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Parties clash over unionizing Hill staff at House hearing

‘This is a solution in search of a problem,' one Republican says

For Rep. Zoe Lofgren, implementing the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 has come full circle.
For Rep. Zoe Lofgren, implementing the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 has come full circle. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Administration Chair Zoe Lofgren led a hearing Wednesday on finalizing implementation of a law that would allow congressional staffers to unionize.

It also happened to be among the first measures she ever voted for. “​​​​One of the first votes I cast as a brand new member of the House of Representatives — it was late on my very first day in that Congress — was to pass the Congressional Accountability Act,” the California Democrat said. 

That was 27 years ago. Now she pledged to finish the job. “Congress has still failed to follow through on an important part of the law, and that would provide legislative branch staff with the option to organize — but only if they choose,” she said. “It’s well past time for Congress to follow through on that promise.”

Republican committee members disagreed. “This is a solution in search of a problem,” said Rep. Barry Loudermilk of Georgia.

Ranking member Rodney Davis of Illinois said he supports unions generally and is open to discussing “improvements to Hill staff pay and working conditions.” But “now that the majority is finally talking about these issues, they are focusing on unworkable, impractical ideas like congressional staff unionization — collective bargaining for people who already have some of the best benefits in the country.”

After sitting dormant for more than a quarter century, the idea of unionizing congressional staffers took off in recent weeks after a new group, the Congressional Workers Union, announced its organization efforts amid well-publicized accounts of abusive bosses and bad pay.

Currently, the staffers behind the CWU could be fired for their efforts — a form of retaliation that’s illegal for nearly every other employer in the U.S., but not Congress, which has long exempted itself from labor laws. The Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 was supposed to change that, but before the law’s labor provisions could take effect, Congress was supposed to formally authorize regulations promulgated by the Office of Compliance (now the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights).

That last step never happened. Even though the CAA was a Republican-led law — it was the first provision listed in Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America — the GOP took issue with the regulations, so Congress never formally authorized or rejected them. They’ve languished in the years since, but now Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., has introduced a resolution with 158 cosponsors — all Democrats — to implement the rules.

The hearing featured two witnesses, one selected by each party: John Uelmen, OCWR’s general counsel, and Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, which organizes annual Republican and bipartisan retreats for members.

Strand argued that allowing member staffers to unionize would interfere with Congress’ ability to represent constituents, perhaps to an unconstitutional level.

“The independence of each individual member is key to the Article 1 powers invested in the legislative branch,” he testified. “The essential problem with unionization is that unions will share control over terms and conditions of employment with the elected representative that intersect at vital points with the ability of a member to represent his constituents.”

Some union backers complained about the imbalance between Strand’s testimony in opposition and Uelmen, who couldn’t take a side. “When you look at his testimony today, you see it’s entirely neutral,” said Kevin Mulshine, a former Architect of the Capitol inspector general who was OOC senior counsel when the CAA passed. “He’s just describing the process.”

Strand testified on behalf of himself, not the Congressional Institute, a formality that allows witnesses to avoid having to disclose their organization’s potential conflicts of interest.

Uelman testified that the CAA, as written, required his office to promulgate regulations in 1996 that essentially mirrored existing federal regulations for other employers. “It’s the role of Congress to determine the policy, and the CAA clearly provides that these rights exist for employees and it’s just a technicality that they haven’t been implemented for congressional staff,” he said. “If Congress does not believe that unionization is something good for Congress, they should pass legislation that says that.”

Mulshine doesn’t think many offices would actually unionize, but he said implementing the CAA would provide additional, immediate protections like allowing staffers to raise concerns and complaints to their bosses without fear of being fired in retaliation.

The GOP’s original reasons for submitting Congress to federal labor laws remain, Mulshine argued: If a literal lawmaker has trouble following labor laws, what hope does the average employer have? “Small-business owners have to deal with these laws, and Congress would do well to learn about the dynamics of these laws by learning to live by them themselves,” he said.

If the House adopts Levin’s resolution, Uelmen said each member’s office would qualify as a bargaining unit. On the committee level, he said bargaining units would be split by party. He also noted that the CAA prohibits both strikes and lockouts.

Vote timing unclear

Lofgren did not say when the committee might vote on the resolution. While every Democrat at Wednesday’s hearing sounded positive, many others have yet to signal their support for staff unionization. 

While there were no witnesses arguing for the unionization resolution in person Wednesday, backers did submit letters in support. Demand Progress organized a letter signed by 78 progressive groups and unions, including Indivisible, Public Citizen and the Service Employees International Union, asking Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a swift floor vote on the resolution.

“As we know from years of experience, working on Capitol Hill isn’t so great. There’s a lot of problems in terms of pay and retention,” said Daniel Schuman, Demand Progress’ policy director. “While unions won’t solve all the problems, they’ll make sure that employees have a voice at the table.”

Schuman believes that unionizing some congressional offices would go a long way to professionalizing congressional staff — making them more akin to lifelong civil servants than glorified interns who parlay their time on Capitol Hill into lucrative lobbying jobs.

But some lawmakers see nothing wrong with the current system.

“This is unique employment,” said Loudermilk. “This is not generally a career path for people who work here.”

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