Oregon is the first state where legislative aides are unionized. The effort has been afoot since last year, overcoming some opposition from lawmakers who attempted to prevent it. Staffers prevailed and now the union is poised to negotiate its first contract after the 2021 session wraps up. We ask two newly unionized staffers Logan Gilles and Claire Prihoda about what was behind this effort and what changes and protections they’re hoping to see in their workplace.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller.
Before the break we heard about history at the Oregon State Capitol. For the very first time, members of the state’s House of Representatives voted on Thursday to expel one of their own. We turn now to another first, not just in Salem, but in the country as a whole. Staffers who work for elected lawmakers voted in late May to unionize. They are the only staffers in any legislature in the country to do that. I’m joined now by two capitol employees who took part in this successful unionization effort. Logan Gilles is Chief Policy Adviser for Democratic state senator Michael Dembrow and Claire Prihoda is legislative aide who works for Democratic state senator Kate Lieber. It’s good to have both of you on the show.
Logan Gilles: Thank you Dave.
Claire Prihoda: Thanks for having us Dave.
Miller: So, Logan Gillis first, you started in 2009, had there been any talk about forming or joining a union when you first started working at the capitol?
Gilles: Well, it’s interesting you ask that, because definitely, there have always been whispers and conversations about it, and back when I started, the general understanding or apparently misconception was that legislative staff were somehow statutorily barred from collective bargaining. And so I think that perception really precluded any serious discussion of it for quite a while.
Miller: If you hadn’t had what now clearly seems like a misapprehension, would you have wanted to organize much earlier?
Gilles: I think potentially, but union organizing campaigns, like a lot of things, you really need the right moment, you need to have the right situation for it to really catch fire.
Miller: Can you describe the work culture in the capitol, as you’ve known it for 12 years now?
Gilles: It certainly evolved over that time. When I started in the building as an intern in 2007, it really could have been a workplace in the 1970s, or 1980s, probably. Over time, I think there have been a lot of improvements in terms of the culture in the capitol. But, as we’ve seen recently, we still have a ways to go, I would say, to make it an inclusive, equitable, safe workplace.
Miller: When you say it could have been a workplace in the 1970s, what are examples, what exactly do you mean?
Gilles: The capitol is a place with a lot of different internal power dynamics. There are hierarchies within the legislators themselves, in terms of who has power and influence. You have lobbyists working in the building, who need things from legislators and from staff in order to represent their clients. Staff need things from other staff. And so, I think for a long time there [were] unchallenged abuses of that power. Maybe the appropriate term is microaggressions. I think there were a lot of ways that people would talk or or tell jokes or make comments that were offensive and harassing in nature. But it just was the way it was, was sort of the attitude that I think a lot of people took about it.
One of the things about being a political staffer is you’re taught pretty early on that you’re not here to rock the boat. You’re here to do your job, do what your elected official or candidate needs. And if there are things that you’re not happy about, don’t talk about it.
Miller: I hadn’t even thought of this particular aspect, but as you mentioned it, I can’t count the number of times we’ve talked to lawmakers on this show. That’s the way a certain version of media works, that we talked to the 90 lawmakers in the House and the Senate all the time, and we almost never talk publicly with staffers. When something like this happens, do you and Claire Prihoda need to get permission from the lawmakers that you work for, if you’re going to be talking publicly about something?
Gilles: I didn’t bother telling Michael that I was doing this. So maybe he’s listening right now, maybe he’s gonna send me a stern text after this.
90 different legislators means 90 different ways of handling things. And for most legislators, they have one staff person year round in the Oregon legislature. We’re not like congressional offices where there’s a whole host of people, and so you tend to develop a pretty close relationship and understanding of how things work. I would say generally speaking, staff are expected to get their boss in the paper, not themselves.
Miller: Right, because that could be a sign that something has gone wrong otherwise.
Claire Prihoda, you have worked in the capitol for a short amount of time, but the years have added up. You’ve worked there since 2018. Can you describe the work atmosphere as you’ve come to know it?
Prihoda: Thanks, Dave. Yeah, I definitely don’t have quite the tenure that Logan has, but two or almost three sessions now is longer than many staffers. It’s definitely an exciting place to work. I definitely have had the benefit of the work that many staff like Logan have done in the years before I arrived to make the culture more welcoming. And it’s clear, I think, that there’s a strong desire from most parties in the legislature staff, partisan and nonpartisan staff, to make improvements and modernizations in the workplace. And I’ve definitely benefited from a lot of those.
Miller: Why were you most in support of the unionization effort? What was the biggest issue that you thought collective bargaining would actually help you achieve?
Prihoda: I don’t know that it really came down to one issue or another. I think every staff has had their own experience in the building and their own reasons for thinking that this might be the next path. But I think that as we look across the changes in the legislature recently, and as we can kind of feel that we’re in a moment where there is strong desire to modernize and improve the capital as a workplace, staff want to be a part of that change, part of those discussions. I think without a union, there’s no clear path for how we were to engage in some of the changes that have come and are coming.
Miller: It’s been reported that this unionization vote was not in direct response to any one incident, but I’m curious how much of a role sexual harassment allegations against Republican Senator Jeff Cruz or Democratic Representative Diego Hernandez, how much those different situations played in this vote?
Gilles: I think that it’s all of a piece, right? With the capitol culture evolving and people paying a little bit more attention to it, I think it also really allowed folks to think about if change is possible, what would I want that change to look like for myself and for my colleagues, and is there a role for me to play in that? And that extends to a whole host of things.
I would also say that back in the olden times prior to 2017, we used to negotiate our salaries directly with our legislator, and the legislature has moved away from that and towards a centralized pay structure, which really removed the leverage of staff to have input on those sorts of things. I’d be curious to see what Claire would have to add to that.
Prihoda: Not a whole lot to add, just echoing that there’s really no one issue. I think that there’s clearly been improvements made in the legislature, but the process for how we deal with sexual harassment or any other kind of workplace claims has not had significant involvement from staff in developing those processes, and I think that we’ll see greater transparency, greater willingness of staff to come forward if they are experiencing those things, if we have staff engagement in the processes for dealing with them.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about the successful unionization effort by Oregon’s legislative employees. We’re talking with two staffers for Oregon lawmakers: Claire Prihoda works for Democratic state senator Kate Lieber, and Logan Gilles works for Democratic state senator, Michael Dembrow.
Claire Prihoda, to drastically simplify the partisan aspects of this issue, in general, Democrats are more in favor of stronger unions and unionization efforts than Republicans are. Did you see that among staffers? Did you see more support for unionization from staffers who work for Democrats?
Prihoda: I wouldn’t say there was more or less support from any one party. I think that, having been involved in some of the outreach efforts for this union, I had amazing conversations and great engagement and support from colleagues across the political spectrum, in ways that often surprised me, going into some of the same preconceptions that maybe some folks would not be as interested. But when it comes down to it, we have a lot more in common as staffers and the issues that we face as staff. The issues we want to have input in aren’t really political. They’re about bread and butter issues of our workplace that we all share.
Miller: Logan Gilles, do you see that as well? I mean, it’s interesting, it almost seems like Claire Prihoda talking about more of a sense of cross-party solidarity that either became apparent or became more present as a result of this unionization effort. Did you see that as well?
Gilles: Absolutely. I think that staff may in fact have more in common a lot of the times than our bosses do. And part of it is shared experience of working for elected officials. Relationships between Republican and Democratic staffers in general are pretty friendly, so it’s not a surprise that we would share a lot of the same thoughts and concerns about the workplace. Certainly, some of our Republican colleagues have a different frame of mind when approaching collective action or things like that, but I had a lot of really good informative conversations with Republican colleagues over the last few months, and we’re certainly going to continue engaging all staff who want to help shape the priorities going forward.
Miller: Logan Gilles, what are your priorities going forward? My understanding is that negotiations are now beginning. What do you want to see?
Gilles: I think in broad strokes, I want to see us as staff embark on an inclusive process to determine what the group believes the priority should be. This campaign, and unions in general, they don’t work if they’re about one person, or about “This is the way I think it should be, so let’s do that.” It has to be about listening and figuring out, collectively, what do we see the priorities being?
I will add that part of my interest in this is just codifying some of the status quo elements that we do have, because without a union, legislative leadership can change our pay, our health care benefits, our premiums, our retirement benefits, they could change them tomorrow. If we have a signed contract where both sides agree that this is what it is, and if it’s going to change, we’re going to talk about it, I think that’s a huge step forward.
Miller: Claire Prihoda, the local chapter of the union that you’re now a part of, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, they don’t directly contribute to political campaigns of Oregon lawmakers. Your union is a part of the larger AFL-CIO, though, and broadly, unions have been one of the most consistent and effective supporters of Democratic lawmakers. Do you think that could give you an advantage if Democratic lawmakers don’t want to be seen as anti-union?
Prihoda: I think that’s hard to judge, and I wouldn’t say that our current experience so far would demonstrate that to be true. We’ve had to face a lot of similar challenges to other workplaces that attempt to organize, challenges to our right to bargain. They seem to be resolving themselves now, and we’re really excited to be moving forward collaboratively.
Miller: In other words, lawmakers challenged your ability to actually unionize, their arguments did not win the day, but you’re saying that’s evidence that they, so far, have not been so scared of being seen as anti-union that they would just welcome the union effort?
Prihoda: Yeah, we’re really excited to be working with IBEW because they approach things wanting to be non-confrontational, and I think that’s the goal of most workers is to benefit both them and their workplace, which ultimately provides more stability for employers as well. IBEW really embraces that, and wants to move forward non-confrontationally, and I think that hopefully that will be the tone going forward.
Miller: And just briefly, Logan Gilles, one of the peculiarities of the working relationships of the capitol historically has been that it’s not uncommon for lawmakers to hire their kids or their spouses as staffers. How might that affect everything we’re talking about going forward, if management, say, is your spouse?
Gilles: I would say two things to that. One, I don’t anticipate that this unionization is going to limit or change the ability of legislators to hire the staff that they believe are going to be best able to support them in the work that they’re doing, and I do think that’s important.
The other thing I would say is that although the state contended it as such, the truth is really our employer is the branch, it is the legislative assembly. And so while our direct supervisor is the elected official, this is really not about our relationships with our elected officials, the one that we work for. It’s about our relationship with the legislative branch, and branch administration.
Miller: Logan Gilles and Claire Prihoda, thanks very much.
Prihoda: Thanks Dave.
Gilles: Thank you, Dave.
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