Skip to content

With voluntary recognition, Ed Markey’s staff will be the first in the Senate to unionize

Labor-friendly senator "proud" of staff's effort to organize

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., voluntarily recognized his staff's efforts to unionize.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., voluntarily recognized his staff's efforts to unionize. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The rest of “the world’s most exclusive club” may feel compelled to start treating the help a little nicer, as staffers in Sen. Edward J. Markey’s office are set to form the Senate’s first labor union.

Aides formally requested that the Massachusetts Democrat voluntarily recognize their bargaining unit in a staff meeting Wednesday morning. Markey happily complied.

“I applaud these passionate, dedicated workers who are exercising their right to organize through this fundamental, critical exercise in democracy,” Markey said in a written statement. “I am proud of my staff for embodying the commitment not to agonize, but to organize. I recognize their effort to unionize and look forward to engaging with them and the Congressional Workers Union.”

This is the second time Markey staff have made unionization history — his 2020 election team was the first statewide campaign in Massachusetts to unionize. 

The CWU began organizing Hill offices last year after the House cleared the way by adopting a resolution that authorized regulations promulgated by the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights that allow for union organizing. The push came amid a broader demand from Hill aides for better pay and working conditions after decades of stagnant staff wages in an increasingly expensive city. By the end of the year, staffers for 14 House Democrats had petitioned to hold union elections. 

But the Senate never passed its own authorizing resolution, leaving would-be organizers there unprotected by federal labor laws. In February, the CWU sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Rules and Administration Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Bernie Sanders, asking for a vote on resolution to sanction Senate unions. None of those four offices responded to Roll Call’s request for comment.

The umbrella group warned back then that two member offices could seek voluntary recognition if the Senate didn’t act. It’s unclear whether that second office remains ready to unionize. “At this time, the only office seeking voluntary recognition is Markey’s,” a CWU spokesperson said.

Democrats now enjoy a slim 51-49 majority, but they would need to get support from the GOP to overcome the 60-vote threshold to break a filibuster before the Senate could implement the unionization rules OCWR wrote pursuant to the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 — a law Republicans passed to subject Congress to the same workplace laws as the private sector.

Federal labor laws normally protect workers by forbidding management from retaliation against them for assembling together to improve their working conditions. But with the Senate still exempt from such statutes, Markey’s staff theoretically risked reprisals ranging from mild rebukes to a mass firing, but, in truth, they never had much to worry about, given the progressive Massachusetts senator’s stalwart support for the labor movement. The AFL-CIO gives Markey a 99 percent lifetime legislative score on union issues, and Markey, in turn, has enjoyed considerable union support in his campaigns over the years. 

By voluntarily recognizing the union, Markey will effectively pledge to follow federal labor laws, even though the workers in his office would lack recourse to OCWR or the National Labor Relations Board. But for most workers, the chance to collectively bargain employment contracts is the primary reason to unionize, as it provides them leverage they otherwise would lack, while the ability to file grievances to federal overseers is an ancillary benefit. 

The union will cover all nonmanagement positions in Markey’s office, which means most of the about two dozen staffers will form it.

Even though congressional aides have little ability to collectively bargain for higher remuneration across the board — office budgets are set by the annual appropriations process — they can advocate for increasing lower-level aide salaries by reducing the pay of management-level staff. Beyond pay, staff unions can also negotiate for better working conditions in general, like more time off, workplace protections, or more flexible work-from-home policies.

The CWU’s efforts to unionize the House have stalled since Republicans regained control of the chamber after the midterm elections. The chamber’s rules package states that last year’s union-authorizing resolution “shall have no force or effect” in the 118th Congress.

While legal experts think that the wording of the new House rules probably prevents additional offices from forming new unions, it doesn’t dissolve those that have already formed or block OCWR from overseeing elections for offices that filed organizing petitions last year. But, so far, OCWR has not taken any action on the seven offices that filed petitions to hold union elections last year. OCWR did not respond to a request for comment.

Organizers with CWU have said they hope that getting a critical mass of offices to organize will force others to begin offering their workers similarly friendly terms.

Recent Stories

Five races to watch in Pennsylvania primaries on Tuesday

‘You talk too much’— Congressional Hits and Misses

Senators seek changes to spy program reauthorization bill

Editor’s Note: Congress and the coalition-curious

Photos of the week ending April 19, 2024

Rule for emergency aid bill adopted with Democratic support