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Oregon Capitol staffers have reached a tentative union contract with lawmakers

The Oregon Capitol is pictured Dec. 10, 2015, in Salem, Ore.
John Rosman
The Oregon Capitol is pictured Dec. 10, 2015, in Salem, Ore.

Aides in the Oregon Capitol have reached a tentative labor contract with the Legislature, more than two years after staff first voted to unionize.

While details were hazy on Thursday, the agreement would put an end to negotiations that have stretched on almost 20 months. A final contract would also make Oregon’s legislative aides the first workers of their kind in the nation to sign a collective bargaining agreement with lawmakers.

“We did reach a tentative agreement fairly late last night,” said Justin Roberts, an employee of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 89, the union representing legislative aides. “Right now we’re still compiling all of the information.”

Lawmakers were informed of the possible contract Thursday morning, in a memo that advised them not to discuss the contract or other issues related to bargaining with their employees.

“It is certainly foreseeable that some employees may comment on or wish to engage Elected Members in conversations or debates about high profile issues,” the memo said, adding: “The appropriate response to these kinds of communications is to be polite, listen but not engage in debates or discussions.”

During legislative sessions, Oregon has around 200 legislative aides roaming the Capitol. They greet visitors, schedule meetings, research policies, and do just about anything else their elected bosses require. In 2020, after years of discussion, they launched a unionization push.

Aides and lawmakers are still awaiting the details of the possible contract that’s resulted from that push. Both sides must sign off in order for it to take effect.

Over protracted negotiations, aides pushed for higher pay and the right to cash out unused vacation time, among other benefits, sources familiar with bargaining said. Lawmakers largely sought to strike an agreement that codified the status quo in the Capitol.

“At the end of the day we think it’s a fair agreement and an agreement that supports the needs of the Legislature,” Roberts said, noting that the roughly 150 aides that make up the Capitol bargaining unit will vote on the contract in coming days.

Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, and the Legislature’s human resources director didn’t immediately return requests for more information about the deal.

At a time when union organizing has ratcheted up in many industries, legislative aides in other states have begun to follow Oregon’s lead. But unionizing in a state Capitol presents unique challenges in Oregon and elsewhere.

The Legislature is not a typical workplace, where one boss often holds outsized influence. Rather, partisan lawmakers handpick and personally oversee small staffs — sometimesincluding family members — some of whom are employed only during session.

Under this arrangement, staffers with the same job on paper often have very different political leanings and are in some cases working at cross-purposes. But they’d be represented as a whole under the tentative agreement. Lawmakers passed a bill in 2021 granting the House Speaker and Senate president power to bargain on their behalf.

But attorneys for the Legislature also raised strenuous objections to employees unionizing when the effort first began, arguing at one point that the move would be unconstitutional. Those arguments were ultimately unsuccessful.

Adding to the complexity is the polarizing role of unions in the statehouse. Labor groups are frequently major supporters of Democrats and a key reason why the party enjoys dominance in the Capitol today.

State Rep. Kim Wallan, a Republican from Medford, filed a lawsuit aiming to block the union because she believes it will harm the working environment within her and other legislative offices. The effort was rejected by the Oregon Court of Appeals.

“It is a unique environment and a unique structure,” Roberts said. “Twenty months later, it wasn’t easy.”
Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for KLCC. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.