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Founder of Senate ‘union tracker’ aims to empower staffers

Initial results show 15 senators open to the idea of unionization of their offices

"I wanted to do something that would get senators on the record and try to force them to have these conversations," says Gabe Garbowit, a former staffer for Sen. Tina Smith.
"I wanted to do something that would get senators on the record and try to force them to have these conversations," says Gabe Garbowit, a former staffer for Sen. Tina Smith. (Photo courtesy of Gabe Garbowit)

Corrected 9:10 a.m. | Over the course of more than four years working on the Hill, Gabe Garbowit heard the same set of gripes from his fellow staffers that he felt.

The hours were long, and overtime often went unpaid. Office conditions could be subpar, and there was general confusion about staffers’ rights when professional lines were crossed. Offices on the Senate side were siloed, stymieing communication.

“People had a lot of difficult experiences,” Garbowit, who spent the duration of his Hill career in the office of Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., said in an interview.

Garbowit left Congress in July and took a sharp turn away from politics. He worked briefly as a meat cutter at a Washington barbecue joint and then moved back to Minnesota, where he is doing temp work and plotting his next move.

He’s more than 1,000 miles away from the Capitol now, but the challenges he experienced working on the Hill are still top of mind. This month, Garbowit decided to do something he hopes will improve conditions for former compatriots still working in the Senate and those yet to join.

In mid-March, he launched SenateUnionTracker.com, which, true to its domain name, tracks the union support, or opposition, of all 100 senators.

The website is an attempt to get every senator on the record on two questions: Would they support collective bargaining protections for Senate staff? And would they support their own staff unionizing?

The results, to this point, are not groundbreaking. But he plans to continue pressing for answers.

No Republicans responded to Garbowit’s inquiry, and more than half of Democrats also ignored it. Five Democrats — Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Bob Casey and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Patty Murray of Washington — answered “yes” to the first question and declined to respond to the second.

Fifteen Democrats, however, answered yes to both questions, including Smith, Garbowit’s former boss. Unsurprisingly, Sen. Edward J. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat whose staff became the first in the upper chamber to unionize with his voluntary support, was also part of the group that voiced support for unionization.

“When I heard the news about Markey, I was floored,” Garbowit said. “When I was a staffer, the thought of an office being voluntarily recognized was unthinkable. I thought that was tremendous momentum.”

Garbowit hopes the tracker will allow staff to capitalize on that momentum, though the Senate has lagged behind the House in its support for staff unionization.

In May 2022, the Democrat-led House passed a resolution guaranteeing staff protection, which set the stage for the Congressional Workers Union to start organizing Hill offices. The push came amid broader calls for better pay and working conditions after decades of stagnant staff wages. By the end of 2022, staff in the offices of 14 House Democrats had petitioned to hold union elections.

“We were shocked by how quickly the House was able to turn all these stories and frustrations into something concrete that actually led to a rules change,” Garbowit said. “So I wanted to do something that would get senators on the record and try to force them to have these conversations.”

Growing up, Garbowit never expected to work on the Hill. He studied philosophy at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., hardly a feeder school for government jobs. It was mostly by chance that he learned of an internship in Smith’s office, which turned into a job as a digital director.

In that role, Garbowit never dealt with the press or sat for interviews, and he was at first reluctant at the thought of speaking out in favor of unions with the launch of his tracker. He considered publishing the site anonymously or using a pseudonym. Ultimately, though, he felt it was necessary to sign his name to the effort, at least in part to show current staffers that they could speak up without fear of reprisal.

“If a single staffer feels a little more empowered to talk about what they’ve experienced in their workplace and how they can make a productive change, that, to me, is just incredible,” Garbowit said.

This report has been corrected to reflect that a group of Democratic senators responded “yes” to the first question in the tracker.

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