Republican accuses Dems of flipflopping on staff unionization

What a difference election year makes, says proponent of failed 2019 amendment

DURING A DEBATE on House rules in January 2019, Rep. Shawn Dooley, a Norfolk Republican, introduced an amendment that would allow House employees to unionize. The amendment was overwhelmingly rejected, 149-9. Just six Republicans and three Democrats voted for it.  

Now, as legislative staff are actually attempting to unionize, support for unionization has become far more widespread on Beacon Hill, with some of the same Democrats who opposed Dooley’s amendment vocally supporting unionization. Dooley calls that hypocritical.   

“I just find it very interesting that when it’s an election year and it’s being used for political gamesmanship and to curry favor with unions or certain groups of people, all of a sudden all these people are 100 percent behind it,” Dooley said. “When they get a chance to vote on it, they vote against it. Let’s at least be consistent.”  

But some of those Democrats say the vote reflects the nature of Beacon Hill politics. They argue that there was a difference between an effort led by a GOP House member and one led by the staffers themselves. 

“What Rep. Dooley introduced was a poison pill designed to show there wasn’t support among the Democratic majority in the House for a union,” said Rep. Paul Mark, a Peru Democrat running for state Senate, who spoke against Dooley’s amendment on the House floor. “It was a gimmick. It was intentional to have a chilling effect on the staff members.”  

Rep. Tami Gouveia, an Acton Democrat running for lieutenant governor, said Dooley’s amendment was “a political ploy on his part. A gotcha’ situation. Which is why you see the most progressive, most pro-labor union Democrats voting against that.” 

As CommonWealth previously reported, the state law establishing public employee bargaining rights only applies to executive and judicial branch employees, not legislative branch employees. There is some dispute about whether the Senate president or House speaker could voluntarily accept a union. President Karen Spilka has said she is consulting with Senate counsel, now that a majority of Senate staff have expressed interest in forming a union under IBEW. If Spilka cannot or chooses not to accept a union, the Legislature would have to change the law in order to allow its own employees to unionize. 

For the past two legislative sessions, Dooley has introduced bills that would let legislative employees unionize. But the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight sent the bills to study, effectively killing them. The bills got little support. This year, the only two cosponsors were Norwell Republican Rep. David DeCoste and Scituate Democrat Patrick Kearney. 

The one time the policy made it to the floor of either body was when Dooley introduced it as an amendment to the House rules in January 2019. That amendment stated that “all employees of the General Court shall have the right to form and organize into a union and shall benefit from collective bargaining,” and they will have the same rights as employees of the executive and judicial branches.  

Dooley said at the time that there was a need to establish a way for a young staffer to raise their concerns if they were being harassed or mistreated. According to a State House News Service transcript of the debate, Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a Gloucester Democrat, and Mark spoke out against the amendment. Ferrante said the House just overhauled its human resources department, and any policy change should be considered as a bill, not a rules amendment. Mark said it should be up to the workers, not the bosses, to decide when to unionize.   

Only three Democrats – Cambridge Rep. Mike Connolly, Boston Rep. Nika Elugardo, and Framingham Rep. Jack Patrick Lewis – joined a handful of Republicans in voting for the amendment.  

The opponents included some of those Democrats who are today vocally supporting the Senate staff union drive, including Mark, Gouveia, Rep. David LeBoeuf of Worcester, and Rep. Natalie Higgins of Leominster. (Rep. Liz Miranda, a Boston Democrat running for state Senate who has tweeted in support of the union effort, abstained on the amendment.) 

Dooley said his amendment did not require unionization, it just ended the carveout in state law to allow a union of legislative workers to form.  

“The hypocrisy was mind boggling, from the standpoint of we’re all pro-union, we want all companies to allow workers to unionize, but we’re not going to allow our own workers to unionize,” Dooley said. “Whether they unionize or don’t unionize, I don’t particularly care. But I felt it was very hypocritical of us to create our own carveout that everyone else has to live in the system but we’re going to exempt ourselves, and our employees don’t get to do this.” 

But several of the Democratic opponents to the amendment say Dooley’s amendment was not a sincere attempt to help staff and was not the appropriate way to form a union. 

Mark, who has been a union member since he was 16, said his concern was that the amendment was unclear on what the bargaining unit would be. He worried that a poorly written rule would actually frustrate efforts to form a union. “The way I read the amendment at the time, there was no way in any reality that that would ever allow anyone to organize,” Mark said.   

Mark said the proper way to form a union is through on-the-ground organizing, as the staffers are doing today, not through management – which in this case is the Legislature. “The boss doesn’t organize a union, the members organize a union. When the members present a majority of authorization cards to management, it should be recognized,” Mark said.  

Gouveia said similarly that forming a union “really needs to come from the staffers themselves.” Once that happens, Gouveia said, “If there’s a need for legislation to support staffers to form a union, then sure, I’m all there.”  

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

LeBoeuf said he will always stand up for organized labor, but in 2019 the effort was not staff-directed. “You don’t want a company union,” he said. “You want to have a union that’s really grassroots, supported by the members that are asking for the election or asking for union cards.”  

“Lots of times those particular amendments are done by the Republican Party as a way to come up with a convoluted way to criticize the Democratic Party,” LeBoeuf said. “There wasn’t any intention of protecting workers’ rights behind that amendment. It was just a dog and pony show.”