New York City Council aides are officially unionized, after 21-month campaign

The labor union representing more than 350 New York City Council aides has officially been approved by the city, paving the way for the Association of Legislative Employees, which is now the country’s largest legislative staff union, to collectively bargain with the City Council. That’s a capstone on a nearly two year long public process that was delayed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

“This is about pay equity, it’s about consistent standards, it’s about fair grievance procedures. And it’s really about lifting up the professional standards of the City Council so we can do the best we can for the people of New York,” said Daniel Kroop, a member of the ALE core committee and a senior legislative finance analyst for the City Council. “We’re really excited to take this to the next level, now that the long recognition struggle is complete. We’ve been victorious. It’s a real testament to the strength of the staff of the City Council.”

Talk of unionization has percolated among City Council staff for more than a decade, but the recent push became public in November 2019 when member staffers, who work for individual Council members rather than the Council as a whole, promoted an analysis of their low pay and long hours. They then launched a card campaign, and after securing a majority of support, called on City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to voluntarily recognize the union in January of 2020. Johnson publicly supported the effort, but legal concerns and the coronavirus pandemic slowed the process. When the union seemed close to formal recognition last summer, ALE had to launch a second union card check, since the previously signed union recognition cards had expired after seven months. In December, the unionization effort was approved to represent 23 financial analysts who work as part of the Council’s central staff, but the much larger effort to unionize member staff continued. In April 2021, the Council quietly passed a resolution that would allow the speaker of the Council to collectively bargain with staff of the 50 other individual members. And on August 13, the New York City Office of Collective Bargaining officially certified ALE’s petition for voluntary recognition of representing Council member aides, exploding the size of the union to nearly 400 members. 

ALE exclusively shared the news with City & State and plans to hold a rally and press conference celebrating the recognition at 11 a.m. Thursday in City Hall Park, ahead of the Council’s one stated meeting for the month of August. 

““This is the history-making moment. Because after many years of staff organizing efforts in the City Council, the Council member aides are joining folks like myself in the Council finance division as members of ALE,” Kroop said. “With 377 people currently in jobs represented by ALE, we are now America’s largest union of legislative staff.”

There’s been a growing unionization movement among elected officials’ staff, both locally and across the country. Workers  in the New York City Public Advocate’s office formed a union and were recognized by the city earlier this year. State legislative employees in Oregon also unionized this year.

The ALE now plans to negotiate a contract with Johnson. Previously, Council members have had wide discretion over the hiring, firing pay and hours of their individual staff – things the union wants to now standardize. “Change to pay, termination, change to schedule and retaliation to any filing of a complaint – that’s the big things that are covered,” said Kana Ervin, a core committee member and deputy chief of staff to Council Member Margaret Chin. “I’ve seen council member aides that were pushed out unfairly – hardworking, talented people – just because of some complaint with management,” she said. 

A spokesperson for the City Council speaker declined to comment on the development. 

The union also wants to have a seat at the table as the Council hopes to bring staffers back to offices downtown. Some Council employees were sent an email from the speaker’s office on Friday outlining the transition away from remote work, a day after City & State reported on staffers’ complaints about a lack of communication on the issue. “We’re certified,” Ervin said. “We absolutely demand that we are included in any reopening process. That’s something that should have happened a long time ago.” 

Internally, ALE plans to dissolve the ten-member core committee that has led the unionization process after electing an executive board, and to adopt a constitution. The core committee also hopes to continue to expand the union to include more members of central staff, such as those who work in the Land Use Division.

ALE is an independent union and is not affiliated with any existing municipal unions, such as DC 37, which represents many other city workers. Kroop explained there were legal questions around the potential conflicts of interest that could arise if they were in a union that was making political donations to candidates at the same time those candidates were managing union members. Unlike most of the city’s unions, ALE didn’t involve itself in the 2021 Democratic primary elections. But Kroop kept the door open to future political organizing, saying that the union is committed to principles of anti-harassment and anti-discrimination, and the union is “going to see as time goes on how that’s expressed.” 

Johnson, who ALE plans to bargain with, is term-limited out at the end of 2021. Will ALE play a role in the upcoming speaker race, or even endorse a candidate? No plans yet, Kroop said. “No, we haven’t had a discussion about that.”