House tees up vote on union protections for staffers

Pelosi pairs announcement with new pay floor of $45,000

Rep. Andy Levin introduced a resolution to provide protections for House staffers seeking to unionize. The chamber will vote on it next week, leadership announced Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Andy Levin introduced a resolution to provide protections for House staffers seeking to unionize. The chamber will vote on it next week, leadership announced Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 6, 2022 at 2:38pm

Congressional staffers seeking to unionize have moved one step closer to their goal, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House will vote next week on a resolution that would allow them to collectively bargain.

She also announced a new pay floor of $45,000 and a higher ceiling of $203,700 for House staffers, both designed to improve retention.

“With a competitive minimum salary, the House will better be able to retain and recruit excellent, diverse talent. Doing so will open the doors to public service for those who may not have been able to afford to do so in the past,” Pelosi wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter circulated Friday morning. “This is also an issue of fairness, as many of the youngest staffers working the longest hours often earn the lowest salaries.”

Frustration had been building around the union resolution, with staffers pushing for a vote for months. The breakthrough was welcomed by the budding Congressional Workers Union

“With this vote, every member of Congress will have the opportunity to grant their own workers the right to organize and bargain collectively, free from retaliation,” said the group, which publicly declared its aims in February. “We expect that every member who has stood up for workers’ rights will vote for our right to form a union.”

The group’s leaders have stayed anonymous and remain in danger of being fired for their efforts until the resolution is adopted. They fear retaliation because Congress has long exempted itself from some labor laws. 

Also driving frustration for Hill staffers has been the issue of pay, which lags behind the executive branch and the private sector. Requiring all staff salaries to start at $45,000 would be nothing short of life-changing.  

“I started on the Hill as an unpaid intern working three separate jobs and took on credit card debt. I eventually landed a gig that paid $45k while still working a side job,” tweeted Jason Johnson, communications director for Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva. “In DC, it’s still not enough. I would’ve loved to have seen this floor higher, but it’s a start.”

Staffer groups also celebrated the announcement, calling it progress toward helping staff from diverse backgrounds to afford living in an expensive city like Washington. 

A spokesperson for the Congressional Black Associates commended the move, saying it “will open the door for greater diversity of background and perspective.”

Dagoberto D. Acevedo, communications director for the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association, called it “shameful” that so many staffers across the Hill have faced inequity.

“This is a great first step to help with the recruitment and retainment of Latino staff and staff of color in the House,” he said, urging Senate leadership to take action as well. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The deadline to implement the new salary minimum in the House is Sept. 1, Pelosi said. By announcing the pay floor in the same breath as the union resolution, the California Democrat appeared to be getting out ahead of a key issue that has energized pro-union staffers. But she presented it as a logical extension of other recent pay moves, like the 21 percent increase in this year’s Members’ Representational Allowance that has already led to raises for some.

“It is highly encouraged that members use this MRA increase to honor the committed work of your staff members,” she wrote.

At the other end of the pay scale, Pelosi’s announcement that senior staff can earn up to $203,700 represents about a 2 percent increase over last summer, when House leadership allowed top House aides to make $199,300 — thousands more than their lawmaker bosses, who earn $174,000. 

Some congressional observers see a crisis building when it comes to staff retention, fueled not only by low pay, but by long hours and toxic partisanship. House staff left jobs in 2021 at a rate 55 percent higher than the year before, according to a LegiStorm analysis. And a January report looking at 2020 staff salaries found that about 1,200 congressional staffers earned less than $42,610. 

It was that environment that fostered the union push. While some legislative branch workers, like the Capitol Police, have been unionized for decades, staffers who work in lawmaker, committee and leadership offices never gained formal protections. 

The resolution introduced by Rep. Andy Levin would address that by finishing a process the House began more than a quarter-century ago. When lawmakers passed the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995, they essentially removed a legislative branch exception to numerous federal statutes, including labor laws. But the House never took the final step of approving regulations issued by the Office of Compliance, now the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights.  

If Levin’s resolution is adopted, it would free nearly 9,100 House staffers to form unions if they chose. On the Senate side, staffers would have to wait until their chamber took its own action.

Levin said he was thrilled the measure would be called up, though he didn’t know exactly which day that would happen. 

“Getting the right to bargain collectively is just the beginning, not the end,” the Michigan Democrat said. 

Staffers would still face limits on what they could negotiate on benefits and wages, he said, unless new legislation changing those stipulations were passed.

Either way, the union organizers have already succeeded in getting through to House leadership, said Joshua McCrain, a political science professor at the University of Utah. 

“The ability to come together around one big point … this is the first time this has happened in a long time at the staff level,” he said.

Members of Congress have broad autonomy over what decisions get made in their offices on everything from employee pay to office supplies. But a group like the CWU, where workers can come together to discuss their problems, can be a powerful force.

“It’s a really big collective action problem that is in Congress particularly difficult to solve,” he said. “The unionization effort has made it easier for staffers to realize that everybody's having the same set of problems.”