Courtney Laudick assembled with about a dozen other congressional staffers in the hallway outside the House chamber on a sunny Tuesday in May. They looked like any other gathering of aides waiting impatiently for votes to wrap up so they could whisk their bosses off to their next meeting. But for months they had operated in secret, out of necessity, organizing what became the Congressional Workers Union. They all could have been fired for their efforts — a form of retaliation Congress had banned in most other cases, but not for itself.
They had been careful to a fault. When Laudick first approached her boss, Rep. Andy Levin, about sponsoring a resolution to allow House staffers to unionize, she did so anonymously, even though she knew the former labor organizer was hardly the union-busting sort. And so over the course of the spring, Laudick and another Levin staffer leading the unionization push, Janae Washington, had worked both officially for and clandestinely with the Michigan Democrat to recruit co-sponsors and win over skeptics.
Levin didn’t know — didn’t want to know — who was behind the CWU and, as far as he could tell, they’d never even met. Until that Tuesday in May, when the resolution was slipped into a rule for supplemental Ukrainian aid funding and passed by a vote of 217-202, and Laudick sent Levin a text telling him there were some people outside who wanted to meet him.
“I was deeply moved,” Levin said. Levin lingered on the House steps with this newest cohort of his old profession to talk shop and opine about how historic that moment would be.
Levin and his aides took another historic step last week, agreeing to a tentative contract that raises the average wage for his junior staff to $76,000 and provides all members of the bargaining unit with a $10,000 salary increase. The new agreement takes effect for the October pay period and will be incorporated into a full collective bargaining agreement along with non-economic issues the representative and his workers hope to finish negotiating in the coming weeks.
That contract won’t last long: Levin lost his primary race after Michigan’s redistricting pitted him against Rep. Haley Stevens. The two-month pay bump is nice, Washington said, but it’s hardly the point. Levin’s shop hopes the coming CBA will be a model for other congressional offices, and not just those who are unionizing.
“We’re really demonstrating what solidarity looks like and the benefits of not only a union, but the act of workers coming together [and] making their voices heard,” she said.
Before the House passed Levin’s resolution authorizing staffers to organize, lots of people said unions just wouldn’t work on the Hill. At a House Administration Committee hearing in March, ranking member Rodney Davis, R-Ill., called staff unions “unworkable, impractical ideas.” Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., argued that working for a member of Congress was different from punching the clock in the private or public sector.
Signing the tentative agreement last week proves the critics wrong, said Laudick.
“It’s the same workplace as any other workplace, and we can do this process,” she said. “Being able to sit formally with management and come to an agreement that helps all workers is a really powerful thing to do.”
“Contract negotiations do not have to be so adversarial. In most of the world, they’re not always so adversarial,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, in America’s particular brand of capitalism, that we have this assumption of incredible hostility between employers and employees.”
Instead, employers — whether in the private or public sector, including Congress — can approach contract talks as he has, collaboratively, Levin said. “The number one thing, for me, to have an effective workplace is to have happy employees, motivated employees, loyal employees,” he said. “There’s all sorts of research that bears that out.”
Reports have shown that workers tend to get more done when they’re not miserable: A 2019 study out of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School found that happy workers were 13 percent more productive, and a 2015 article in the Journal of Labor Economics found a 12 percent productivity bump in happy employees.
For decades, working in Congress has meant low pay, long hours and high stress. As rents in Washington, D.C., rose to become some of the highest in the nation, staff pay remained stagnant, leading more and more junior staffers to quickly cash in on their Hill experience by joining the ranks of K Street lobbyists. With some aides making below a living wage and others taking on debt just to survive, a congressional job has looked more like a glorified internship than a sustainable career. The CWU hopes to change that.
“These issues have existed in the workplace for a really long time. You know, the issues with congressional staff turnover, issues with sexual harassment, the sort of toxic workplace that Congress has been for a while,” said Laudick.
If the CWU is successful in addressing those issues, it may lead to a more diverse workforce on the Hill, Levin argued.
“I think if we truly value having an effective workplace and an efficient workplace and a workplace that matches the amazing diversity of our country — racial, ethnic and also socioeconomic diversity — we need to give our workers the chance to organize and bargain,” he said.
Soft power of union influence
Levin expects the unionized offices will also exert a kind of soft power over the non-unionized offices, even among the GOP, as junior staffers see their colleagues getting better pay and benefits.
“This is one of the great principles of, really, sociology,” said Levin. “It goes beyond even the question of unions. Human beings are social animals. We are affected by each other’s behaviors.”
That, in turn, would lead to staff sticking around the Hill longer, benefitting the institution as a whole. “I really believe that we have launched a new era of labor relations and working conditions in Congress, where workers will have much more say in how things go, and that’ll improve the functioning of Congress and it’s all to the good,” said Levin.
The CWU leaders — Laudick and Washington serve on an interim executive board with 10 other staffers — believe their efforts are already having an impact across the Capitol.
“We have seen significant, significant, significant changes in the workplace, in the [Members’ Representational Allowance] increase, in a higher salary floor in the House, because of this collective action,” said Laudick, referring to an office budget boost from appropriators and a minimum annual salary of $45,000 set by Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Levin’s office has led the unionization charge so far on the Hill: It was the first to file petitions with the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights to form a union, the first to vote (unanimously) to approve the union and now the first to negotiate a contract. Three other offices have also voted to form unions, and an additional six are waiting to vote. All those members are Democrats who supported the unionization resolution, won their primaries and are favored to win reelection in November.
Levin said it was bittersweet to pack up his office while negotiating the first collective bargaining agreement with congressional staff.
“This is the right thing to do,” he said. “And I’m looking forward to trying to conclude a just contract as we race to the finish line of the 117th Congress.”
The CWU picked Levin to introduce the resolution because they knew he was one of just a few lawmakers they could trust to set his own ego aside and focus on the workers, said Laudick.
“In a space where you work with folks who are constantly worried about their image to the public … it’s not very often that you get a member of Congress that is willing to just be humble,” she said.
Levin didn’t choose to lead a labor movement of House staffers, he said. Instead, a labor movement of House staffers chose him.
“Just honestly thinking about how they came to me and said, ‘You have to do this,’ I get very emotional about it,” Levin said, his voice cracking. “It’s truly one of the most meaningful things that happened to me in Congress. But it’s really their story, not mine.”