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Hill staffers are organizing. What could their unions look like?

Amid ‘overwhelming’ response, staffers run up against convoluted structure of Congress

Staffers on Capitol Hill are stepping up efforts to unionize, energized by statements of support from dozens of Democratic lawmakers.
Staffers on Capitol Hill are stepping up efforts to unionize, energized by statements of support from dozens of Democratic lawmakers. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Inspired by an anonymous Instagram account and disgusted by bad pay and worse bosses, congressional staffers have begun the uncertain journey toward unionizing. 

Organizers of the nascent Congressional Workers Union described their long-running efforts and future plans to organize one of the nation’s most idiosyncratic workplaces to CQ Roll Call on Monday. Just what their struggles will produce remains to be seen — much will depend on how members of Congress, their fellow staffers and an obscure legislative branch office respond. 

The CWU announced its campaign to unionize lawmaker offices and committees on Friday, but the organizers said they had been planning for more than a year. The initial talks began before Jan. 6, 2021, but the attack on the Capitol changed the tone.  

“What happened on Jan. 6, was, for a lot of folks, the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said one of the organizers, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “That question of people just not feeling safe has been a huge part of it.”

What began as a few staffers grousing grew into a working group with weekly meetings that eventually evolved into an organizing committee, said members of the group. While organizers have talked about affiliation with some federated unions, they plan to stay independent for now. 

Those efforts took a large leap forward last week after Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer both expressed support for staff unions.

Congress set the stage for unionizing its workforce in 1995 with the Congressional Accountability Act. The law essentially removed a legislative branch exception to numerous federal statutes, including labor laws. That allowed many — but not all — Hill workers to unionize. Capitol Police employees did so, for example, but staffers working for individual members, committees and leadership offices were lumped in another category (along with the Congressional Budget Office and some nonpartisan clerks who technically work for the speaker or majority leader).

What is now the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights promulgated regulations that would allow the remaining staffers to unionize in 1996. But before those rules could go into effect, each chamber would need to pass a resolution authorizing them, and that hasn’t happened yet.

Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., plans to introduce just such a resolution this week.

“The [OCWR] ruled that passage of this resolution was the last step to giving congressional workers legal protection to organize and bargain collectively,” he said in a statement. “There is no cause for further delay.”

If the House passes his resolution, it would apply to staffers on the House side with no need to wait on the other chamber. The same goes for any resolution in the Senate, where Sherrod Brown of Ohio has signaled interest in introducing one. But a joint resolution would be required for staffers at the CBO and some other nonpolitical offices.

The CWU organizers, who asked to not be identified because they will not be protected from retaliation until Congress passes the resolutions, said they were inspired in part by recent union wins by campaign and Democratic National Committee staffers and planned to launch an effort even if last week’s events didn’t happen. But when they did, the time felt right to speak out.

“There was a long time when a lot of it felt pretty abstract, thinking, ‘One day we’re gonna do this,’” said the same organizer who cited Jan. 6 as a driver of momentum. “The announcement from last week from [Pelosi] … essentially was the signal that we don’t have full legal protection to do this, but we have some room to play with.”

The organizers said they would like to see agreements on everything from pay equity to how office funds are allocated to telework and sexual harassment policies. 

“Creating better work conditions for staff and making Congress somewhere that folks can work for longer than three or four years when they’re just starting out is really crucial,” a second organizer said. The group pointed to stories of workplace abuse shared in recent weeks on the social media account “Dear White Staffers” as evidence of what some aides endure.

Since announcing last week, the organizers said they’ve heard from more staffers on the House side interested in unionizing, but declined to give a party breakdown. 

There’s reason to believe politics will play a role. Among campaign staff, it’s only been Democrats who have organized in recent years, and per a tracker from left-leaning group Demand Progress, only Democratic lawmakers have so far come out in support of unionizing congressional staff. ​​Republicans have come out in opposition, with House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik telling reporters on Monday, “We do not support unionizing on the Hill.”

The CWU’s website includes a link to an interest form for staffers seeking to join. The organizers said the whole experience has been surreal and scary at times, but they described being moved by the volume of positive responses. 

“That number has really been surprising and overwhelming,” the second organizer said.

Is there power in a union? 

If the House and Senate pass authorizing resolutions, the real work begins. The regulations treat each member and committee office as a separate workplace. Just what organizing them would actually look like is anybody’s guess, said Daniel Schuman, a policy director at Demand Progress.

“You’d need to talk to a labor lawyer who specializes in Congress, which I don’t think exists,” he said. Demand Progress has long advocated for improving congressional staff pay and conditions and supports the CWU organizers.

There’s a chance that the majority and minority staffers on each committee could try to organize separately, which in practice would likely mean only the Democratic staff would organize. It’s then unclear what might happen after a shift in Congress. If, for example, Democratic staffers for the House Appropriations Committee formed a union this year and then Republicans took over the chamber after the election, it would be up to OCWR, presumably, to decide whether the union would still represent majority staffers or follow the Democrats into the minority. 

Things are clearer at the member level. “The way that I read it, is that each personal office would be a bargaining unit,” Schuman said, meaning the unions would be linked to an individual member of Congress, not the district they represent.

Schuman thinks the individual member unions could bargain with members and their chiefs of staff — the top supervisory staff in each office would likely be considered management — on issues like setting minimum pay levels, removing nondisclosure agreements from employment contracts, and better hours.

Members of Congress have a tight allowance, especially in the House, to hire staff and run their offices. There are few rules on how to spend their money, or even whether they should use it all. If salaries were to increase, it’s possible that members may opt to hire fewer staff instead of spending more cash, said Joshua McCrain, a political science professor at the University of Utah. 

“It could produce some changes, in particular in member offices which agree to hire union staff,” he said. “But my skepticism about the effectiveness of this is more about how it fits into the current structure of Congress, which is that members can do whatever they want.”

McCrain said it’s hard to imagine how a union would look in practice, especially because there is such a competitive labor market and such a large pool of applicants — the very reasons why members of Congress can often get away with underpaying or mistreating staff. 

“The fundamental collective action problem is that there would have to be some sort of agreement among members to only hire unionized staff and not hire non-unionized staff,” he said. “You could imagine there being a pretty large group of members who agree to that in principle, but it’s not enforceable.”

Of the roughly 34,000 people who worked in the sprawling legislative branch in 2020, the House employed about 9,100 in member, committee, leadership and certain administrative offices, while the Senate employed more than 5,700, according to Congressional Research Service reports.

McCrain said that despite the challenges, it could be good for staff to push toward unionization because it raises the stature of the problem and makes people aware they’re not the only ones struggling. 

The real power from the unionization effort wouldn’t come from each office’s small union, but from the ability of them to band together and hire their own lobbyists for better pay and conditions, argued Schuman.

“If they’re collecting dues, they can pool dues to pay for an advocate, which doesn’t exist,” he said. “Like, I’m the closest to someone who advocates on behalf of staff, and I don’t work for them.”

That would redound to the benefit of all staff, regardless of party or representation status, Schuman said. The partisan divide between pro-labor Democrats and their more skeptical peers in both parties — Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia expressed some concerns to reporters Tuesday — could lead to a significant free-rider problem, where just the staff in the organized offices are paying dues for union representation that presumably helps non-members. That would mirror what public sector unions have faced since the Supreme Court decided Janus v. AFSCME in 2018, which prevented unions from collecting dues from non-members who arguably benefit from their collective bargaining efforts. That disparity would presumably be even larger among the more ideologically driven and divided congressional staff.

Schuman argued that unionization, in time, would change how staffers view their careers in Congress. Today, paid less to work more hours than their peers in the executive branch, congressional staff often treat their jobs like extended internships that pave the way for lucrative private sector gigs.

“What you’re allowing for is the professionalization of staff,” he said. According to Schuman, staffers were paid relatively well until their pay became politicized with the Republican Contract For America in 1994 — ironically, the same plank that led to the CAA. Before then, congressional “lifers” weren’t a rarity, allowing staffers to develop deep expertise.

Some longtime Hill-watchers see other ways to meet that goal. Brad Fitch of the Congressional Management Foundation said his group supports better pay and working conditions for staffers. But going through an existing venue like the House Modernization Committee is the best way to get there, he said.

“The committee has wisely and expertly managed to avoid partisan divides and developed creative solutions, without re-hashing political debates and clouding the conversations with ideological overtones,” Fitch said in a statement. “It is the logical forum for dealing with the problems like those which have been raised recently by congressional staff, especially those surrounding pay and work environment.”

Schuman recognized unionization was no panacea. “This isn’t a cure all; this doesn’t fix everything. The incentives for unions don’t perfectly align with the incentives for a well-functioning Congress,” he said. “But right now, the interests of staff always come last.”  

Chris Marquette contributed to this report.

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