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Staff in several House offices begin the process of unionizing

Rule allowing staff to form unions went into effect Monday

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Andy Levin, D-Mich., left, conduct a news conference in February 2020. On Monday, staff in their offices, as well as five others, announced they would take steps to begin forming unions.
Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Andy Levin, D-Mich., left, conduct a news conference in February 2020. On Monday, staff in their offices, as well as five others, announced they would take steps to begin forming unions. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Staffers who work for eight House Democrats are wasting no time in their plans to unionize, filing petitions Monday to kick off the process.

It was the first day they could do so, as new rules went into effect allowing many legislative branch staffers to bargain collectively. Now they must wait on the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights to vet the petitions before holding secret ballot elections to decide whether they want a union to represent them.

The interested staffers are employed by Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Ill., Reps. Andy Levin, D-Mich., Ro Khanna, D-Calif., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Ted Lieu, D-Calif., and Cori Bush, D-Mo., according to the Congressional Workers Union.

What started as an informal group of staffers grew into the Congressional Workers Union over the past couple years, as people came together over shared demands for better working conditions at the Capitol.

“We’re thrilled to finally be able to, I wouldn’t say complete the process, but move to the next step,” said one of the organizers, who requested anonymity to speak candidly as they navigate the new rules. “[This] is really going to be a test of whether our bosses are willing to walk the walk when it comes to workers’ rights.”

Organizers have said they would like to see agreements on everything from pay equity to sexual harassment policies to how office funds are allocated.

To unionize an office, a majority of that office’s staff must vote in favor. 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.

For Ben Kamens, a communications staffer in García’s office, Monday marks a milestone for the House labor movement. 

Staffers who have spent years writing speeches and preparing their bosses to speak about workers’ rights now finally have those protections too.

“It’s a really full-circle moment for a lot of us,” he said. “The people that help to write our laws should not be exempt from workplace protections.”

Kamens said his boss has been supportive and was once a labor organizer himself. While he sees no glaring wrongs to right in his own corner of Capitol Hill, he hopes his office can serve as an example for others.  

“It shouldn’t just be the progressive offices that have this opportunity,” he said. “I think in future waves, we’ll see other offices that might surprise you.”

Of the staffers who announced their intentions on Monday, all work for members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a group of Democratic lawmakers who say they fight for social and economic equality.

At least 30 percent of the proposed bargaining unit — in this case, eligible employees of a House lawmaker, committee or leadership office — must sign their names to show their interest before the union can petition for an election, according to OCWR guidelines. The eight offices that cleared the threshold so far employ a combined total of about 85 eligible staffers, according to the union.

CWU organizers said the petitions filed Monday were the first but won’t be the last, though there’s not a firm timeline for the next round.

Even for staffers with supportive bosses, Kamens sees a place for collective bargaining in Congress. For instance, staffers could push for clearer policies on things like telework and COVID-19 safety, he said. 

Questions remain, and Kamens and his colleagues will be in uncharted territory. While some other employees on the Hill, like the thousands-strong Capitol Police force, have been unionized for decades, legislative staff are navigating this for the very first time.

In May, the House adopted a resolution that cleared the way for roughly 9,100 of those staffers to form unions if they choose. It completed a process that was started more than a quarter-century ago, when lawmakers passed the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995.

That action in 1995 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.

With those regulations finally in place for the House side as of Monday, some are expecting a sea change. For the OCWR, which oversees and certifies union elections in the legislative branch, it could mean a surge of activity. 

House appropriators proposed upping the OCWR’s budget by an extra $500,000 over the previous fiscal year to help the office prepare for a potential uptick in union-related requests. 

Two new staff members would be needed to process applications quickly, officials told appropriators earlier this year. And in a body like Congress, speed is of the essence, since bosses serve for just two years at a time before standing for reelection.

When asked if her office is prepared, Nancy Baldino, OCWR communications director, said they’ve been bracing for the future by educating staffers and preparing a range of forms and fact sheets. 

“We will do the best that we can with existing staff and funding,” she said in an email last week.

With Congress racing to complete its summer business before a long recess in August and the midterms in November, demand could rise and fall.

“To a certain extent, the parties themselves control the timing,” she said. “For example, while the election itself can be conducted fairly quickly by the OCWR, the parties may decide that the August recess is not a good time to conduct an election and may decide to hold the election after the recess.”

Senate-side staff, or those who work in joint House-Senate offices, are not covered by the new rules and will have to wait until their chamber takes its own action.

The hardest fights may be yet to come, if staffers ultimately clash with bosses who secretly or not-so-secretly believe unions have no place in a workplace like Congress. But Monday’s labor-friendly group made a point of cheering their staffers’ decision. 

“We are seeing more & more workers across the country take brave steps to unionize & I’ve been supportive of their efforts every step of the way,” Khanna said in a series of tweets. “I strongly support the rights of Congressional workers who are choosing to take this courageous step & look forward to working with my staff however they decide to proceed.”

Levin, who introduced the crucial resolution earlier this year, said he was glad to see the organizing effort hit its next milestone.

“Monday is a great day for the working class of this country, for the labor movement of this country and for the workers of Capitol Hill,” he said. “It’s an act of bravery for people to organize.”

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