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House clears the way for staffers to unionize

The resolution finishes a process started in 1995, essentially removing exceptions to labor laws for House workers

Staffers in House offices can now unionize if they wish, after the House approved a resolution Tuesday introduced by Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich.
Staffers in House offices can now unionize if they wish, after the House approved a resolution Tuesday introduced by Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Organizers say they’re looking ahead after a Tuesday vote in the House that grants nearly 9,100 House staffers the ability to form unions if they choose. 

The resolution was adopted when House members voted 217-202 to adopt a rule for floor consideration of four unrelated bills, including a high-profile aid package for Ukraine. 

Introduced by Michigan Democratic Rep. Andy Levin in February, the resolution finishes a process started in 1995, essentially removing exceptions to labor laws for House staffers. 

“Members of Congress have had 26 years that this has been on the table to approve this, and they hadn’t until they were put under pressure,” said one of the organizers, who spoke to CQ Roll Call on Tuesday before the vote. “I think this is a moment of victory for workers and collective action for workers on the Hill.”

Organizers of the budding Congressional Workers Union have remained anonymous, fearing retribution and lacking the protections given to private sector employees seeking to unionize. 

They said they’ve heard from hundreds of staffers but declined to share specific numbers on how many offices may unionize or strategies on next steps. But the group said it would be there to support workers as they continue to explore how the process would work in practice. 

“In the coming months, our focus is going to be supporting workers and watching this process play out at the bargaining table, and hoping members come to the bargaining table with good faith,” said another organizer. 

Lawmakers didn’t have to vote yea or nay on the union resolution by itself, thanks to a procedural move that tucked the resolution into a rule for other bills. But several Democrats spoke in favor on the floor Tuesday.

“This really is about respect,” said Rep. Al Green, D-Texas. 

“They put in long, hard hours. They work incredibly hard to serve the people. We must lead by example and show our gratitude by ensuring our staff have the right to bargain, to organize and to unionize,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. 

Some Republicans have pushed back, saying unions don’t make sense for the unique workplace that is Congress, with its hundreds of member offices and high turnover with each election.

“While unions play a vital role in many workplaces, including throughout my district, they just aren’t feasible for Congress,” Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., said in a statement after the vote.

Levin’s resolution addresses a process the House began more than a quarter century ago, when lawmakers passed the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995. The law essentially removed a legislative branch exception to numerous federal statutes, including labor laws, but the House and Senate never took the final step of approving regulations issued by the Office of Compliance, now the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights.   

By approving those regulations Tuesday, the House has cleared the way for staffers who work in the chamber’s lawmaker, committee and leadership offices, as well as some nonpartisan clerks and offices, to form unions if they wish. Some other legislative branch workers, like the Capitol Police, fall under a different category and have been unionized for decades. 

Senate-side staff, or those who work in joint House-Senate offices, are not covered by the measure and would have to wait until their chamber took its own action. Legislative branch employees can’t engage in a work stoppage or slowdown, and picketing in a labor-management dispute is also not permitted if it interferes with an employing office’s operations.

For House staff, the future is in the hands of OCWR, which would certify and supervise the results of a secret ballot election for the “bargaining unit” seeking to unionize. The vote would require a majority of an office’s staff to be in favor of a labor organization becoming their representative. Managers, supervisors or confidential employees would not be eligible for union representation, with the definition of those terms to be decided by the OCWR on an individual basis.

Staffers might face limits on what they could negotiate on benefits and wages unless new legislation changing those stipulations were passed, but the union said they’ll wait and see how OCWR interprets things.

At an April hearing in front of the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Adriano Espaillat asked the OCWR’s acting executive director, Teresa M. James, and John D. Uelmen, the OCWR’s general counsel, if the office would need more manpower to handle elections and other union-related matters.

James told Espaillat a lot remains unknown. 

Uelmen said the office had pondered the question. It would require more funding to process applications quickly, which would be especially important in a body where members serve for just two years at a time before standing for reelection.

“We were looking at another $500,000 plus two [full-time employees] to do this,” he said. “If it was passed, that’s what we would be seeking, I think, to expeditiously handle the petitions that would come through.”

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