Capitol Hill Staffers Launch Unionization Effort

February 8, 2022 by Dan McCue
<strong>Capitol Hill Staffers Launch Unionization Effort</strong>
Looking up Capitol Hill toward the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — An effort by congressional staffers to launch a new employee union on Capitol Hill appears to be gaining momentum just days after they announced their intention via Twitter.

Already a number of prominent Democrat lawmakers have lined up to say they support the unionization plan and at least one, Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., is writing legislation to allow for the movement to proceed.

“I support the right for workers to organize,” Levin said in a tweet last week, adding that in the case of workers on the Hill, “Congress couldn’t run without them and I’m committed to supporting their voice at work.”

A day later, on Friday, the Congressional Workers Union, an organization that was previously under the radar, came out of the shadows with its own declaration on Twitter:

“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 across the United States and the world,” the group’s statement said.

“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,” it continued. “That starts with having a voice in the workplace. We call on all congressional staff to join in the effort to unionize, and look forward to meeting management at the table.”

Since then, aides to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have said their bosses are on board, and other lawmakers, including Reps. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., and Jesús García, D-Ill., as well as Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, have joined the fray.

And on Tuesday, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden also supports the Hill staffers’ effort to unionize.

Technically speaking, congressional staffers should have been allowed to unionize ever since the passage of the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995. The act directed what is now called the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights to issue a regulation extending federal labor law, the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute, to the congressional workforce. 

However, after the office issued the regulation in 1996, Congress never ratified it. The regulation would require passage of a simple resolution in each chamber to extend the right to unionize to all Hill employees.

That, again, is where Levin comes in.

Once the Congressional Workers Union formally announced their presence to the world, the congressman tweeted, “At the request of the new union, next week we will take legislative action to afford congressional staff the freedom to form a union — a fundamental right of all workers.”

Since then, a resolution has been drafted and a Dear Colleague letter is currently circulating among House Democrats. So far, however, the resolution has not been filed and no date has been set for the chamber to take it up.

And while there is talk of a resolution in the Senate, it’ll be a separate effort rather than a companion bill as each body separately ratifies the right to organize for their own employees.

At present, a Democrat in the know told The Well News, speaking on background, not a single Republican has endorsed the effort.

Of course, a number of Congress-adjacent agencies have been unionized for years, including the Library of Congress and the Capitol Police, who just recently agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement.

If and when the House votes on Levin’s resolution, its passage would trigger a host of labor protections, including protections against retaliation for the unionizing efforts.

But then things get complicated.

Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said he’s a “big supporter” of collective bargaining and the right of employees to bargain collectively.

He also said he’s been very concerned for a long time about the pay scale on Capitol Hill.

“I think that employees should be paid a living wage and I think that it’s important for Congress to be a leader and provide an example for the rest of the county,” he said.

“Henry Ford once said, ‘If you don’t pay our workers, they can’t buy our cars.’ And that’s true. And when you pay people adequately, it not only helps the employee and their family, it helps the whole economy,” he continued.

But Hoyer said things get complicated when you start to talk about unionizing the staff on Capitol Hill.

The reason for that, he explained, is while Hill staffers may fall into a definable group, they’re actually a set of much smaller groups managed discreetly in different members’ offices.

“So you could say you have more than 435 — or one could say 535, counting the Senate — different employee entities, even though they are centrally paid,” he said.

“In addition, each of those entities are managed by individual members who are relatively independent, elected by their constituents, and not hired by any of us … so we need to look at this very closely,” Hoyer said.

The majority leader said he’s spoken to Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., chair of the Committee on House Administration, about the matter, and that she’s looking at similar legislation that was considered when the Republicans were in the majority.

“Now those rules would need to be updated, but that’s one of the things we’re looking at,” he said.

Later, Hoyer reiterated his support for collective bargaining, calling it “a way for workers to get a fair shake in terms of wages and working conditions.”

“Of course, public employee unions, as you know, are subject to somewhat different rules than other public employees in terms of the ability to strike, and these are all things the committee, which I know is sympathetic to making sure employees are treated fairly, will be looking at,” he said.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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