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Michigan House staff aim to unionize in ‘living our values’ test for Democrats

Michigan House chambers
Michigan House staffers wouldn’t be the first to unionize if they choose to do so, but the concept has only recently gained meaningful traction in other states. (Dennis MacDonald /
  • Staffers in the Michigan House of Representatives are circulating union cards in attempt to organize
  • Past efforts to do so in Michigan have gone nowhere, but political staffers in other states have made inroads
  • Organizers are seeking better pay, job security and ‘respect for the work they do’

In 1983, fresh off a union job at General Motors, former state Rep. Tim Sneller — then a 25-year-old Michigan House staffer — met with a few of his colleagues to discuss what unionizing their workplace might look like.

The effort was over almost as soon as it began. 

“Basically, the leadership in the House got wind of it and said, ‘Nope, you don't want to do that anymore,’” the Burton Democrat recalled, noting that he was fearful of getting fired at the time.


Forty years later, working under a new Democratic majority that has approved a slew of labor-friendly laws, current state House staff are picking up where their predecessors left off. Organizers are circulating union cards and last week publicly declared their intent to organize with Teamsters Local 243. 

“These staffers want what all workers deserve: a living wage, job security, fair treatment, and respect for the work they do on behalf of elected officials and Michiganders,” Scott Quenneville, Local 243 president, said in a recent statement.


Unionizing political and legislative staff is still a relatively novel concept, but it’s one that’s picked up steam nationally in recent years. 

Nonpartisan staffers in Maine have been allowed to organize since the 1990s, and legislative aides in Oregon became the first partisan staffers to organize in 2021, reaching a contract agreement in late 2023. 

Workers in several other states — including California, New York, Illinois, Washington, Massachusetts and Minnesota — have also pushed for unionization in recent years, as have Congressional staffers at the federal level. 

To get the effort off the ground in Michigan, at least half of the roughly 250 people employed by the Michigan House have to be on board. 

Organizers say they’ve already obtained support from both Democratic and Republican staffers and hope to reach majority support in coming weeks, at which point they’d seek approval for a union recognition vote from the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. 

Democrats currently control the Michigan House, but two recent vacancies produced a 54-54 tie with Republicans that won’t be resolved until special elections later this month. While in power, Democrats have taken up several pro-labor policies generally opposed by the GOP. 

Last year, Democrats voted to repeal the state’s Right-to-Work law prohibiting compulsory union dues or fees, restored a “prevailing wage” law guaranteeing union-scale wages and benefits on government-funded construction projects and expanded bargaining rights of teachers’ unions, among other things. 

Several sitting House Democrats have expressed support for the staffer union drive, citing low pay, long hours and few protections for workers whose bosses answer to the voters, not a human resources department. 

“It’s kind of surprising it’s taken as long as it has for staff unions…to take root,” said Rep. Joey Andrews, a Saint Joseph Democrat who prior to taking office helped unionize Michigan Democratic Party workers. “This is a ‘living our values’ type of moment.” 

But Andrews warned public support of pro-labor policies won’t necessarily make the process any easier, noting the political nature of the job could complicate any union’s future.

“The contract bargaining process is actually where you start to find out just how pro-worker your bosses actually are,” he said. 

Amber McCann, spokesperson for House Speaker Joe Tate, D-Detroit, said the speaker “has a well-established record of support for labor and workers” and awaits further updates on the process. 

On the Republican side, Jerry Ward, spokesperson for House Republican Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township, pointed to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting mandatory union dues in the public sector.   


“Democrat staff can’t forcibly cut our paychecks to bankroll a far-left union,” Ward said.

Sneller, the former state staffer and representative, said when he first started out, staffers couldn’t even find a union that was willing to represent them “because the unions were kind of afraid of the Legislature.” 

He’s hopeful that with this latest effort, House employees will have a fair chance to decide what’s best for them. 

“At the end of the day, I’m just saying let them vote on it,” Sneller said.

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