Authorizing congressional unions won’t end Democrats’ labor troubles
After months of speculation, the House of Representatives on Tuesday narrowly approved a resolution allowing congressional staff to collectively bargain.
The resolution, H.R. 1096, was introduced by Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) and adopted along party lines. In a statement following the vote, Levin celebrated how congressional Democrats “upheld our values of believing in the collective voice today.”
Indeed, the obvious inconsistency of advocating for the universal unionization of both government and the private sector while failing to extend collective bargaining privileges to their own staff left House Democrats vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy from both the right and left.
Even passage of Levin’s resolution, however, won’t resolve the tension.
The framework for congressional staff to collectively bargain was actually created when the newly Republican Congress passed the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) in 1995, requiring Congress to follow the same labor laws as the rest of the country, as part of the GOP’s “Contract with America.”
Regarding unions, the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Sean Higgins explains that then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich “thought that if his Democratic colleagues truly believed that unions were so great, then they should get them—good and hard.”
But, for collective bargaining to become a reality under the CAA, each chamber must pass a resolution permitting it for its own staff.
Democrats didn’t exactly trip over themselves trying to import collective bargaining into Congress. It took seven years of Democrat control of the House, “the most pro-union administration in American history,” fawning media coverage of union organizing at mega corporations like Starbucks and Amazon, and heightened agitation by Democrat staffers to push them to act.
And if congressional Democrats weren’t concerned about the implications of collective bargaining before, they’re about to get a crash course.
It may have been uncomfortable to face generic criticism for not “walking the walk,” as Levin put it, but dealing with the inevitable unfair labor practice complaints, grievances, informational pickets and other forms of labor unrest in which staff publicly and formally lodge specific accusations against specific lawmakers will assuredly be worse.
Just a few months ago, Buzzfeed reported that more than a dozen former staffers accused outspoken union advocate Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) of running an office that was “dysfunctional,” “volatile” and “harsh.” A single bad headline based on the comments of some former staff is one thing. A labor complaint filed by current employees that takes weeks or months to resolve is quite another.
And if the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus isn’t immune from labor strife, no one is.
Even unions, whose staff are often themselves union-represented, periodically deal with strikes and accusations of anti-worker behavior.
It’s unlikely similar unrest will plague Republican offices, however, at least to the same degree.
Under the CAA and the accompanying regulations governing unionization and collective bargaining adopted by the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR), unions will need to organize employees by individual congressional office. For political and ideological reasons, it’s not at all unlikely that most Democrat offices will unionize, while few Republican offices will.
The limited experience of Democrats in state houses serves as a further cautionary tale.
Earlier this year, after the Democrat-controlled Washington state Legislature quietly killed a pair of bills extending collective bargaining privileges to legislative aides, about 100 Democrat staffers staged an unprecedented sickout. Facing a PR nightmare, panicked Democrat leadership quickly reintroduced and passed legislation allowing staff to unionize and bargain, but not until 2024, after a new “Office of State Legislative Labor Relations” spends millions of taxpayer dollars trying to figure out how to make it work in practice.
And in Oregon, a full year after state lawmakers’ aides formed the first such recognized union in the country, Democrat legislative leaders have yet to negotiate a first contract with the union.
Perhaps Democrats are secretly counting on Republicans recapturing the House in the fall midterms and rescinding Levin’s resolution, cynically allowing them to save face now and avoid the consequences of their decision later.
The OCWR regulations governing unionization won’t take effect for at least another two months, which won’t leave much time for employees to organize into unions, much less begin bargaining, before the elections.
Given that collective bargaining will unavoidably make doing business in Congress more difficult, if that’s possible, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a future GOP majority repeal the resolution. Then again, perhaps they would prefer to watch Democrats stew in their own juices for a while.
Maxford Nelsen is director of labor policy at the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports individual liberty, free enterprise and limited, accountable government.
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