Oregon legislative employees become first in the nation to unionize

By Sam Stites (OPB) and Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
May 28, 2021 7:24 p.m. Updated: May 28, 2021 8:49 p.m.

Following 75-31 vote, Oregon Legislature staff members will join International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 89.

Legislative employees within Oregon’s Capitol will become the first in the nation to unionize, after a 75-31 vote by staff members Friday in favor of joining the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 89.

With the vote, 180 Capitol aides can begin taking steps toward bargaining with the Legislature on a contract for the first time, a move they hope will give them more input into how the building runs.


“We’re moving forward,” Tony Ruiz, an organizer with IBEW Local 89, said following the vote. “This was truly bipartisan support.”

The unionization push has been discussed informally for years and doesn’t arise out of a specific dispute, employees supporting the effort say. Rather, it’s meant to address a concern that spans issues: That legislative aides don’t have a meaningful or consistent say in their workplace.

Friday’s vote was not without challenges. As expected, legislative leadership challenged some of the ballots on the grounds that certain staff members don’t qualify to be union members because they hold supervisory or managerial positions, or have “confidential” duties.

Oregon’s Employment Relations Board read off the ballots Friday morning and noted that 30 votes were “impounded” on those grounds and two others were void for lack of a signature bringing the total vote count to 106.

While some lawmakers have questioned how unionization would work and whether it is fundamentally at odds with the job staffers complete, others — including 29 Democrats — have pushed to pass a bill that would make it easier for legislative employees to unionize.


Senate Bill 759 would provide a tweak to Oregon’s Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act that ensures the Capitol’s legislative administrator, Brett Hanes, is the person responsible for bargaining with an employee union if one emerges. The bill passed through the Senate on a 16-11 vote back in April but has yet to move out of the House rules committee to the floor.

Department of Justice lawyer Tessa Sugahara, representing the Legislature, has repeatedly argued an employee union is “fundamentally incompatible” with the work lawmakers do.

In February, Sugahara filed eight pages of objections to the union push with the ERB including a contention that it’s unclear who would rightly bargain with employees on behalf of the 90 elected officials who make up the Legislature — a sticking point SB 759 could eventually resolve.

The proposal to hand that duty to the state’s legislative administrator in some ways mirrors a step lawmakers took in 1983 when they clarified that the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court has authority to bargain with judicial branch employees who unionize. Supporters say IBEW is a great fit for that environment. Despite its name, the union already represents an array of clerical workers.

And IBEW Local 89 doesn’t take an active role in state politics, including funding lawmakers’ campaigns or lobbying on bills, though it is a member of the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions that frequently supports Democratic candidates.

The union also said it’s not out to start a major fight with the Legislature, a move that could potentially alienate aides and the lawmakers they work for.

“We see value in working with the employer,” Ruiz said. “Other unions want to be more combative. That’s not where we are.”

House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney issued a joint statement Friday afternoon expressing their support for legislative staff.

“The people’s work could not be done without them. Today, Oregon legislative aides took the historic step becoming the first union of legislative staff in the nation,” the statement said. “We respect their decision, hear their voices and looking forward to bargaining in good faith with their new union.”