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You’re the Boss: Unionized staff would force Democrats to take on management’s role

AP/Julio Cortez

A group of congressional Democratic staffers are attempting to form a union. It might not be a bad idea. A major problem with Congress is that it often passes laws covering things that its members know little about. If nothing else, letting their staff collectively bargain will give lawmakers some practical real-world experience in labor law.

Collective bargaining would put lawmakers on the management side of negotiations—facing demands that cut into their office budgets, limit work hours, and give them less say in how their office is run. They could also face accusations of unfair labor practices should negotiations go south. “Democrat’s Staff Alleges Union-Busting” would be the type of man-bites-dog headline reporters love.

It is unclear how many members of Congress have ever had to negotiate a union contract as management. A recent Congressional Research Service report listed “public service/politics” as the “prior careers” of 297 House members and 64 senators. It’s likely that most have never had to sit down at the bargaining table as management. Why not let them try?

It may be the coming thing anyhow. In recent decades, the labor movement has aligned itself closely with the progressive movement, creating a symbiotic relationship that resulted in both liberal activists and lawmakers frequently praising unions. Democrats have backed legislation like the Employee Free Choice Act and, more recently, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. Both had the express purpose of pushing more workers into unions on the grounds that that was in and of itself a good thing.

With all of this cheerleading, it shouldn’t be surprising that many of the working grunts of the progressive movement—the congressional staffers, non-profits, activist groups, and such—would ask, “If unions are so great, why shouldn’t we have them too?” As a former congressional reporter, I can attest that many staffers are indeed overworked and underpaid. Democratic candidates in the last election found they couldn’t oppose their campaign staff organizing without looking hypocritical, and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have endorsed collective bargaining for staffers, at least in theory.

Yet there’s a history of liberal activist groups taking a different view of collective bargaining when push comes to shove. Media Matters for America is reliably pro-union, but its then-President David Brock fought efforts by SEIU Local 500 in to organize its staff in 2014. It was eventually organized. More recently, The New York Times has resisted efforts by its tech staffers to organize despite editorializing in favor of unions.

It is unclear how congressional staff would unionize, since there is no precedent for it. Would there be collective bargaining contracts for each member office or one contract for all staff with congressional leadership negotiating as management? In the latter case, how would individual members of Congress appreciate being subject to contract terms on which they had little input? Would there be separate unions for majority and minority staff? Could staffers opt out?

Would lawmakers demand “no strike” clauses, which cover other federal workers, on the grounds that their work is too important to allow strikes? If not, will we see picket lines in the halls of Congress?

Later in life, liberal icon George McGovern became a fierce advocate for right to work laws and an opponent of the Employee Free Choice Act. It happened after he went into business for himself, which he described as “an eye-opening introduction” to the struggles of being a manager. Maybe our lawmakers in Congress would benefit from similar real-world experience.

Sean Higgins is a research associate for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market public policy organization based in Washington, D.C.

Tags Chuck Schumer Collective bargaining Employee Free Choice Act Nancy Pelosi Protecting the Right to Organize Act

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