After years of setbacks, California legislative workers win the right to unionize

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Years of advocacy paid off on Saturday for the people whose work keeps the California Legislature functioning.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he signed into law a bill that will allow them to form a union. The measure covers staff for lawmakers and committees, sergeants and other support personnel.

Assembly Bill 1, carried by Democratic Assemblymember Tina McKinnor of Inglewood, gives legislative employees the legal right to organize and collectively bargain with the Assembly and Senate Rules Committees starting in 2026. The original bill would have been effective two years earlier, but amendments made in the Senate labor committee extended the timeline.

“AB 1 is about respecting the staff who do the hard work. I’m so overjoyed that my former colleagues in the Legislature are finally getting the respect and recognition they deserve,” said Shubhangi Domokos, a former legislative staffer and chief of staff for the California Labor Federation, the bill’s main sponsor.

“The most gratifying part of the process of passing AB 1 was the outpouring of staff who voiced their support for a union, it took a village to get this done,” Domokos added.

This year’s effort marked at least the fifth attempt since 2000 to give staff a union. None of the previous pushes, three of which were led by former Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, even received a floor vote. They were stymied not by a vocal, well-funded opposition, but strategic inaction by certain members.

Several factors gave supporters hope this year. Chief among them was the Legislature’s leftward shift after the 2022 midterm election, which brought in a fresh class of diverse, progressive and labor-friendly Democrats. McKinnor amassed 42 co-authors from both chambers, including Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) and Senator Dave Cortese (D-Santa Clara), chair of the Senate labor committee.

Last month, California lawmakers in both chambers approved AB 1 by more than a two-thirds majority. Many of the Democrats champion unions and labor issues, a point of contention among some staffers who argued the members should play by the same rules as the rest of California’s employers.

“If you’re all for unions, then you should let your workers have a chance to potentially be represented by a union,” said Robert Cruz, a current Assembly legislative aide, in a recent interview with The Bee. Cruz voiced support for the bill during its first hearing before the Assembly public employment committee.

Staff say a union would give them the protection to speak up about workplace issues, such as bullying, sexual harassment and other misconduct. The union could also potentially help them bargain for better wages and overtime eligibility.

Grayson Doucette, legislative director for Assemblymember Pilar Schiavo, D-San Fernando Valley, spoke in support of AB 1 at the very first Assembly Public Employment and Retirement committee hearing. He told The Bee that Newsom’s approval, while momentous, was also just the next step in what would be a multi-year process.

“Having something concrete to point to helps any conversation move forward,” Doucette said. “There will be something in law that outlines the framework.”

Former employees have testified before committees that they’ve felt pressured to complete duties outside their job description without proper compensation, such as approving payroll or even assembling a member’s IKEA furniture. Some have also had to use vacation time to campaign for their bosses.

Excluded from collective bargaining are any “department or office leaders” who bear responsibility for hiring, firing and managing staff. “Confidential employees,’‘ who mainly work in human resources but could also include the Legislative Analyst’s Office, are also excluded.

The Assembly and Senate Rules committees can choose to exclude up to a third of employees from collective bargaining. The rules committees, rather than the Public Employment Relations Board, also have sole discretion over the makeup of each bargaining unit. Employees cannot be divided into units based on political party affiliation.

McKinnor previously said the implementation delay to 2026 will give both employees and the employer time to prepare. Staff need time to organize themselves and choose a union representative. Meanwhile, the employer needs time to write detailed job descriptions that outline the duties and responsibilities associated with each classification.

“We want to do it right the first time,” McKinnor said.