For the staffers on Capitol Hill who have been organizing for over a year now, launching the Congressional Workers Union last week was the first public step toward better working conditions.
But for some lawmakers, the union push is yet another politically sensitive issue threatening to trip them up — particularly Democrats facing uphill election fights this fall.
Congress set the stage for unionizing staffers back in 1995 with the enactment of the Congressional Accountability Act, which removed congressional exemptions from 11 labor and civil rights laws. But lawmakers never took the final step of adopting the authorizing resolutions that would have finally given organizers the green light. Michigan Democrat Andy Levin introduced a resolution this week to let House member offices and committees unionize, along with 136 co-sponsors, all of whom are Democrats.
Most of the House Democrats who are running for other offices or already face well-funded primary challengers signed on as initial co-sponsors of the resolution, but not all.
Supporting congressional staff unionization is a political no-brainer for Democrats, said Andrew Feldman, a progressive strategist with ties to organized labor.
“This is, for Dems on the Hill, a ‘what side are you on?’ moment,” Feldman said, alluding to a pro-union song popularized by Pete Seeger. “You can’t step in front of an AFL-CIO banquet or an AFSCME union hall … talking about workers’ rights if you don’t support your own workers’ rights to organize.”
Organized labor’s symbiotic relationship with Democrats goes back decades. The party often relies on labor support in elections, recruiting volunteer door-knockers and phone-bankers from the local union halls. Unions, in return, expect Democrats’ support in D.C. While the relationship frayed somewhat during the Clinton and Obama years, Democratic solidarity with labor has come roaring back since Joe Biden’s election as president. Last year, all but one Democrat in the House voted in favor of the PRO Act, which would empower unions and make it easier for workers to organize.
Unions are also very popular with voters these days. According to Gallup, 68 percent of Americans supported labor unions in 2021, the highest level since 1965.
But having your staff unionize can come with some downsides, even for members ideologically aligned with the labor movement. Beyond ethics rules that bar using staff for such improper tasks as campaign work or mowing the lawmaker's lawn, members of Congress practically have free rein to run their offices as they see fit. They have the same incentives to oppose unions as other employers do — it’s a pretty sweet deal for them to hold almost plenary power. If a member asked employees to sign a nondisclosure agreement, for example, unionized staff might balk, increasing the risk of embarrassing leaks.
In Pennsylvania, Rep. Conor Lamb is in a tight three-way race to be the Democratic nominee for an open Senate seat. Lamb is relying on union support to make up for Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s large fundraising lead and to stay ahead of state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who also enjoys considerable labor backing. But Lamb’s spokesperson said he wasn’t going to rush into sponsoring Levin’s resolution without fully considering it first.
“Conor has always said that he unequivocally supports the right of all workers in America to organize and join a union of their choice, and that includes congressional staff,” his communications director, Reenie Kuhlman, wrote in an email. “He is reviewing the new resolution and getting input from labor leaders.”
A few hours after Levin announced the list of co-sponsors on Wednesday, Fetterman, who lags both Lamb and Kenyatta in union endorsements, subtweeted Lamb with his support for the CWU. “We need a @Congress_Union for all Congressional staffers + workers now,” Fetterman wrote.
Neither Fetterman nor Kenyatta responded to requests for comment.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, faces another primary battle against immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros, who he defeated by less than 4 percentage points in 2020. While Cuellar’s office did not respond to a request for comment, Cisneros said this was what she expected from her opponent.
“It is no surprise that the only Democrat who voted against the PRO Act, to protect workers’ right to unionize, doesn’t even think his own staff should have that right,” Cisneros said in a written statement. “I believe that every worker deserves a union — including Congressional staff — and will proudly sponsor Rep. Levin’s [resolution] when I’m in Congress.”
Feldman, the strategist, called Democrats’ hesitation to endorse the resolution an avoidable own-goal. “You had better have a damn good reason, if you’re a Democrat, why you haven’t signed on to this,” he said.
Despite the potential for facing cries of hypocrisy, it remains unclear how much supporting staff unions or not will affect Democrats on the campaign trail. Larry Ceisler, a public affairs adviser and longtime Pennsylvania politics observer, said it wouldn’t really matter.
“I don’t see it having any impact,” said Ceisler, who is backing Lamb. “It’s a D.C. issue.”
At most, Ceisler said, staff unionization might be a “throwaway line for Fetterman” at a debate. “I don’t see people voting on it, and I don’t see any unions withdrawing their support,” he said.
Unionization could also present headaches for the handful of pro-union Republicans left in Congress. New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who won reelection as a Republican after switching parties in 2019, was one of five GOP members who voted for the PRO Act last year.
While Van Drew said he has “never been anti-union,” he said he hadn’t made up his mind yet on Levin’s resolution. “It really is different here. There should be a relationship between the people that work with you and the member,” he said. “Do I try to fight it? No. But, on the other hand, do I believe it’s something that’s necessary? No, I don’t.”
Still, if Van Drew’s staff wanted to form a union, he’d let them. “I wouldn’t try to stop them,” he said. “But my staff would never do that. I have a really good relationship with my staff.”
The other GOP “yes” votes on the PRO Act — Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, John Katko of New York (who is retiring at the end of this term), Chris Smith of New Jersey and Don Young of Alaska — did not respond to comment requests sent to their offices.