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Spilka: Senate sees no path for legislative staff employee union

Legislative staff have waited around four months to learn whether Senate President Karen Spilka would recognize their unionization effort with IBEW Local 2222, and on Thursday Spilka seemed to shut the door on that possibility — with an invitation for staff to attend a briefing from Senate lawyers on Friday.

Senators were cloistered in a lengthy private caucus Thursday afternoon in the Senate Reading Room, and state Sen. Michael Moore posted a photo on Twitter of himself, state Sen. John Keenan and state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz — supporters of the union push — in the Reading Room wearing State House Employee Union / Local 2222 lapel pins.

"Employees deserve to have a voice at their workplace, and we will keep fighting until every worker has that opportunity - including right here in the State House," Moore wrote alongside the photo.

Spilka addressed senators and staff in a 5:34 p.m. email, declaring "the Senate does not at this time see a path forward" for legislative staff unionization following "an exhaustive review" on "this complex legal area."

"With the information [Counsel] have provided to Senators today, the Senate does not at this time see a path forward for a traditional employer-union relationship in the Senate as we are currently structured," Spilka wrote in the email, which was obtained by the News Service.

Spilka added in her email, "I remain committed to making the Senate a great place to serve the people of the Commonwealth while building a career. We will continue our efforts to improve working conditions, benefits, and salaries, and we will incorporate staff input as we have done throughout my tenure."

President Pro Tempore Will Brownsberger told the News Service Thursday evening that the legislative staffing structure in Massachusetts — where "staff members work hand-in-glove with their senators" — operates on "a completely different model" than in states like Oregon where staff have unionized.

"In this Legislature, we have Senate offices where Senate staff work for individual senators and they work in small teams. The places where unionization could make some kind of structural sense is where the staff is remote in a separate organization," the Belmont Democrat said, referring to a model where aides exist in a "centralized staff structure" akin to a distinct agency, as opposed to working for individual lawmakers.

"So that kind of thing is just a different model," he said. " ... Nobody's really contemplating going to a structure like that."

Brownsberger confirmed that while multiple topics were discussed in Thursday's caucus, the union matter was the lengthiest subject of conversation.

Asked whether senators were polled on their feelings about union recognition before the decision was announced, Brownsberger said, "I think anybody who hears — and most senators heard that presentation of counsel — appreciate that a traditional union model does not make sense in the context of the legislative structure in Massachusetts."

Brownsberger also gave voice to conflict-of-interest concerns associated with having legislative staff allied with a particular union which could have business before the branches or lobby on policy matters.

He said legislative staff would be "routinely [subject] to conflicts of interest if they were allied with or organized under the auspices of a union."

The State House Employee Union group knocked Senate leadership in a statement Thursday evening, and said organizers planned to meet with staff over the coming days "to plan next steps."

"On Beacon Hill, a Senate Counsel review is not the final law of the land, and the 40 Senators are in the business of making laws," the statement read. "Senate Leadership rejecting our union isn't because of legality, it's because of willpower."

The union push inside the State House has riled the Legislature, where the ruling Democrats often express their support for the ability of employees to join unions and collectively bargain over wages and benefits.

State Sens. Mike Rush and Brendan Crighton, the chair and vice chair of the Senate Personnel and Administration Committee, unveiled a plan in June under which all Senate staff would see at least a 10 percent bump in pay by the end of July.

The union push dates back to March 31, when IBEW representatives delivered a letter to Spilka's office seeking voluntary recognition.

On June 29, frustrated aides rallied on the State House front steps escalating their call for a response from the Senate president.

At that time, around 30% of senators were listed as publicly supporting the union effort: state Sens. Sonia Chang-Diaz, Diana DiZoglio, Jamie Eldridge, Paul Feeney, Anne Gobi, Adam Hinds, Pat Jehlen, John Keenan, Eric Lesser, Michael Moore, Patrick O'Connor, Becca Rausch and Walter Timilty.

In her email, Spilka invited aides to hear Senate Counsel "discuss their review" on Friday at 3 p.m. in the Reading Room.

"Any staff interested in learning more should plan to attend this in-person meeting," the president wrote.

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