DOVER – While the capitol is used to some issues flaring up on the opening day of the annual legislative session, it’s rare that one would come from inside the statehouse – but that’s exactly what happened Tuesday, Jan. 14.
Just hours before the second half of the 150th General Assembly was gaveled back into session, staff with Delaware House of Representatives and Senate announced their intent to unionize with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 81, based in New Castle. The group of workers, named the Delaware General Assembly Union, reportedly requested that their proposed bargaining unit be granted voluntary recognition by leaders in the legislature.
If recognized by legislative leaders, Delaware would reportedly become the first state to have a fully unionized workforce in its statehouse, including Democratic, Republican and non-partisan staff. Maine recognized a group of non-partisan legislative staff members in 2002, and today two different unions represent about 90 employees.
“In all four caucuses, our staffers work tirelessly to make Delaware’s legislature one of the best in the nation. From constituent services to legislative research, communications, drafting, and more, our group spends every day working full-time, nights, and weekends for the people of the First State,” the Delaware organizers said in a press release announcing the effort.
The organizers noted that despite elected officials friendly to the labor movement, partisan and non-partisan staff alike continue to be employed at-will in non-merit positions.
“Moving forward, we know that a union will help us do a better job of retaining talent, providing basic worker protections, and delivering results for the people of Delaware,” they wrote. “We are lucky to have House and Senate leadership – some of them union members themselves – who already understand this and we look forward to the voluntary recognition of this organizing effort in an amicable start to contract negotiations with their hard-working staff.”
The effort is led in part by State Senate Democratic Deputy Communications Director Dylan McDowell, who told Delaware Business Times that he couldn’t discuss the effort at the statehouse Tuesday afternoon because he didn’t want to mix union issues with his job’s responsibilities. DBT left a message with him seeking comment after hours.
Although the organizers claimed in their initial press release Tuesday to represent “a majority of the Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan staff” in the legislature, Republican leaders expressed some doubts.
Later Tuesday afternoon, Republican leaders Rep. Danny Short and Sen. Gerald Hocker issued a statement, saying that their caucuses only became aware of the effort Tuesday.
“In contrast to the statement issued earlier today by AFSCME Council 81, no staff member of the House Republican Caucus or Senate Republican Caucus was previously contacted regarding the possibility of unionization,” they wrote, noting they do recognize the staff’s ability to unionize if desired. “There are still many questions which need to be answered regarding this proposal.”
In its own statement, the Senate Democratic Caucus noted that it has “a lengthy record of supporting the rights of workers to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions,” but declined to comment further on the issue, citing “respect for the [National Labor Relations Act] process and the privacy concerns inherent in all personnel matters.” House Speaker Peter Schwartzkopf’s office issued a similar statement.
There are about 170 full-time and part-time staff members working in Delaware’s Legislative Hall, of which organizers claim about 44 would join the union.
Delaware Public Employees Council 81 represents about 7,500 public-sector employees in Delaware. Those employees have a right to unionize under the state’s Public Employees Relations Act but are prohibited from going on strike. Disagreements over wages or working conditions would be resolved through mediation and binding arbitration if necessary.
Public employees are legally allowed to join a union unless they are considered “supervisors,” or those who are able to hire, fire or recommend discipline for another employee. Elected officials and political appointees also are prohibited from unionizing.
By Jacob Owens