Democratic commitment to unions tested by Michigan House staffers’ efforts

Ever since assuming control, Michigan Democrats in the Legislature have successfully enacted labor laws that have been widely praised by unions. However, they are now faced with a pressing demand from within their own House.

The legislative staffers in the Michigan House of Representatives have initiated a campaign to form a union.

Kevin Shopshire, the legislative director for state Rep. Stephanie Young, D-Detroit, has an extensive 15-year background working as a staffer in the Legislature. With a genuine sense of enthusiasm, he eagerly joined the union drive, signing a card that authorized the Teamsters to represent him and fellow staffers during contract negotiations.

He expressed a sense of relief, thinking to himself, “Finally, it’s about time.”

Michigan Democrats prioritized pro-labor policies after gaining control of the Legislature. In a significant move, they used their majorities to repeal the state’s right-to-work law last year. This decision made Michigan the first state in almost six decades to abandon a policy that labor advocates strongly opposed. However, the current challenge for Democrats lies in the efforts made by their staff to improve working conditions, which will test their commitment to their labor legacy.

In the nation’s capital, a prominent Michigan Democrat has already taken charge in supporting a comparable initiative. Former U.S. Representative Andy Levin, from Bloomfield Township, introduced a resolution safeguarding U.S. House of Representatives staffers against any form of retaliation for seeking to unionize. Levin expressed that he faced no opposition from his party, although not every Democrat may have fully embraced his proposal.

“I’m certain that some of my Democratic colleagues didn’t appreciate this, but no one actually confronted me or criticized me,” he stated. “I believe this is also the case in the state House. Some colleagues strongly support this, while others may be hesitant to voice their opposition because they identify as Democrats. However, privately, they may express their discontent with it.”

With the support of the Democratic party, Levin’s resolution successfully passed with votes falling along party lines. Following the vote, he had the chance to meet the Hill staffers who were eager to take advantage of the newfound opportunity to unionize. “The entire organizing committee was made up of individuals in their 20s, and from my perspective, they are making history,” he remarked. Subsequently, Levin’s staff went on to establish the first-ever congressional office union, and he reflects on this experience as one of his most significant achievements during his time in Washington, D.C.

A chance to make history in Michigan?

If employees seeking to form a union garner sufficient support from their coworkers, the decision falls into the hands of the employer. The employer has the option to voluntarily acknowledge the union if it has the backing of the majority of workers. Alternatively, the employer can opt for an election to certify the union, which historically has allowed for potential delays and an opportunity to campaign against the union.

The unionization effort was first reported by Michigan Information & Research Service Inc.

According to Amber McCann, spokesperson for House Speaker Joe Tate, he is aware of the union campaign and expects his staff to bring it to his attention once they have collected enough cards. However, the House Business Office, which handles human resources operations for the chamber, may also be involved in responding to any requests to recognize a union. McCann describes this as “uncharted territory.”

Minority Leader Matt Hall, a Republican from Richland Township, chose not to provide a comment regarding the union campaign, according to his spokesperson Jeremiah Ward. However, Ward pointed out a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that permits public sector employees covered by union agreements to choose not to pay union fees. In a text message, Ward stated, “Democratic staff cannot forcefully deduct money from our paychecks to support an extreme left-leaning union.”

Votes on labor legislation that is backed by unions typically follow party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans in opposition. However, despite their pro-union stance, Democrats do not always vocally support their own workers’ right to unionize. Surprisingly, when it comes to their own workplace rights, Democratic and GOP staffers may join forces to launch a bipartisan union campaign.

While there is currently no Democratic lawmaker in the state House who has publicly opposed the union drive, there are those who have expressed support for the effort, while others have not explicitly endorsed it.

Each representative decides what to pay their workers

Working in the Michigan Legislature is often described as a challenging and dynamic environment. Staff members often face high turnover and navigate through unspoken rules and blurred boundaries that can make managing their time a difficult task.

State representatives are responsible for managing their own offices, which sets them apart from private sector workplaces. Unlike in the private sector where poor managers can be fired, state representatives can only be dismissed by the voters in their districts, unless they face expulsion.

State Representative Tyrone Carter, a Democrat from Detroit, expressed his dismay at witnessing certain colleagues mistreating their staff. He candidly shared that there are certain individuals he would never consider working for as a member of their team.

State Representative Joey Andrews, a Democrat from St. Joseph, believes that Lansing has numerous tales to share when it comes to the experiences of employees with terrible bosses.

Legislative staffers’ salaries are not tied to a predetermined pay scale like many other state employees. Instead, each representative is allocated a specific amount for their office, which covers expenses such as staff salaries and mailings to constituents. It is worth noting that representatives in the majority party receive a slightly higher allotment compared to their counterparts in the minority.

According to McCann, Tate’s spokesperson, each state representative has the authority to determine the salaries of their employees, with a maximum cap of $75,000. However, representatives are required to ensure that their staff members are paid at least $35,000. It is important to note that this minimum threshold falls approximately $7,000 short of a living wage in the Lansing/East Lansing metro area, as calculated by the Economic Policy Institute, a research organization that focuses on the well-being of low- and middle-income workers.

According to Andrews, it is common to see pay disparities within the allotment structure. Some representatives choose to allocate less pay to their staff in order to allocate more funds towards mailers.

Staff members are also required to utilize their vacation days to go door-to-door for their superiors and frequently put in extended hours. Shopshire, the legislative staff member advocating for the union movement, doesn’t particularly mind canvassing, as he perceives it as a means of ensuring job stability for himself and his boss.

Legislative staffer jobs aren’t your typical 9-to-5 gigs, according to Shopshire. While the work may require flexibility and dedication, it’s important to establish some boundaries.

Courtney Laudick, a former congressional staffer from Michigan, played a crucial role in organizing the union drive on Capitol Hill. As the vice president of organizing, she was instrumental in leading the group of organizers. Her journey began as an unpaid intern before securing a position in Levin’s office after graduation.

When she first moved to D.C., she remembered residing in the attic of her college friend’s parents, who lived just outside the city. Reflecting on those early months, she shared, “It was only possible for me to work on the Hill because when I was 20, my dad passed away at the age of 65, and he had a life insurance plan for me and my sister.” She noted that the low wages typically associated with entry-level positions on the Hill act as a significant barrier to entry. However, she and her fellow staffers saw an opportunity to redefine what a Hill job could be and took action by organizing themselves.

“We used to joke and have a laugh during that period. We were just a bunch of congressional staffers, not experts with years of organizing or unionizing training. However, we were well-versed in our workplace, which made us experts,” she said with a chuckle.

Michigan Legislature: House GOP Leader Matt Hall speaks out about state rep’s controversial “great replacement” post

In a recent statement, House GOP Leader Matt Hall finally addressed the controversial “great replacement” post made by a state representative. Hall expressed his concerns over the post, emphasizing the need for respectful and inclusive language in political discourse.

Hall emphasized the importance of promoting unity and understanding among diverse communities. He stated that such divisive language is not representative of the values held by Michigan’s legislators and should not be tolerated. Hall further emphasized the need for elected officials to lead by example and foster an environment of respect and inclusivity.

While Hall acknowledged the importance of free speech, he also highlighted the responsibility that comes with holding public office. He emphasized the need for elected officials to be mindful of the impact their words may have on the communities they represent.

Hall’s statement serves as a reminder that public officials have a duty to promote unity and respect, particularly in a diverse state like Michigan. It also highlights the ongoing discussions surrounding the appropriate use of language in political discourse, as well as the importance of holding elected officials accountable for their words and actions.

Where Democratic lawmakers stand on union drive

State Representative Dylan Wegela, D-Garden City, expressed his full support for the House staff’s unionization effort, stating that he believes it is long overdue. Drawing from his experience as a lead organizer during Arizona’s 2018 teachers’ strike, Wegela emphasized the importance of living up to our values during this time.

As a former policy analyst with the Michigan AFL-CIO, Andrews expressed his strong support for the effort. He personally witnessed a disconnect between the pro-union stances Democrats publicly advocate and how they actually treat their own employees. Having been involved in the unionization of Michigan Democratic Party staffers before his tenure in the state Legislature, Andrews described the bargaining process with the party as “atrocious.”

Some Democrats who used to hold union leadership positions did not wholeheartedly endorse the effort to unionize.

“I’m open to having a conversation,” expressed Carter, a former union vice president. He acknowledged the potential advantages of a union for legislative staff but emphasized that he considers this situation to be unique. Despite this, he clarified that he doesn’t currently have any particular concerns regarding the potential impact of a union.

State Representative Jaime Churches, who hails from Wyandotte and has a background in education and union leadership, hinted at potential downsides of having a unionized legislative staff. However, she refrained from citing any specific instances, suggesting that it would be more appropriate to ask the staff members who are advocating for unionization.

When asked about the potential hypocrisy of Democrats who have supported pro-union measures opposing a unionization effort by their own staff, Churches hesitated before responding. She admitted that she was unsure how to answer the question. However, she emphasized that Democrats are committed to listening to the needs and concerns of workers, which is what they campaigned on and believe in. Churches believes that having an open conversation with workers is an essential first step in addressing their concerns.

In Michigan, lawmakers frequently change due to term limits. This turnover also affects their staff, who often leave, with their departures being commemorated by heartfelt farewell speeches. However, proponents of a union for legislative staff see this as a chance to reduce the high turnover rate and potentially result in improved policies that directly affect the lives of the state’s 10 million residents.

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