FILE — Oregon legislature desk

A desk adorned by miniature flags in the Oregon state Senate chamber within the state Capitol building in Salem, Oregon.

(The Center Square) — Last month, the Oregon Legislature became the home of the first legislative staff union in the nation. That union is now poised to see its first court challenge.

In May, capitol aides decided to unionize, joining the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 89 by a vote of 75-13. The group, despite its name, includes many clerical workers. The vote arose from longstanding interest among aides about having more say on working conditions and salaries.

The union drew support from House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem.

"The people's work could not be done without them," the two wrote in a joint statement. "We respect their decision, hear their voices and looking forward to bargaining in good faith with their new union."

The vote saw 32 ballots impounded or voided by the state Employment Relations Board. Two ballots were tossed for lack of signature. Thirty votes were challenged based on capitol aids' supervisory or confidential duties, disqualifying them from union membership.

In all, 180 legislative aides work at the Oregon Capitol in Salem. For perspective, of the 88 legislative aides who saw their ballots counted out of 120 total, about 42% voted to join the union.

The Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank, announced on Wednesday that it intends to sue over the union because it violates the Oregon Constitution and will muddy state politics with more special interests. Dudash also alleged the vote was not representative of its members' wishes.

"Government unions already have an extortionate relationship with the politicians they help put into office," said Jason Dudash, the Oregon director of the Freedom Foundation. "Now we're seeing the creation of the most partisan, politically motivated union in American history, by definition."

IBEW Local 89 does not fundraise for political campaigns or lobby for bills. It is a member of the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions that has thrown its weight behind Democratic candidates.

Critics of the union claim it violates the state constitution's separation of powers clause by having legislative aides negotiate with the state Employment Relations Board, an agency overseen by the executive branch.

Under Article III, Section 1, of the Oregon Constitution, no person charged with official duties under the state's executive, legislative, or judicial branches "shall exercise any of the functions of another, except as in this Constitution expressly provided."

Tessa Sugahara, a lawyer with the state Department of Justice, filed eight pages of objections to the union, describing it as "fundamentally incompatible" with the state legislature's work. The department has since withdrawn its objections.

Senate Democrats introduced one bill this session, Senate Bill 759, which would streamline the capitol's collective bargaining process. It would designate state capitol legislative administrator, Brett Hanes, as the union's negotiator.

The bill has the backing of public-sector unions, including the Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs (OCPS).

"The right of workers to collectively bargain for their working conditions must be a non-negotiable element of any workplace with an uneven power dynamic between managers and workers," OCPS Vice President Scott Dillon told lawmakers in March. "This right, not merely a privilege, must apply broadly to all types of workers."

SB 759 passed the Senate by a vote of 16-11 in April. It remains in House Rules Committee.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.