Senate president is our employer, she should talk to us

Without a union, we have no voice on our pay, working conditions

IN MARCH of this year, a majority of Senate staff came forward to announce our decision to form a union. Our unionization drive is a historic effort, and we’re proud of that. We also recognize that there will inevitably be questions and challenges to work through.
Some such questions were raised by former Senate president Therese Murray in her July 28th column, published the same day that Senate President Karen Spilka announced her formal rejection of her workers’ union. As staffers, we were surprised to see these questions about the structure of the Senate workforce from the very person who headed it less than a decade ago. Nonetheless, the Massachusetts State House Employee Union is happy to respond to her questions about the structure of the Senate workplace.
Who are legislative workers’ official employer? As Murray may recall, the Senate president is our employer. The Senate president approves new hires, establishes personnel policies, and oversees our HR department. When senators seek to hire a new staffer, they must formally request it in writing to the Senate president. The Senate president’s office also decides individual workers’ salaries. After decades of raises hinging entirely on individual legislators’ relationships with Senate leadership, Spilka rolled out a standardized wage system just last month.Murray may also remember her office’s authority over the HR department, politicizing what should be an impartial resource for workers. Many staff signed union authorization cards because they lack access to a fully independent office to file grievances and seek support in our workplace. Many in Massachusetts recall former Senate president Stan Rosenberg failing to protect State House staffers from sexual violence perpetrated by his estranged husband. Murray may also remember her office’s own mishandling of personnel issues as well.
Where does a staffer go when the head of their HR office – the Senate president – has deeper political or optical agendas? This is why many staff do not report cases of sexual harassment to our HR department.  Legislative staff believe our workplace safety should not be embroiled in the politics of Senate leadership.
Who would be included in our bargaining unit? Senate staff who signed union authorization cards, including all personal staff for senators. All chiefs of staff still receive direction from the Senate president’s office regarding personnel issues.
Would staff demand job security when senators leave office and are replaced? No. In all of our organizing conversations, not one staffer has asked for this provision. We understand how important it is that senators select their own team to best serve the unique needs of their district.
The reality is the safety, dignity, and salaries of staff are tied to one single figure in our chamber: the Senate president. Our workplace protections are subject to the tides of Senate leadership, and the decades-long structural issues of this building have resulted in high-profile cases of workplace abuse, a culture of retaliation, and chronic legislative brain drain, which has lasting impacts on our democracy. Without the protection of a union, legislative workers have no voice or agency in our working conditions.
We have invited legislators to collaborate with us on this matter. We have ideas, and we welcome theirs. Staff seek to create a union structure that works not just for staff and their families, but also for our chamber – the very institution we keep afloat – and the constituents we serve every single day. For this very reason, even before our union went public, IBEW Local 2222 and our organizing committee reached out to Spilka to forge a good-faith partnership. For over four months, Spilka has not responded to our union’s multiple invitations to engage in a productive dialogue to tackle these questions.
On July 29, one day after Spilka rejected voluntary recognition of our union, staff asked Senate counsel if we had a path forward and the answer was yes. The hurdles ahead shouldn’t deter anyone – after all, the Senate tackles complex issues every day. For the sake of her workers and workers unionizing everywhere in Massachusetts, we hope that Spilka opens her doors to her staff. Union busting should not become a pillar of her Beacon Hill legacy.
This commentary was written by the Massachusetts State House Employee Union Organizing Committee, which requested anonymity for its members because some of them have not disclosed their union activities to their bosses due to fear of retaliation.