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After a year of organizing, staff union leaders look ahead to collective bargaining

Emma Preston, CWU’s incoming president, said the goal is to keep the momentum going

Philip Bennett, outgoing president of the Congressional Workers Union, praised the efforts of organizers who were able to take the effort "to the next level."
Philip Bennett, outgoing president of the Congressional Workers Union, praised the efforts of organizers who were able to take the effort "to the next level." (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Congressional Workers Union — the umbrella organization for the six House Democrat offices that have formed unions, plus the seven others that have petitioned to hold union elections and any other staffers looking to organize their corners of Capitol Hill — turned 1 year old Wednesday.

It’s been one heck of a year, said CWU’s outgoing president, Philip Bennett. 

“Last year was obviously historic,” Bennett said. “But it is the logical conclusion of the last couple of years: looking back at the pandemic, at the [criminal justice] uprising that summer, at Jan. 6th, but also to the broader labor movement that’s been demanding immediate material change to people’s lives. The way we were able to express all of that is through the Congressional Workers Union.”

After months of clandestine meetings (necessitated by the fact that federal labor law protections did not cover congressional staff), the group went public shortly after then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she’d support staff unions in February 2022. Then, on May 10, the House passed a resolution authorizing policy staff to unionize in accordance with the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 — the same day that Rep. Andy Levin introduced it, and the day the CWU considers its birthday. 

When the resolution went into effect in July, staffers for eight House Democrats immediately filed union petitions with the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights. Another six offices followed suit by the end of the year, with seven holding successful elections and receiving union recognition. (Levin’s office was one of the seven, but he has left Congress.)

So far this year, the CWU survived an attempt in the House by the new Republican majority to squash their nascent labor movement and saw their first Senate office organize, as Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts voluntarily recognized his staffers’ union in March. A month later, the CWU held its first executive board elections.

“Staffers before us had tried to chip away at it, and I feel honored that we were able to take that baton and take it to the next level,” said Bennett. “I’m excited to see a fully elected board take that baton and keep going.”

Emma Preston, the CWU’s incoming president, said the new board’s goals are simply to keep the momentum going, to see more offices form unions and to see the work pay off at the bargaining table.

For most Democrats, embracing a staff union is a political no-brainer — it’s a surefire way to express solidarity with one of their most important constituencies.

“Members of Congress are all hyperaware of how important it is for them to be the party of workers and the working class,” said Emilia Rowland, a CWU co-founder. “I think there really is pressure for them to walk the walk in Congress.”

When the first eight offices filed their union petitions, those members were thrilled, said Preston. But “the one question that I have going forward is if we’ll see that same excitement from bosses about getting to a contract with their staff.”

So far, only one staff union has signed a collective bargaining agreement: Levin’s, just days before the Michigan Democrat left office after losing his reelection bid when redistricting forced him into a primary fight against fellow incumbent Rep. Haley Stevens (Levin and his staff first signed a tentative agreement in October, but only inked the final version on Dec. 22, 2022). Levin, a former labor organizer, told Roll Call last year that he hoped that contract would serve as an example for other offices.

So, in some ways, the next CBA will be the first “real” contract since the CWU launched and the first real chance to prove wrong the arguments made against them: that Congress isn’t like other workplaces, that staffers should gladly trade the poor pay and long hours for proximity to power and lucrative opportunities on K Street.

“When you’re unionizing, organizing and electing the union is a halfway step,” said Courtney Laudick, the CWU’s outgoing vice president of organizing and former Levin staffer. “You win once you get to a contract.”

While it’s been months since OCWR certified the first staff union elections, waiting times are normal in collective bargaining. According to a Bloomberg Law analysis, the average CBA takes 465 days to sign after a union election, although a good chunk (47 percent) take less than a year.

“What’s really interesting about this process is we are inventing the wheel of how negotiating works in Congress,” said Laudick. “Members of Congress are having to learn about what this relationship looks like. And those members, as much as they tout that they’re very pro-union and that they are for unions, they’ve never sat at the negotiating table. They have no clue how this works.”

That extends to some of the top-level congressional aides in supervisory positions, who are considered management under federal labor law. “We heard a lot of chiefs of staff asking if they could join [the union] last year,” said Laudick.

Still, at least with the current batch of negotiations, the CWU leaders remain sanguine. Laudick said most of these members are “gung ho” about signing a deal.

“To unionize is to lift the tide which lifts all boats, and to have democracy in your workplace,” added Preston. “That makes the workplace better for everyone, if they’re willing to engage with that. And I think that we have managers on the Hill who are seeing that.”

The CWU leaders know that bigger challenges lie ahead. Not all publicly pro-labor lawmakers privately support their aides unionizing. In the Illinois legislature, staff for House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch recently went public with their unionization demands after their boss refused to voluntarily recognize their bargaining unit. So far, Hill staffers have held off on similar shaming tactics.

If that happens, it’ll only be because the members’ own employees want it that way, said Preston.

“I would hesitate to call out a specific member … without talking with their staff first about their needs and their own organizing efforts,” she said. “We want to be careful to center the staff in those offices versus the members themselves.”

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