Legislative aides, campaign workers and political organizers are forming their own union*, to be known as the Political Workers Guild of Colorado.
The union, primarily made up of Democratic political workers, will be affiliated with the Communications Workers of America Local 37074.
Legislative aides have been working toward a union since 2019. As of Tuesday's announcement, the union has 64 members, 43 of them legislative aides to Democrats in the Colorado House and Senate.
So why a union? Kailee Stiles, spokeswoman for the Guild, told Colorado Politics that "imbalances and inequities became more obvious" in 2020, including during the election cycle.
For campaign workers, that often means being either a contract employee, which is most common, or for some rare campaigns, being a full-time employee with the benefits, such as health insurance, that go with it. Every candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, except for former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, offered their workers health benefits. Buttigieg, now the Secretary of Transportation in the Biden administration, instead provided a stipend to his workers to buy health insurance on the federal exchange, according to NBC News. The campaign staff for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., unionized to get health benefits, including mental health services.
During the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, then-candidate Jared Polis, who paid his campaign workers as employees, shelled out more than $141,000 to cover health benefits for those employees.
The other issue for those drawn to unions is pay. In 2019, Speaker of the House KC Becker, frustrated with poaching of her partisan staff as well as aides, hiked the pay of senior partisan staff. But she also put in a minimum wage for legislative aides at $15 per hour. It's not enough, Stiles said. Some aides work two jobs to make ends meet, including off-session, when they can only work part-time, she said.
"We want this job to be sustainable," Stiles said, so that people can stay in the job for more than six months.
The Political Workers Guild will be an open union, according to Stiles, meaning aides and other political workers are not required to join. Eventually, they hope to seek collective bargaining rights with the employers, although Stiles said that's a long way off.
The union has already won the endorsement of the state Democratic Party as well as House Democratic leadership.
Democratic Party Chair Morgan Carroll said in a statement Tuesday that the party stands in solidarity with the Guild's efforts "to amplify and uplift the voices of legislative aides and campaign workers. They do hard, demanding, and important work to fuel our democracy and policy-making process in Colorado and it is important that their voices are heard and valued.”
While Democrats have embraced the union, Republicans at the state Capitol have a different take. Through a spokesman, Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Douglas County, declined to comment. Minority Chief of Staff Tim Griesemer said he had not been approached by aides or staff members about the union.
Ayah Ziyadeh is an aide to state Rep. Mike Weissman of Aurora and a founding member of the union. “We have worked on this effort for three years now, and we’ve hit on a model that will allow us to advocate for ourselves and our colleagues," she said in a statement Tuesday. "We work extremely long hours, have almost no employer-provided benefits, and barely make a living wage, but we have been systematically denied the chance to negotiate for ourselves. Our strength is in our members and our progressive advocacy. I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve accomplished with this launch, and what we’re going to accomplish together in the future.”
Logan Davis, former deputy director of the House Majority Project, said the difficulties of the job, including the low pay and benefits, "leads to constant turnover in election cycles and legislative sessions; that kind of talent loss hurts the whole political ecosystem in Colorado. It hurts our legislators, it hurts their constituents, and it robs us of institutional knowledge that is already hard to maintain in the Capitol. We have to do better.”
“We have a Democratic trifecta that has always supported labor unions in Colorado; but if we’re going to fight for economic and social justice, we have to make sure those values are being extended to all staff in every workplace, and the General Assembly is no exception,” said Heather Bradley, an aide to Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City.
Speaker of the House Alec Garnett said Tuesday he welcomed the Guild's announcement. "Making sure our aides feel fulfilled and cared for in their jobs is good for the General Assembly and good for our state.”
House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, who sponsored the law last year to allow state employees to participate in collective bargaining, said she stands in solidarity with the legislative aides and for making their voices heard through a union.
Correction: While the Guild claimed it is the first of its kind in the nation, Caleb-Michael Files, executive secretary of the Campaign Workers Guild, said his union has been around since 2017.