Congressional Staffers Could Finally Get a Union After 26 Years

Now, the work to actually win union representation begins. 

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution Tuesday night recognizing the right of its staffers to unionize without fear of retaliation.

The resolution, introduced by Michigan Democratic Rep. Andy Levin, extends legal protections to House staffers who want to form a union, a massive victory for House staff who told VICE News they’ve been organizing for over a year. Now, the work to actually win union representation begins. 

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“Tonight’s vote is a historic moment for thousands of congressional workers who have won basic labor protections to organize and bargain collectively without fear of retaliation. For 26 years, Congress has had the opportunity to pass this resolution but has failed to act, until our collective demands were too loud for them to ignore,” Congressional Workers Union, a group of House staffers pushing for the recognition of their labor rights, said in a statement following the vote. 

The 26 years is a reference to regulations the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights recommended in 1996 but weren’t implemented until Tuesday, when the resolution passed 217-202

Members of the Congressional Workers Union organizing committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told VICE News before Tuesday’s vote that their push to organize for better pay and better conditions was in tandem with their desire to make government work better.

“We came to the Hill wanting to get involved in good public policy,” one member of the Congressional Workers Union organizing committee told VICE News. “In personal offices [the pay] is devastatingly low, and there are stories of folks living in affordable housing struggling to make ends meet. And then on top of that, with wild hours, you have this burnout… [and] there’s so much incentive because of that burnout to go into lobbying work.”

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Another member of the organizing committee said that House staffers were inspired by the unionizing efforts of workers at companies such as Starbucks, Amazon, and REI. On Tuesday, employees at a Target store in Virginia filed for union representation as well; if successful, it’ll be the first unionized store at the retail giant.

“What we’re seeing right now is a real resurgence in the labor movement,” the organizing committee member said. “We’re seeing many of our bosses and Democratic leadership really speak out and promise to stand up for those workers against union-busting.”

“Those of us who work in Congress writing their statements and the legislation, it started to occur to us that it was a little strange that our bosses aren’t recognizing our right to unionize and bargain for better work conditions.”

The acknowledgment of House employees’ right to organize without fear of retaliation also presents questions of how unionizing will work. Though there’s a Congressional Workers Union organizing committee, staff in each office—which includes both personal and committee offices—will have to unionize independently, the same member of the organizing committee said. 

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“Our understanding of how the law works is a pretty rational one, each personal office from the member and then each committee office [are units],” the first organizing committee member said. “But you could very easily have majority and minority staff with different bargaining units just based on the way that we’re structured.” 

Though Senate staffers have also expressed interest in organizing, the Senate will have to pass its own resolution acknowledging the right of employees to organize, a less likely scenario in the 50-50 Senate due to the filibuster

The Congressional Workers Union has no Republican staffers on its organizing committee, another member said, but the group has had “outreach” from Republican staffers, organizing committee members said. 

“Republican staffers are often coming from offices where their bosses are proponents of right to work laws, generally anti-union organizing… we’re hoping after this evening’s vote, it’ll open up the door to more Republican participation,” a third organizing committee member said. “Because at the end of the day, a lot of Republican staffers are suffering under the same workplace abuses as Democratic staffers are."

When the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a labor reform proposal, passed the House last year, it did so with just five Republican votes, while one Democrat, Rep. Henry Cuellar, voted against. (Cuellar, an anti-abortion Democrat who is facing a fierce primary runoff with liberal challenger Jessica Cisneros, was sued in 2019 by a former aide after he fired her during her pregnancy.) 

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In announcing there would be a vote on the resolution last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the first time also set a minimum salary of $45,000 for House staffers beginning Sept. 1. That’s still nearly $4,000 below a living wage in D.C. for one adult with no children, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator

A fourth member of the organizing committee said that the House implementing a wage floor “wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t put under pressure from workers in solidarity.” But the same organizing committee member said they’re organizing around more than wages; they also want to see increased diversity among senior level staff and improved retention. 

“There’s a real awareness on Capitol Hill that Congress is not functioning the way it should right now, we have a real problem with the Hill-to-lobby pipeline,” the member said, noting that turnover in the House last year was the highest it’s been in two decades. “What we’re seeing is a pretty substantial brain drain from Congress to the powerful special interests who seek to influence it.”

“This is something that will really benefit Americans in terms of efficient spending, doing better work for the American people, and in terms of getting money out of politics—but also in terms of representing the interests of people who need Congress to represent them.”

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Tagged:

Democrats, Starbucks, unionization, U.S. House

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