By Lucas McMaster and Jacob Peterson
After a years-long fight, legislative employees at the State Capitol and throughout California will have the right to unionize following the signing of AB 1 by Gov. Gavin Newsom. This will affect numerous Sacramento-area workers.
The bill, also known as the Legislative Employer-Employee Relations Act, or LEERA, takes effect on July 1, 2026. The bill was authored by Assemblymember Tina McKinnor of Inglewood, who formerly worked as a legislative staffer.
“I thought this would be a dream job and then got here and saw it differently,” McKinnor recalled. “I saw lots of bullying. I saw just an inconsistency in pay.”
McKinnor said she remembered only making $80,000 as a staffer when her male coworker was making $150,000. She said that state legislators were able to pay staff whatever they thought they were worth.
“A lot of times in the Senate, doing the same work, a black woman is not thought of the same as a white man,” McKinnor suggested.
Ken Jacobs, co-chair of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, said that he believes the bill will positively impact legislative workers. Jacobs pointed out that there’s strong evidence that unionization improves worker’s wages, benefits and working conditions.
“It’s a big deal that, for the first time, employees of the State Legislature will have the ability to organize and bargain collectively,” Jacobs said, “and have some voice over their conditions at work.”
A long battle
This is not the first time such a bill has been proposed in the Legislature, with the earliest attempt being AB 2350 more than two decades ago. That bill, along with four others, were all shut down through strategic inaction. There were also some concerns about unions interfering with the Legislature’s ability to do its job.
AB 1 is also the first of these bills to make it to a floor vote, with previous attempts only going as far as the Assembly’s Public Employment and Retirement Committee, which McKinnor now chairs.
Nonmanagerial legislative staff members are among the last public employees in California to be granted the right to unionize. More than 80% of the over 200,000 people who work for the State of California are already represented in the collective bargaining process, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
The Legislature has a history of exempting itself from the labor laws that it enacts. For example, lawmakers don’t require themselves to pay their employees overtime. Unlike other state employees, legislative staff weren’t granted protection if they wanted to report misconduct or file grievances until 2018.
That change came after 140 women disclosed a “pervasive” culture of sexual misconduct in the California Legislature as part of the national #MeToo movement that gained traction in 2017. A recent analysis of AB1 notes the #MeToo movement as a catalyst to address the concerns of legislative employees.
Other state employees have had the right to collective bargaining since 1977, when the Ralph C. Dills Act was signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown.
‘Better treatment and higher pay’
Although AB1 faced little to no opposition, compromises were still needed for the bill to pass. Notably, the bill’s enactment was delayed from 2024 to 2026 and allowed new lawmakers to dismiss their predecessor’s staff.
Sean Porter has worked as a legislative staff member since 2019 and is currently McKinnor’s legislative director. Porter said he’s had a positive experience working for the Legislature, but is looking forward to being represented by a union.
“I was extremely lucky,” Porter admitted. “I don’t have the problems that a lot of other staff have had.”
While Porter was willing to share his experiences and thoughts on the new bill, many staffers declined to speak to the Sacramento News & Review. Porter said he believes people are hesitant to speak because the bill doesn’t take effect for two more years.
“I think people are just a little confused right now and of course scared because they don’t want to be retaliated against,” Porter added.
Porter doesn’t see any valid reasons why legislators would set different standards for their employees.
“We’re not that different,” Porter said. “We never understood why we couldn’t be allowed to have a union.”
Jacobs, however, said the “inherently political” nature of the positions could explain why labor laws have been different in the State Capitol.
This bill makes California’s legislative staff the second in the nation to unionize, with Oregon staffers ratifying their contract on Oct. 31. Staffers at the federal level are also organizing, with the Congressional Workers Union going public in 2022 and eight U.S. House of Representatives offices filing petitions to let staff unionize.
“A lot of people are already happy to see that we’re moving in the right direction of allowing us to collectively bargain,” Porter said. “I really think the staff here just want better treatment and a higher base pay from a starting position.”
Currently, there are around 1,800 legislative staffers in the state. Legislative spending, including increases in salaries and benefits, is currently capped under Prop. 140. Bargaining between the Legislature and its employees will have to operate within those limits.
Any union formed under LEERA would fall under the jurisdiction of the Public Employment Relations Board, or PERB. Attorney J. Felix De La Torre, governing council for PERB since 2015, said the board handles enforcement and administers laws regarding labor relations for over 2.5 million public employees.
While wages are a reason that unions are formed, it’s just one of many, De La Torre observed. He said unions can help employees negotiate vacations, pensions, health care coverage, overtime compensation, breaks and grievance processes.
“It really depends on what the employees in the bargaining unit value,” De La Torre said. “They might say, we’d like to increase wages, of course, but what we really want to do is focus on these other areas like work hours, and quality of life areas that may not come with a direct price tag.”
The bargaining units for California’s legislative employees have yet to be determined and will be proposed by the union that has been asked to represent the workers.