The beginnings of a new union were formalized on December 17, as Speaker Corey Johnson recognized 23 financial analysts as members of the Association of Legislative Employees (ALE), the first legislative staff union in New York. After years of organizing, approximately 150 City Council staffers began a card campaign in November of 2019, acquiring enough signatures by January to formally request recognition as a union. Delays were blamed on the pandemic and variance in employee classification among the 51 Council members’ offices.
Labor laws only require 30 percent of employees to sign union cards before enacting a union vote, but City Council staff organizers secured over 60 percent of staffers working for Council members and the finance division of the Council’s central office, totaling over 250 employees. The union will ultimately represent over 400 staffers.
Speaker Corey Johnson had previously stated he supported the unionization effort in the fall of 2019 as staffers organized around the suspension (and eventual expulsion) of Bronx Councilmember Andy King for abuses of power. A union would, proponents argued, help protect staffers from workplace abuses as well as allow them to negotiate for higher salaries. While the Council voted to give itself a raise a few years ago, their staff often work punishing hours for less than $30,000 a year and salaries vary widely between Council members’ offices, with top salaries ranging from as low as $45,000 (Mathieu Eugene of CD40 in central Brooklyn) to $115,000 (Francisco Moya of CD21 in northeastern Queens) annually.
Collective bargaining to standardize and raise salaries for the working class people serving the city’s legislators is certainly an achievement. It is telling, however, that after delaying nearly a year before formally recognizing the union, the first employees Johnson recognized were financial analysts, showing where the Council’s priorities unsurprisingly lie. The bargaining unit will be certified by the NYC Office of Collective Bargaining in January. The timeline for full recognition of all employees is unclear, but if all eligible staffers become members of the union, it will be the largest legislative union in the country.
With 36 of the 51 members of the Council term limited, the 2021 Council elections will certainly shift the makeup of the legislature by 2022, and the ALE will hopefully create a safer and more equitable workplace within City Hall next year. As socialists, however, it is crucial to remember that unions are a reform mechanism, meant to improve working conditions under capitalism, but will never eliminate capitalism itself. Left Voice has previously outlined how socialists might approach and organize within unions to unite the working class, and what pitfalls to avoid, such as the creation of an elite union bureaucracy that becomes detached from the rank and file members. It is critical that the employees supporting New York City’s legislators are able to fully implement the worker protections they deserve and create a robust, healthy union representing the largest legislative staff in the country that has the potential to serve as a model for other cities as well.