‘Eyes on the prize’: Hill union backers should keep momentum going, Levin says

‘When the House wants to move quickly, it can,’ organizers have said

Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., has introduced a resolution to protect congressional staffers who want to organize in the House. Put first things first, he says. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., has introduced a resolution to protect congressional staffers who want to organize in the House. Put first things first, he says. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 23, 2022 at 5:45am

As observers speculate about what a unionized congressional staff might look like — Will any Republican offices organize? How will collective bargaining work? — the sponsor of the House resolution to authorize organization efforts is urging everyone to take one step at a time.

“We’ve got to keep our eyes on the prize,” said Rep. Andy Levin.

Until the House adopts a resolution like Levin’s, “our staff lacks the legal right to form a union without retaliation,” the Michigan Democrat said. “This resolution is about that fact alone. And I really think it’s inappropriate for people to try to slow the progress of the resolution by getting into the practical realities of how bargaining will unfold if the workers go ahead.”

Such farsighted concerns already threatened to gum up the unionization drive’s works after it kicked into high gear recently. But in an incremental win for organizers, House Administration Chair Zoe Lofgren announced Tuesday that her committee will convene a hearing on the resolution “soon.”

It all started back in 1995, when Congress decided to submit itself to various federal employment laws with the Congressional Accountability Act. But before labor organizing laws would apply to congressional staff and a few other legislative branch offices, the CAA required what is now the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights to issue regulations, which each chamber would then need to approve. The regulations were written a year later, but Congress didn’t move to adopt them.

Levin’s resolution would fix that on the House side by simply authorizing the 1996 regulations. Lofgren asked OCWR earlier this month to confirm that the decades-old regulations did not need to be rewritten. OCWR “determined no changes are needed for the House to extend federal protections to legislative branch employees who wish to unionize and collectively bargain,” Lofgren said Tuesday in a statement.  

Levin expressed confidence his resolution will move quickly through the committee. “We have a number of House Admin committee members who are co-sponsors,” he said, adding that the number of co-sponsors has grown to 152 from the 136 who signed on when it was introduced earlier this month.

The recent unionization push began a little over a year ago, when Hill staffers sick of working long hours for low pay amid widespread abusive behavior began organizing. Things started to move quickly in January, after reports from the Congressional Progressive Staff Association and advocacy group Issue One highlighted those poor working conditions. Speaker Nancy Pelosi soon expressed her “full support” for any hypothetical push, and dozens more Democratic lawmakers followed her lead. 

Organizers took the plunge on Feb. 4, announcing themselves on Twitter and calling for “meaningful changes to retention, equity, diversity and inclusion.” They named their movement the Congressional Workers Union. 

“There was a long time when a lot of it felt pretty abstract, thinking, ‘One day we’re gonna do this,’” one organizer told CQ Roll Call earlier this month, requesting anonymity for fear of retaliation.

But momentum seemed to be on their side, and Pelosi’s public support “was the signal that we don’t have full legal protection to do this, but we have some room to play with,” the organizer said. 

The group urged people working for lawmakers or committees to join them. (Some other employees at the Capitol complex, like the Capitol Police, fall under a different umbrella and have been unionized for years.)

The resolution is a key step. Levin said he spoke to staffers in confidence, drawing on his career before coming to Congress. “I didn’t pick them, they picked me,” said the onetime AFL-CIO organizer. “They asked me to introduce this resolution because I spent over 20 years of my life working in the labor movement.” 

Now that a few weeks have passed, the group has sought to keep pressure on Democrats to act on the resolution. “As congressional staff, we know better than anyone that when the House wants to move quickly, it can,” the Congressional Workers Union tweeted last week, adding a smiley face emoji. 

If the House does pass the resolution, it would empower staffers seeking to unionize in member and committee offices on the House side, with no need to wait on the other chamber. The same goes for any resolution in the Senate, though a joint resolution would be required to protect staffers at the CBO and some other nonpolitical offices.