Questions loom over how to form congressional staff union

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) talk outside the House Chamber
Greg Nash

Efforts to unionize congressional staffers got a boost this week when a House Democrat introduced a resolution to allow workers to move forward on organizing and being able to collectively bargain.

But lawmakers acknowledge that there are gray areas about how a union would work in practice on Capitol Hill, where each House and Senate office largely sets its own workplace policies. 

“It’s more complicated than the private sector. As you know, the rules are different. …It’s a complicating factor in that you have 435, or one could say 535, different employing entities,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters. 

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the top Republican on the Senate Rules Committee, didn’t take a position on staff unionizing but questioned how it would work in such a setting. 

“It’s like there are 535 employers,” he said. “I don’t know quite how that fits into any traditional union structure unless you have multiple unions.”

Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) on Wednesday introduced a measure, backed by 130 fellow Democrats, that would formally recognize House staffers’ ability to form a union.

In the Senate, there is no clear path forward since supporters in that chamber would need 60 votes for a similar resolution to advance. Senate Democrats, despite hurdles in passing such a measure, are discussing who should offer their companion resolution. 

“You’re going to clearly have resistance. …There’s clearly many senators who aren’t going to want unions in their offices,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), an early Senate backer of giving staff the ability to organize and collectively bargain. 

Several GOP senators are already cool to the idea. 

“I think it’s nuts,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told The Hill while declining to comment further. 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an advisor to Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said “it was a terrible idea.” 

McConnell hasn’t weighed in on the effort to let congressional staff unionize. 

Even GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who authored the Congressional Accountability Act and wrote a 1998 law about giving staff the ability to organize, said he was still thinking it over. 

“You would end up with 535 different unions, that sounds kind of complicated,” Grassley said before adding, “I’m not against unions.” 

It’s not just Republicans. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) expressed skepticism about the unionization effort saying, “I want to make sure we serve the people of West Virginia. That’s our responsibility.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also pushed back on the notion, telling Punchbowl News this week that he didn’t “think it would be productive for the government.  

But unlike in the Senate, where GOP votes are needed, House Democrats can pass Levin’s resolution without any Republican help. 

The House resolution would clarify that staff who work for House committees or members’ personal offices would be afforded the same ability to organize as other legislative branch entities like the Capitol Police, Library of Congress and the Architect of the Capitol. 

The Congressional Workers Union formally announced their effort to allow for staff to unionize less than a week ago, after more than a year of behind-the-scenes work. 

It has quickly gained steam since then, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and President Biden each endorsing the effort. 

But questions remain as to whether a union for congressional staff could function as a single, broad entity, or if each office would have to individually unionize. Levin said upon introducing his resolution on Wednesday that “questions surrounding exactly how the unionization process will work are appropriate for another day.”

Daniel Schuman, a policy director at Demand Progress, said one way it could work is if each House office was a “bargaining unit.”

“It’s office by office,” he said. “They could form a local [with multiple offices] where they collaborate.” 

The momentum for the congressional unionization effort comes after conditions on Capitol Hill have gotten the spotlight with the anonymous Instagram account, Dear White Staffers, sharing personal stories from staff about struggling to pay bills on low salaries and dealing with overly demanding bosses.

“The feeling in this country has changed. The labor market has changed,” said Levin, a former union organizer before serving in Congress. “Workers are just standing up and saying we want to have more say and a more decent life. Why should our staff be left out of that?”

House Democrats have tried to take other measures in recent years to address the high turnover rate among staff, who have often left Capitol Hill to pursue higher-paying jobs in the private sector.

Part of the problem stems from members of Congress declining annual cost-of-living increases for their own salaries for more than a decade. 

Lawmakers originally nixed the annual cost-of-living increases during the Great Recession to show solidarity with struggling Americans. But efforts to reinstate the annual adjustments once economic conditions improved have stalled because lawmakers in both parties have fretted over the optics of voting to raise their salaries. 

Rank-and-file members of Congress earn $174,000 annually, while certain members of leadership, such as the Speaker, earn up to $223,500. Under a policy unveiled by Pelosi last year to help retention, House senior staff can now earn up to $199,300, up from what was a maximum salary of $173,900. 

But that policy did not establish a minimum salary, leaving congressional offices the option to continue to pay entry-level staff as little as around $30,000 annually. 

“Our bosses’ ability to better serve our constituents hinges on meaningful changes to improve the shameful workplace conditions on Capitol Hill – from livable wages to a safer workplace and protections against discrimination and harassment,” the Congressional Workers Union said in a statement.

Tags Andy Levin Charles Schumer Chuck Grassley Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Cornyn John Thune Kevin McCarthy Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Nancy Pelosi Roy Blunt Sherrod Brown Steny Hoyer

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