Compared with last year’s game-changing new law allowing some 28,000 Colorado state employees to collectively bargain for pay and benefits, a push to unionize several dozen left-leaning legislative staffers at the Capitol seems more like a bridge club. For now, at least.
A spokeswoman for the effort says they won’t get collective-bargaining rights — the be all, end all of union membership — anytime soon. That’s in stark contrast with their counterparts who work under the executive branch and are represented by the state employee union Colorado WINS, their sole bargaining unit.
As thumbnailed last week by our news affiliate Colorado Politics, the Political Workers Guild of Colorado consists of legislative aides along with campaign workers and political organizers.
The fledgling effort, in the works since 2019, has 64 members, 43 of them staffers from the Democratic Party caucuses in the Colorado state House and Senate. The rest are part of the ragtag army of political operatives surrounding political campaigns and related efforts.
Evidently, all are Democrats. No surprise there. A senior Republican legislative staffer told Colorado Politics no staff members from GOP ranks had approached him about the union. Presumably, none are interested.
So, what’s the point of a union at all if it can’t collectively bargain for pay and benefits in a labor contract?
Kailee Stiles, the spokeswoman for the Guild, seems to see its formation as a first step. She told Colorado Politics that "imbalances and inequities” in the ranks “became more obvious" in 2020, including during the election cycle. For campaign workers, that typically has meant working as independent contractors without benefits. For legislative staffers, it involves relatively low pay. In 2019, then-Democratic House Speaker K.C. Becker raised the minimum wage for lower-level legislative staff to $15 an hour, but Stiles says that’s not enough. She said some staffers have to work two jobs to make ends meet and that the unionizing effort aims to make staff positions “sustainable” so people will hold the jobs longer. Some staffers who spoke with Colorado Politics echoed those concerns.
Before Stiles and her cohorts move forward with organized labor’s latest foray into state government, they ought to ponder a couple of realities. One is that most legislative staffers — typically young and starting out in their careers — don’t actually want to stay in the legislature a long time. They certainly don’t expect to support themselves, much less a family, on the pay. They are there to pick up one-of-a-kind experience in the world of politics and public policy. They are similar to the unpaid interns that also flock to the Capitol each spring except that, as paid staffers, they are expected to be politically loyal to the lawmakers they serve.
The other consideration to keep in mind is that nowadays, even in not-so-business-friendly Democratic circles, political employers increasingly are behaving like market-driven business owners. Meaning, they woo employment prospects with better pay and benefits. That’s certainly the case at the national level and the trend may be heading Colorado’s way.
As noted by the Colorado Politics report, most candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary offered their workers health benefits. Pete Buttigieg, now secretary of transportation in the Biden administration, provided a stipend to his workers to buy health insurance on the federal exchange. Only the campaign staff for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders unionized to get health benefits, including mental health services. And here in Colorado, the 2018 gubernatorial campaign saw then-candidate Jared Polis pay his campaign workers as employees and dole out more than $141,000 to cover health benefits for those employees.
Sure, Polis, a millionaire many times over, has deep pockets. But does his beneficence represent the wave of the future? And might it at some point moot the upstart union movement among staffers? Shouldn’t it?
Colorado taxpayers have more reason to be alarmed by last year’s legislation granting collective bargaining power to rank-and-file state workers. It stands to leave the budget over a bigger and bigger barrel as the years go by, as union demands for greater pay and perks escalate. While organized labor’s foray in the legislature represents only a toehold, it’s the chokehold of collective bargaining on the much larger bureaucracy that should worry us all. Its potential to run up the state budget could leave Colorado in a fiscal straitjacket.
One consolation: Neither Colorado WINS nor Political Workers Guild members are permitted to strike. That’s certainly reassuring when it comes to the nearly 30,000 executive branch employees. But we confess to mixed feelings about the prospect of legislative staffers going on strike. Imagine if the 100 members of the General Assembly had no one to write press releases and stage news conferences. But for media coverage, they’d have to labor in obscurity. They might even get more done — and be able to adjourn early.