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What’s next for staffer unions on the Hill?

As another office takes a vote, advocates try to calm worries about the next Congress

Since the Congressional Workers Union publicly announced itself, a handful of House offices have voted to unionize — and that’s just the beginning, organizers say. Above, union President Philip Bennett speaks at a news conference in July.
Since the Congressional Workers Union publicly announced itself, a handful of House offices have voted to unionize — and that’s just the beginning, organizers say. Above, union President Philip Bennett speaks at a news conference in July. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Staff for Rep. Cori Bush began voting to form a union Tuesday. The Missouri Democrat’s team is expected to become the fifth unionized office since a congressional organizing campaign launched publicly this year.

The vote is the latest development in what has been a busy year for Hill labor organizers — which, they say, shows no signs of slowing down as Washington obsesses over the upcoming elections and begins to look ahead to an overstuffed lame-duck session.

Bush’s workers will join aides to Reps. Andy Levin of Michigan, Ro Khanna of California, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico. Levin’s staff was the first to officially vote.

Staff for another five members — all Democrats — have filed petitions with the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights to hold elections.

Since the initial eight offices filed petitions when they were first allowed to in July, only two more have done so — staff for Reps. Dina Titus of Nevada and Sean Casten of Illinois. If all form unions, around 100 House staffers out of 9,100 will be represented by the Congressional Workers Union.

The union and its supporters aren’t worried that the stream of offices organizing hasn’t yet turned into a flood. “We are thrilled by the momentum of the historic, worker-led unionization drive taking place on Capitol Hill right now,” the CWU said in a written comment. “The Congressional Workers Union has already secured substantial wins with more on the way as staff continue to head to the bargaining table — demonstrating just how much can be accomplished when workers come together in solidarity.”

Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, praised the action so far in the House and said he expects more offices to unionize soon. He wants the office bargaining units to begin looking at changing more than their own circumstances.

“In addition to negotiating workplace benefits, you can also change the rules by which offices operate, which means you can do more to address concerns around harassment, do more about benefits, do more about funding levels for offices,” Schuman said, urging the CWU to lobby the House Rules and Appropriations committees.

“Up until now, there has always been pressure in one direction, and staff have not been able to sit at the table,” he said. “Now they will have opportunity to have their voices heard.”

After quietly organizing for about a year, the CWU kicked its unionization push into high gear in February after Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would support staff unions. The group approached Levin, who was an organizer for the Service Employees International Union before he came to Congress, asking him to introduce a resolution that would authorize House staffers to organize office by office. He agreed, and in May, the text passed the House.

That capped off a process that began in 1995, when lawmakers passed the Congressional Accountability Act, which removed legislative branch exceptions to a host of federal statutes, including labor laws. But before federal labor rules could apply to Congress, each chamber had to approve regulations issued by OCWR’s predecessor agency. The House finally did this year, but the Senate still hasn’t.

The lack of Senate action also affects some nonpolitical staff shared between the two chambers, like Congressional Budget Office employees, Schuman said. He’d like to see an authorizing resolution passed during the upcoming lame-duck session.

Some other legislative branch workers, like the Capitol Police, fall under a different category and have been unionized for decades. 

With Republicans expected to take back control of the House following November’s midterm elections, some Hill labor supporters have worried the next Congress might roll back this year’s gains. Would-be Speaker Kevin McCarthy has said he opposes staff unions.

But those fears are needless, said Schuman. First, Schuman believes it would take a federal law repealing parts of the CAA, not merely a House resolution unauthorizing the OCWR regulations, to undo the staff unions.  

“OCWR is empowered to promulgate and enforce the regulations by federal law. The House cannot regulate the OCWR by resolution,” he said, adding that the collective bargaining agreements already in place would remain legally binding.

And as far as Republican members are concerned, Schuman said, unions are just a Democratic headache — no GOP offices have shown an interest in organizing.

Levin lost his primary in August after Michigan’s redistricting pitted him against fellow incumbent Rep. Haley Stevens. But his office made history earlier this month by becoming the first to agree to a tentative union contract. The goal of completing a collective bargaining agreement that will cover only a few months, both Levin and CWU representatives told CQ Roll Call, is to provide other offices with a template to emulate in their own negotiations.

Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., is arrested by Capitol Police on July 20 alongside UNITE HERE union members. The members were calling for better pay and benefits for Senate cafeteria workers. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Levin’s support for unionizing extends beyond legislative staff and to the other side of the Capitol: He was arrested in July at a protest by Senate cafeteria workers seeking their first collective bargaining agreement with Restaurant Associates, the concessionaire company contracted by the Architect of the Capitol for the Senate side.

Those UNITE HERE Local 23 members ratified a new CBA with Restaurant Associates last week. The four-year deal sets a $20 minimum wage, offers more affordable health care with no deductible, and provides pension contributions. The union also celebrated provisions that provided members paid time off for voting, job training, and protections for immigrant workers.

The cafeteria workers formed their union last fall and fought off the threat of layoffs multiple times during negotiations, thanks in part to redirected pandemic funds.

UNITE HERE is now turning its attention to the House side of the Hill, where the catering workers’ contract with Sodexo expires at the end of the year and the dining services agreement expires in May.

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