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Unions have enough power in Albany; legislative staff shouldn’t unionize

It’s an office joke here at AFFT that I’ve had almost every public-sector job out there except for public safety – for the record, I would love an opportunity to be like Kramer on the back of the fire truck. While in public service, some of my jobs were represented by unions and others were not.

This week’s letter from New York Legislative Workers United had me reminiscing about my days as a New York state legislative staffer. Having worked in a unionized workplace, I can’t quite imagine how a union will fit in at the legislature.

Don’t get me wrong, Albany can be a pretty rough place for employees.  As Hamiliton sings in the musical, “Corruption’s such an old song that we can sing along in harmony, and nowhere is it stronger than in Albany.” I interned in the Assembly before the Boxley scandal and the resulting sexual harassment reform, and I have no doubt the reform was necessary. I’m sure there is work that still needs to be done.

But a legislative staffers union isn’t the answer to problems in Albany, and the simple reason is politics. Public-sector union officials who collectively bargain with the government are negotiating with the very people they help elect. Now add another layer to that – union officials negotiating with the people they help elect who then vote on the laws for the rest of the state.

Imagine I’m a newly elected state senator. I won a hard-fought and ugly election against the incumbent, and now I’m reporting to Albany to set up my office and learn the ropes. Without unions, elected officials are free to choose their staff, and these staffers are at-will employees – meaning that if elected officials don’t feel their staff are trustworthy, or are doing a good job, they can terminate them. Upon arriving in Albany, I meet my new staff and am surprised to learn that because the collective bargaining agreement says so, my new staff is my former opponent’s old staff. The very staff that worked hard to ensure I wasn’t elected. Can I trust them? I now have no choice.

Fast forward to late March, the time of year when the State budget deadline looms, and negotiations are going on at a fever pitch. Well, they should be, except the collective bargaining agreement requires all staff to only work until 5 p.m. Forty-hour work weeks during the Legislative session will surely bring back the old days of budgets in August and the legislative session going late into the summer.

One of the main jobs of legislative staffers is to meet with lobbyists and report back to the lawmakers with their requests. Not surprisingly, the special interest groups who meet with staff include union lobbyists. They are lobbying for a share of limited state resources. When one of the groups lobbying for money and power is closely connected to the interests of legislative staff, how will that impact what resources they’re able to get compared to other groups?

Collective bargaining certainly has its place, but the powerful influence of unions should be limited to lobbying from the outside in. Union officials are already “insiders” in Albany – inviting them to unionize legislative staff would give them more power than anyone should be comfortable with.

Brigette Herbst

Brigette Herbst is the Senior Organizing Director of Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2018, Brigette’s career included working in the public sector for New York State, teaching elementary school, coaching high school sports, and working as a municipal county employee. This unique experience offers Brigette an inside perspective on public employee culture in New York. She focuses on educating New Yorkers about their constitutional rights with regard to union membership and promoting fair treatment of workers. Brigette has her bachelor’s degree in history and politics and her master’s degree in elementary education. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling and planning trips for her family.