The self-styled labor union representing New York State Senate staffers is asking Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins to forgo a secret-ballot election before letting the group speak for employees.

A letter to Stewart-Cousins released today (first reported by Zack Fink of NY1) lays out New York State Legislative Workers United’s argument that the group is eligible to organize under the state Taylor Law, which sets the rules for collective bargaining in New York state and local governments (a question that remains far from settled). The union also says it wants to work out a “timeline for voluntary recognition.”

Under “voluntary recognition,” a union collects signatures from a majority of employees and asks management to acknowledge that the organization has enough support to speak for all of them. This approach gives the union the ability to negotiate terms and conditions of employment without first having to win a secret-ballot election. Public employee unions in New York have sometimes, but not always, been recognized this way. In this case, opening the door to voluntary recognition would leave Senate employees exposed to potential peer-pressure, intimidation, or worse—both from union organizers and Senate leadership.

The union reportedly counts more than 75 members who work in the Senate, a small portion of the body’s payroll that includes about 1,400 people over the course of a year.

A group of people who work for a democratic institution pursuing such an undemocratic approach underscores the unconventional nature of what the union is seeking.

For one thing, there’s a big difference between organizing (joining a group that will advocate for senate staffers) and collective bargaining (entering into a binding agreement over terms and conditions of employment with the New York State Senate). In this case, the union is seeking the latter under the Taylor Law.

Absent a major change to the Taylor Law (and possibly the state Constitution), any arrangement that binds legislators or a legislative body to the terms of a union contract would raise a list of practical and legal issues, and a union would struggle to get state courts to enforce them.

Consider, for instance, if staffers had inked a union contract with then-Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan in 2018. It would have been inappropriate to expect his successor, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, to be stuck complying to terms negotiated by her rival but not fixed in state law. Even if the Senate rules had been amended under Flanagan to enshrine an agreement with the union, senators retain an inalienable right to change those rules. 

Alternatively, if a union contract were to spell out the hours of operation for the Senate (the way teachers union contracts often regulate the length of the school day), enforcing that would mean interfering with the legislative process—a major separation of powers issue. 

Of course, nothing can stop lawmakers from voluntarily agreeing to things they or their leadership might negotiate with a union (as members of the New York City Council so far have). Here lawmakers might soon get an unvarnished education about the added costs and reduced flexibility that public-sector collective bargaining has imposed on local governments and school districts for a half-century. And in that specific respect, ending the Legislature’s immunity from collective bargaining could have benefits for all New Yorkers.

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