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Union push in Congress explodes into view, but obstacles remain for staffers

House Democrats voice support as Hill frustrations reach a boiling point

A staffer picks up a “members only” sign in March 2021.
A staffer picks up a “members only” sign in March 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democrats vowed to introduce a resolution in the coming days that would allow staffers working in the chamber to form a union. 

The announcement came amid a sudden outpouring of support, as frustration among staffers reached a fever pitch and members of Congress tuned in to long-standing complaints about inequity and pay. Some legislative branch employees have bargained collectively for decades, but staff who work for members in House and Senate offices cannot.

“At the request of the new union, next week we will take legislative action to afford congressional staff the freedom to form a union — a fundamental right of all workers,” tweeted Michigan Democrat Andy Levin.

Levin was one of several Democrats, including New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, tweeting support this week for staff who want to unionize. More members added their voice by week’s end. 

Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, voiced support for the unionization efforts Friday. His office said Brown would be working with fellow senators on a resolution in the coming weeks.  

A group called the Congressional Workers Union announced that it would launch an effort to unionize the offices and committees in Congress in a statement posted to Twitter on Friday, but it’s not clear who is behind the effort or whether it is associated with a specific union. An email to the group went unreturned Friday. 

The discussion of conditions and pay has boiled over in recent weeks as staffers have coalesced around social media platforms like the anonymous Instagram account named “Dear White Staffers.” The account did not respond to requests for comment from CQ Roll Call, but has become a clearinghouse for staffers to trade experiences and frustrations working on the Hill. 

The posts range from alleged workplace harassment and discrimination to the low pay and long hours that are all too familiar among the people who make Congress run. 

Raising pay for staffers has been a focus for congressional leaders this year. This summer, House leadership decoupled member and staffer salary caps, and appropriators proposed a 20 percent increase in the money members can spend on their offices and payroll. But the parties remain without a deal on fiscal 2022 appropriations, and after two stopgap bills, they are eyeing a third while pay for staffers remains stubbornly stuck. 

Last week the “crosspartisan” group Issue One released a report finding that about 1 in 8 congressional staffers are not making a living wage. The study found that nearly 1,200 staffers in 2020 made less than the $42,610 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says is a living wage for an adult with no children in the nation’s capital.

Further turbo-charging the conversation, the Congressional Progressive Staff Association released a survey this month that found 39 percent of the 516 House and Senate staffers who responded said they’ve taken out loans to cover everyday living expenses. 

Top Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate threw their support behind the push to allow staffers to unionize. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked about the prospect of allowing House staffers to unionize Thursday, and she was receptive. “Well, we’ve just unionized at the DCCC, and I supported that,” she said. 

Later, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill tweeted confirmation that Pelosi would back an effort by staffers to unionize. “Like all Americans, our tireless Congressional staff have the right to organize their workplace and join together in a union. If and when staffers choose to exercise that right, they would have Speaker Pelosi’s full support,” he said. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer would also support an effort in his chamber, a spokesperson for the New York Democrat said Friday. “Schumer believes that hard-working Senate staff have the right to organize their workplace and if they chose to do so, he would support that effort,” the statement said.

Requests to the offices of Minority Leaders Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy on whether they would support such an effort went unanswered.

Unionization rules

Staff in the legislative branch were given the right to unionize under the Congressional Accountability Act that was enacted in 1995, and support agencies like Capitol Police and the Library of Congress are allowed to form unions and collectively bargain. 

The House and Senate never took the final step of applying that to their own staffs, though the regulations were written allowing it to happen.  

“So the unionization rules have not gone into effect for the last 25 years, leaving members of the House and Senate staffs unable to unionize,” Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland said during a November hearing of the House Administration Committee.

The regulations were written by the Congressional Office of Compliance, now known as the Congressional Office of Workplace Rights. Those same regulations are still available for approval by Congress, OCWR board member Barbara Camens told Raskin. 

“Having said that, those regulations were issued by our board 25 years ago, before the current iteration of the board. … We have not looked at them, we have not reexamined them, and we have not taken a position on them,” Camens said during the hearing. 

In testimony submitted to the House Appropriations panel tasked with devising the fiscal 2022 package, Demand Progress Policy Director Daniel Schuman recommended appropriators require OCWR to provide a report to give clarity on Congress’ options. The committee did not ultimately include his recommendation in its final bill, he said. 

“Congressional staff are essential to the success of Congress. They work to advance the public interest, often at low wages, for long hours, and in difficult circumstances,” Schuman said in a statement to CQ Roll Call Friday. “They should be afforded the protection of the laws that apply to the American people, including the right to collectively organize in support of better working conditions.”

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