit covers all legislative assistants supporting elected officials in the Oregon Legislature, a group that fluctuates between 90 and 180 workers depending on whether the legislature is in session.

Local 89 didn’t respond to calls and emails from the Labor Press, but in a Oct. 31 press release announcing the ratification, it called the contract a “historic milestone” that ensures that legislative assistants will receive guaranteed wage increases, comprehensive benefits, and strong worker representation.

The contract provides a 6.5% wage increase and a $1,500 lump sum payment, and it codifies many existing work conditions into a binding union agreement. It establishes a new annual training process through which workers will have access to materials covering the legislative process and technology. And it stipulates the employer must bargain before contracting out any work covered by the bargaining unit.

The contract also allows each lawmaker to appoint a chief of staff who is excluded from the bargaining unit. It runs through Dec. 31, 2024.

Republican state rep Kim Wallan of Medford, supported by the anti-union Freedom Foundation, filed suit challenging ERB’s decision to certify the union, arguing that it violates Oregon’s Constitution for legislative assistants to unionize. The suit was dismissed in Oregon’s Court of Appeals in July 2023. Judge Jacqueline Kamins ruled the petitioners lacked standing to bring the case up for review.

Legislative workers in other states have faced legal obstacles denying them the right to unionize, but that’s begun to change. Washington lawmakers approved a bill in 2022 allowing legislative workers to unionize beginning in 2024, and it created a new legislative agency focused solely on legislative staff union negotiations. In California, lawmakers voted in September 2023 to extend union rights to legislative workers starting in 2026, and Governor Gavin Newsom signed it into law Oct. 7.

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