Congressional Staffers Are Organizing a Much-Needed Union

Union representation leads to better pay and improved conditions in every kind of workplace, but especially in high-pressure settings where hours are long and demands are intense. Yet workers in congressional offices are not unionized, since provisions in the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 which would have cleared the way for organizing drives were never implemented. That’s something that needs to change, as a new study from the Congressional Progressive Staff Association reveals.

The association surveyed more than 500 staffers in the House and Senate in January and found: about half of the respondents have struggled to pay bills, with the percentage slightly higher among non-management staff; over a quarter do not have at least one month’s rent in savings in case of an emergency; 39 percent currently or previously have taken on debt to make ends meet; and one-third of non-management staff have had to take on a second job to supplement their income, while many others have not been able to due to the demand of their working hours.

“If we want to retain top talent in our nation’s capital, then we need to make sure staff can afford to live there,” said Alexandra Weinroth, communications director for Democrats on the House Budget Committee and president of the bipartisan Women’s Congressional Staff Association, after the report was released.

Low pay is a serious issue in congressional offices where workers can make as little as $29,000 a year. But money matters were not the only concern. The survey also found that workers have expressed concerns about sexual harassment; inadequate Covid-19 safety protections; and security after the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, which exposed the vulnerability of those working in congressional offices. And, while Democratic lawmakers may be more enlightened than Republicans when it comes to defending against insurrectionists, members of Congress from both parties have come over the years under fire for failing to maintain safe and respectful offices.

So it was welcome news Friday when a group of workers on Capitol Hill announced the formation of the Congressional Workers Union, launching an effort to “unionize the personal offices and committees” of members of Congress. The organizers explained:

After more than a year of organizing as a volunteer group of congressional staff, we are proud to publicly announce our efforts to unionize the personal offices and committees of Congress, in solidarity with our fellow workers cross the United States and around the world. While not all offices and committees face the same working conditions, we strongly believe that to better serve our constituents will require meaningful changes to improve retention, equity, diversity, and inclusion on Capitol Hill. We call on all congressional staff to join in the effort to unionize, and look forward to meeting management at the table.

As New York Democrat Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, “Capitol Hill…sounds like a perfect place for a union.” And the congressional workers could get one, joining the many Capitol Hill workers who are already unionized, including Capitol police officers and employees of the Library of Congress, if House and Senate Democrats keep the promise of their party platform. In it, Democrats declared: “We must unrig the rules that block workers from having the union they want and update our labor laws to make it more possible.”

In order to do so, however, they will need to thwart Republican opposition and potential obstruction from “centrist” Democrats such as West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

US Representative Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a former union organizer who is a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor, signaled that, at the request of the new union, he will take steps to activate the necessary provisions of the Congressional Accountability Act so that the organizing drive can go forward. On Wednesday, Levin introduced his resolution, with 130 cosponsors. That’s significant. But House GOP Conference chair Elise Stefanik made it clear this week that Republican House members will oppose the effort, saying: “We do not support unionizing on the Hill.”

On the Senate side, Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, an ardent supporter of organized labor, says he’s working with fellow senators to get a resolution passed in the chamber. He’ll have to make sure he can get a “skeptical”—though not formally opposed—Manchin on board. But the general response from Democrats has been positive.

President Biden has indicated that he is supportive, as is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said, “As a former union member myself, consider me on board. I believe we can make Capitol Hill union strong and give our staff the protection and support that unions offer.” And former Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who remains a member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, said, “As a card-carrying union member myself, consider me on board!”

The progressive caucus has also endorsed the unionization drive, which comes at a time when organizing drives are underway among workers in state capitol offices, and as many democratic campaigns have been organized into units with the Campaign Workers Guild.

Union representation would not merely improve conditions for workers in congressional offices and on committees; it would also put congressional Democrats in a position where they are not just talking the talk but walking the walk when it comes to workers’ rights. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) put things in perspective last Friday, when he said, “We must make it easier, not harder, for all workers to form a union. That includes Congressional Staff. I stand in solidarity with Congressional staff working to form a union.”

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