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State House staffers seek higher pay, protection from retaliation in unionization effort

 michigan state capitol
Megan Schellong
/
WKAR-MSU

The staffers who support the lawmakers in the Michigan House of Representatives could soon form a union.

Aides for elected officials launched an organizing drive in late March to join the Teamsters Local 243. Conversations about unionizing began earlier in January.

Bill Black is a business agent with the union and is working with House staffers to organize. He says lawmakers should support their employees.

“They’re the ones that drive to get everything done in the state of Michigan for elected officials," said Black. "They’re the meat and potatoes that get all the work done. And that’s what this organizing drive is about.”

Political aides are collecting authorization cards to approve joining the Teamsters union, according to Black.

“The cards are coming in on a weekly basis. We’re getting them from Democrats and Republicans," he said.

If approved, more than 200 Michigan House staffers would be included in the union.

Connor Berdy is a legislative aide for state Rep. Kimberly Edward (D-Eastpointe), whose district covers parts of Macomb and Wayne Counties. WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with him about why the staffers want to unionize.

Interview Highlights

On what legislative aides do

Each representative gets two staffers, usually one covers constituent services, managing the office, community events. And then the other one focuses on the legislative side of things. But really, it's all encompassing and for our offices, it's a lot to put on two people, especially when we have the majority.

On why the unionization effort is happening now

I think the environment across the country has never been this pro-union since probably back to the original organizing strikes of the UAW. So, the momentum of that, I think, has really helped feed this.

Also, the fact that we haven't had substantial raises to be adjusted with the cost of living in a very long time.

On why the union should form

Michigan residents want to have people in these offices who are dedicated to the job. Having the high turnover rate that we do right now does not help when you're building these relationships with your community ... to get people locked back in like it used to be and have those career people who are dedicated to serving and being public servants at the staff level, I think that's important across the board for all of Michigan.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: The staffers who support the lawmakers in the Michigan House of Representatives could soon form a union.

Aides for elected officials launched an organizing drive late last month to join the Teamsters Local 243.

Connor Berdy is a legislative aide for Democratic Representative Kimberly Edwards whose district covers parts of Macomb and Wayne Counties. He joins me now to talk about why staffers want to unionize. Thanks for being here.

Connor Berdy: Hey, thanks for having me.

Connor Berdy headshot
Courtesy
/
Connor Berdy
Connor Berdy works as a legislative aide for Democratic Representative Kimberly Edwards.

Saliby: Some of our listeners may be unfamiliar with what House staffers do, so can you share a little bit about what your work looks like on the day to day?

Berdy: Each representative gets two staffers, usually one covers constituent services, managing the office, community events. And then the other one focuses on the legislative side of things. But really, it's all encompassing and for our offices, it's a lot to put on two people, especially when we have the majority.

Saliby: And why is this unionization effort happening right now? Because I've seen talk of people through the years talk about this happening, but now it's happening.

Berdy: I think the environment across the country has never been this pro-union since probably back to the original organizing strikes of the UAW. So, the momentum of that, I think, has really helped feed this. Also, the fact that we haven't had substantial raises to be adjusted with the cost of living in a very long time.

I think the environment across the country has never been this pro-union since probably back to the original organizing strikes of the UAW. So, the momentum of that, I think, has really helped feed this. Also, the fact that we haven't had substantial raises to be adjusted with the cost of living in a very long time.

And with the pressure of having such a historic legislature, I mean, we have passed hundreds and hundreds of pieces of legislation, worked tirelessly through the weekends and I think a lot of that, it's like, "Okay, we're doing all this work. What should we get," you know? Like, how can we keep ourselves satisfied, I guess.

Saliby: So I would assume higher wages might be a part of these collective bargaining issues if the union forms. Is there anything else at the top of the list of priorities for you and other organizers?

Berdy: Yeah. Protection from political retaliation too is another key asset. It's very unique in our workplace that we actually can be fired by the Speaker of the House. So, depending on the opposite party, our jobs could be in jeopardy, even just for, say, attempting to organize a union.

Saliby: Have you talked to past legislators who may have been legislative aides at some point in their careers or former legislative aides about kind of working in that environment where they felt unsafe in thinking about organizing?

Berdy: Yeah, I've heard a lot of stories. And that was one of the first things that you know, a lot of the senior staffers were telling me the moment I started talking about this was, "Oh, you know, they fired everyone who tried to do that before. You'll be politically blacklisted."

And you know, I think they had a lot tighter grip on Lansing back in the day, but with the public eye being so in favor of unions across Republicans and Democrats, I think now it's a time that the policymakers have to realize that this is — we are a vital part of their office, and we deserve a voice at the table just as much as they do.

Saliby: I know House Speaker Joe Tate is aware of the effort. So obviously, the organizing is proceeding and people have not been fired. But I want to talk more directly to you — have you talked about unionizing with Representative Edwards? Is she supportive?

Berdy: Yes. She was one of the first people I went to. I let her know, "Hey, this is something I'm interested in doing. Would you support me and or, you know, put your neck on the line for me too?"

Because we haven't had any retaliation from either side at attempting to do this, but if that had been the case, I wanted to make sure that at least you know, some of the representatives would have my back. Because if I got fired, that would be hard for me to find a job because most of my career I've worked in Lansing.

Saliby: Where are you all in the organizing process and when do you expect a vote to be held?

Michigan residents want to have people in these offices who are dedicated to the job. Having the high turnover rate that we do right now does not help when you're building these relationships with your community, and then it's a new person every few months.

Berdy: So, we are pretty far along. I don't think I can say exactly how far along we are at the moment. But I have to imagine that the rate things are going, a vote and or voluntary recognition may be on the horizon by as early as the summer. We have bipartisan support. I should say overwhelming bipartisan support on this.

Saliby: Looking forward, have you heard from staffers in the Senate who may be interested in launching a similar effort?

Berdy: Yeah, I've definitely heard whispers over there and interests definitely being thrown around.

Saliby: To wrap up this conversation, could you speak to the number one kind of important reason for why this union should exist?

Berdy: I think that our offices are the number one way that any resident in Michigan can connect to and engage with their government at the state level. We help people with unemployment. We help people with health care, so many issues that come right through our offices.

And during the pandemic, you heard the stories. We were overwhelmed with people doing hundreds of unemployment cases per day. So, Michigan residents want to have people in these offices who are dedicated to the job. Having the high turnover rate that we do right now does not help when you're building these relationships with your community, and then it's a new person every few months.

So, to get people locked back in like it used to be and have those career people who are dedicated to serving and being public servants at the staff level, I think that's important across the board for all of Michigan.

Saliby: Connor Berdy is a legislative aide for Representative Kimberly Edwards and one of the lead organizers for this House staffer unionization effort. Thank you for joining me.

Berdy: Thanks for having me.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
WKAR's Eli Newman contributed to this report.

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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