Oregon State Capitol, rotunda (Salem Reporter/file)

Anne Marie Bäckström said she takes pride in her work as a legislative aide, helping Oregonians on issues ranging from housing, unemployment claims, Covid worries and others. 

“Participating in policy and the democratic process is really impactful, and really beautiful,” said Bäckström, 30, who works for state Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton. 

But she said the work is unsteady. After working during the 2020 short session, she said her legislator's office wasn’t able to keep her on staff during the interim and she had to go back to working in a grocery store during the pandemic before being hired back. 

As a single mother, she said the lack of stability has been stressful. While she said she’s been privileged to switch jobs and come back to the Legislature, she said doing so would be more difficult for someone from a more marginalized community. 

Bäckström and a group of other aides are hoping to change their working conditions by forming the nation's first-ever union of legislative staff. 

Legislative aides help lawmakers with scheduling, keeping track of bills and votes, as well as other administrative tasks. They also help with community relations and constituent services while serving as liaisons between state agencies. Some do policy work and organize legislative stakeholders. 

Legislative aides behind the push say a union will give them a say over pay and working conditions, ultimately helping the Legislature function better.

“When we are talking about job stability and job security, it is really important to have our voices at that table and be able to have a say in what our offices can look like,” said Bäckström. “We're not trying to unionize because we don't love what we do. We're trying to unionize because we want to make this work better.”

Because of the unique nature of the union, it’s had to clear hurdles other organizing efforts haven’t faced — even in a labor-friendly state. Legislative aides are expected to hold an election near the end of the month to unionize 180 workers under the auspices of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 89, said Tony Ruiz, an organizer with the union.

‘We realized that was a bunch of bunk’

Ruiz said the unionization effort began years ago when Ray Lister, a journeyman electrician and union organizer ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for a Republican-leaning legislative seat in 2016. Lister lost his race but made connections with lawmakers and legislative staff that would form the basis for the organizing effort, said Ruiz. 

Logan Gilles, a legislative aide for state Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said staff had discussed unionizing since he started working in the Capitol in 2009 but there were always questions surrounding whether it was legally feasible.

“I think there have also been some persistent myths about legislative aides not being able to collectively bargain,” he said. “And we realized that was a bunch of bunk.”

Gilles said organizing efforts gained momentum last summer. In January this year, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 89 filed a petition with the state Employment Relations Board to hold an election to form a bargaining unit for legislative assistants. 

But Oregon Department of Justice Attorneys representing the Legislature objected to efforts to form the union. They argued that legislative staff aren’t included in state law allowing public employees to collectively bargain because they are classified as managerial employees. 

In April, the state Employment Relations Board ruled that legislative staff could unionize, clearing the way for the election. 

‘A great workplace’

While the Legislature employs over 500 people, the union would only represent those classified as legislative aides and does not apply to staff in leadership or caucus offices. 

According to a state database of salaries, the amount of money legislative aides make varies greatly with some part-time employees making around $10,000 to work during a session with some positions over $60,000. 

“I am very, very bizarre for having worked as a legislative aide for as long as I have,” said Gilles, 35. “There's not a lot of us graybeards around.”

He said legislative aides are passionate about advocating for constituents and helping craft public policies. But he said some have a hard time making the pay and benefits work and end up taking a job in a state agency or as a lobbyist. 

Gilles said that while there is a standardized pay scale in place many staff are still confused about their paychecks. He said that staff can also be dismissed without notice, and he’s seen aides walked out of the building with their belongings in a box. Having a union would require the Legislature to negotiate over benefits and disciplinary procedures, he said. 

Kien Truong, a 24-year-old legislative aide for Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, said having a union would create better working conditions that would allow people of color and working-class people to continue working in the Legislature. 

Both he and Lex Jakusovszky, a 27-year-old staffer who also works for Jama, said maintaining the continuity of staff would help lawmakers. 

“A great workplace for us means a great workplace for them, so they can do their jobs better,” said Jakusovszky. 

While the Legislature has grappled with issues of harassment in recent years, legislative aides didn’t identify it as a specific issue. Ruiz said that workplace safety is always included in collective bargaining agreements. 

Not a normal union

Legislative aides interviewed for this article stress that they have good working relationships with the lawmakers they work for. 

House Speaker Tina Kotek’s office didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, declined to comment for this article. 

In November, legislative leaders sent out a memo to lawmakers advising them not to take sides. 

“While every employee and certainly every member is entitled to their opinion on such an effort, it is important to recognize that employees have a right to discuss these matters,” said the memo. “It is not appropriate, and contrary to state collective bargaining laws that protect union organizing efforts, for you in your role as appointing authority to attempt to influence or interfere in any way – in support or opposition.”

To clear the way for a potential legislative aide union, the Oregon Senate last month passed Senate Bill 759. The bill specifies that the Capitol’s administrator would be responsible for negotiating a contract with a union should it be approved. 

While the bill cleared the Senate, the floor debate revealed one source of tension. Speaking on the Senate floor, state Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, said this union would be different than those in executive agencies. 

“It doesn't come down to the same labor versus management sort of scenario that you would see,” said Thatcher.

She said the legislative union would potentially be funding and opposing some of the very elected officials they work for. 

However, Ruiz said the union doesn’t spend dues directly on political activity. He said that some of the dues go to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers that may pay for a staff member who engages in lobbying or some political activity. Members can request to have that percentage of their dues refunded to them.

CORRECTION: A previous version used the incorrect pronouns for Lex Jakusovszky. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

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