House

Staffers at eight House offices become first to begin unionization process

The U.S. Capitol is seen
Greg Nash
The U.S. Capitol is seen from the East Front Plaza at sunset on Monday, June 7, 2021.

Staffers working for eight House lawmakers filed petitions to unionize on Monday, becoming the first such employees to move forward on a unionization effort on Capitol Hill. 

A total of 85 staffers, all of whom work in offices for Democratic lawmakers, submitted petitions for representation to the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR), marking a significant step in the year-plus push for collective bargaining within the halls of Congress. 

Staffers who joined the effort are employed by Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Jesús García (D-Ill.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Andy Levin (D-Mich.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.). 

The unionization effort on Capitol Hill gained steam earlier this year after the Instagram account Dear White Staffers, which is widely known among congressional staff, drew attention for sharing anonymous stories from aides that shed light on their low salaries and subsequent financial struggles. 

The stunning reports led more than 100 Democratic lawmakers, led by Levin, to introduce a resolution in February that would give staffers the legal protection to unionize and participate in collective bargaining. 

In May, the House approved that measure along party lines, with all present Republicans voting in opposition.

“While unions play a vital role in many workplaces, including throughout my district, they just aren’t feasible for Congress” House Administration Committee ranking member Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) said in May.

The resolution officially took effect on Monday, giving staffers in House offices a legal shield during the unionization process. 

“July 18 will go down as a historic day for congressional staff and our democracy—marking the day our protected rights to organize and bargain collectively go into full effect,” the Congressional Workers Union, which has been leading the effort, wrote in a statement on Monday. 

“After several months of organizing to establish these protections for House staff, we join 85 congressional workers in taking the next step in our organizing drive by filing for a union election in 8 offices in the U.S. House of Representatives,” the group added. 

Monday, however, was just the beginning of the unionization process. 

The OCWR first has to review the petitions submitted, then those House offices will hold elections. If at least half of the staffers in each of the eight House offices vote to form a union, the OCWR will recognize the groups. 

Each individual House office will function as its own separate bargaining unit, but all the groups are unionizing under the Congressional Workers Union. 

Once the bargaining units are voted for, staffers will then be able to start negotiating terms and conditions of employment. 

Members of the Congressional Workers Union executive board told The Hill in an interview that while staffers in each House office will have their own priorities during the collective bargaining process, employees are generally looking for better wages, hours and benefits. 

They also want a voice in discussions pertaining to day-to-day functions of congressional offices and workplace conditions at the Capitol, such as negotiating additional leave time, telework policies and harassment policy. 

The median salary for jobs in House lawmaker offices was $50,000 in 2021, according to the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion. In May, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced that, starting Sept. 1, House offices must pay a minimum annual salary of $45,000. 

Daniel Schuman, the policy director at Demand Progress who helped advise the unionization effort, told The Hill that congressional staffers typically have a “short-term perspective,” meaning they are not able to stay on Capitol Hill for an extended period of time because of the low pay. 

With unions, however, staffers will have a voice advocating for them internally, Shuman argued. 

“Now what this means is that you have a group of people inside the institution that have an interest in paying staff decently and having them have, you know, appropriate time off, making sure that if they’re asked to do things that are illegal, they have a mechanism to push back and to have ways to protect them against harassment,” he said. 

“Basically, you’ve got people on the inside who will think about the employees for the first time, which is just not something that’s been there,” he added. 

Some staffers also believe that the unionization effort will help diversify the pool of employees on Capitol Hill. 

One Congressional Workers Union executive board member told The Hill that delivering better wages, hours and benefits for congressional staffers could help “lower the barrier to entry” for employees on Capitol Hill, allowing individuals from underrepresented communities and those with more diverse backgrounds to work in congressional offices. 

The board member said the low wages and long hours that come with working in House offices have often barred individuals from being employed on Capitol Hill. 

“It also just helps to create a more equitable and inclusive workplace so that folks who are from, you know, more diverse backgrounds and underrepresented communities are able to work on the Hill. … It’s not an opportunity that’s always been available for everyone before because of the low wages and the long hours,” the board member said. 

And creating a more diverse staff on Capitol Hill, the board member argued, would be “useful for the American people.” 

“Our members of Congress represent all Americans across the country and, you know, we need the staffers to also represent, you know, all those different folks because that helps to inform the work that we do as congressional staffers and help members of  Congress better represent all of their constituencies,” the board member said. 

As for unionization efforts on the Senate side, one board member said that is a “completely different beast.” The upper chamber must pass its own measure to protect political staffers who wish to unionize. 

But Congressional Workers Union executive board members are expecting more staffers and offices to join the unionization effort in the weeks to come, with the end goal being that all congressional staff are unionized. 

“This is just the beginning, and it’s an exciting feat, but this will definitely not be the last day where we have this kind of effort happening,” one board member told The Hill.

Updated 6:36 p.m.

Tags Andy Levin House staffers Labor Union unionization workers rights
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