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Senate Democrats offer resolution to let staff organize

Effort faces an uphill battle with a narrow Democratic majority

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and 19 of his Senate colleagues introduced a resolution Thursday that would extend legal protections to staffers who unionize.

The group of pro-labor Democrats, plus Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, comes a year after the House adopted a resolution allowing its employees to organize.

“Every worker should have a right to organize and have a voice in their workplace — and that is why I have spent my career fighting for the dignity of work,” Brown said in a statement. “With this resolution, we can finally secure the fundamental legal right of U.S. Senate staff to join together as union members to advocate for themselves and have a voice on the job.”

Staff in Sen. Edward J. Markey’s office in March became the first in the Senate to unionize, with voluntary recognition from the progressive, pro-labor Massachusetts Democrat. The Senate, however, is exempt from federal labor laws that would normally protect workers from retaliation against their organizing efforts. 

Brown’s resolution would change that, providing greater cover for unionizing staff in offices of senators less amenable to collective bargaining. The effort faces an uphill battle in a Senate with a narrow Democratic majority. Brown and other supporters would need to drum up bipartisan support for the bill to overcome the 60-vote threshold to end a filibuster or tuck it into some larger, must-pass legislative package.

“These protections are key in our work to ensure that staffers are guaranteed an equitable, inclusive, and safe workplace across Congress,” the Congressional Workers Union said in a statement.

The House adopted a resolution in May 2022 authorizing policy staff to unionize in accordance with the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995. Currently, there are 11 unionized House member offices. Last week, Democratic aides on the House Education and the Workforce Committee petitioned the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights to hold a unionization election. If successful, they’d become the first committee staffers to form a union attached to a standing committee rather than an individual member’s office.

Senate member offices are larger than their House counterparts. Jobs there also usually pay a bit more than similarly titled positions and come with more cachet that can be traded in later for well-remunerated gigs on K Street. But the wages still pale in comparison to the federal government — let alone the private sector — and the hours tend to be brutal, leading many workers to say staying on the Hill is unsustainable in the long run. Labor organizers contend the unions will improve conditions and help staff lobby Congress to raise the Members’ Representational Allowances in the annual appropriations bills. 

The resolution’s introduction was applauded by progressive advocates focused on how Congress functions as an institution.

“The introduction of a resolution to grant Senate staff unionization rights long available to workers across this country is an important step toward strengthening Congress,” said Taylor J. Swift, senior policy adviser at Demand Progress. “A year of successful unionization efforts in the House has demonstrated that when congressional staff have a seat at the bargaining table, it results in higher wages, better benefits, and a healthier workplace. All staff — including those in Senate and Joint offices — must be afforded these same protections.”

The unionization effort ran into hurdles at the start of the year, thanks to a House Republican rules package. The GOP majority adopted a rule that said the “regulations adopted pursuant to [last year’s resolution] shall have no force or effect” during the current Congress.

But since then, OCWR certified the elections in several offices — aides for Reps. Sean Casten of Illinois, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Mark Takano of California and Dina Titus of Nevada all voted to form unions, the Congressional Workers Union, an umbrella group for staff unions, announced last week.

Staffers for three other House Democrats — Mark DeSaulnier of California, Sylvia R. Garcia of Texas and Val Hoyle of Oregon — petitioned for elections last week as well. 

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