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Public Advocate Staffers’ New Union Gains Recognition So They Can Advocate for Themselves

Staff from the Public Advocate’s Office earlier this week on videoconference to discuss unionization plans.
Staff from the Public Advocate’s Office earlier this week on videoconference to discuss unionization plans.
Courtesy of Campaign Workers Guild Members

A group of staffers at the public advocate’s office are one step closer to negotiating their first contract as a union, bringing organized labor to one of the last remaining nooks in city government.

The city’s Office of Labor Relations on Thursday granted so-called voluntary recognition to the team of 41 non-managerial employees in Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’ office.

The workers, who are represented by the Campaign Workers Guild (CWG), submitted their demand for recognition on Oct. 15, 2020. They filed the petition with OLR after a majority of employees voted to unionize.

The labor push began right before the pandemic shuttered the city last March and gained steam when Mayor Bill de Blasio in June threatened to lay off thousands of city workers to close a budget gap.

“We realized that the fact that we didn’t have a union made us vulnerable,” said Alex Liao, a policy associate at Williams’ office. “So in that way, the pandemic kind of served as an incentive for us to come together.”

The employees are currently at-will staffers who can be fired without a disciplinary hearing or laid off without warning.

“No workforce is really immune from things like discrimination, exploitation, and unions are important force to create workplace equity,” said Jibreel Jalloh, a Brooklyn borough advocate at Williams’ office.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams speaks at a vigil in Inwood for several people who were stabbed on the subway, Feb. 15, 2021.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams speaks at a vigil in Inwood for several people who were stabbed on the subway, Feb. 15, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

It hasn’t been a totally smooth process, he added, noting “there have been points of tension.”

Williams said he has been “proud to support” the union push since the start.

“Our office has been committed to advancing the cause of worker justice throughout the city since I was first elected to this position two years ago, and it is crucial to reflect those values within our own workplace as well,” he added.

Union Gaps at Council

The majority of the city government’s more than 300,000 workers are unionized. Yet some pockets still remain, including a group of a little more than 400 people who are employed by the City Council.

In January 2020, the majority of those staffers voted to join the newly formed Association of Legislative Employees, and submitted their union vote cards to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

He agreed to have the city’s Office of Labor Relations voluntarily recognize the 23 finance analysts who work directly for him.

“That was a groundbreaking moment,” said Daniel Kroop, a core organizing committee member at the Association of Legislative Employees.

But the larger portion of the group are now seeking a resolution from the entire Council in favor of authorizing the speaker to put forward a request for recognition at the Office of Collective Bargaining.

“The authority question needs to be resolved,” Kroop said.

The staffers are eager to negotiate grievance procedures, protections against harassment and bullying, work hours and salaries, and job training and advancement policies.

Public advocate union members “are with them in solidarity,” Liao said.

“I think it speaks to how our movement as a whole is growing,” he added. “And we want to make sure that we are with them in solidarity and lift up their demands to be voluntarily recognized by the City Council.”

There are two ways for a union to be recognized: an election sanctioned by the city’s Office of Collective Bargaining or via management to voluntarily recognize it.

The recognition alone prevents managements from making any changes to pay, hours or anything typically handled via collective bargaining.

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