Unionization would make Congress even more costly and inefficient

If there is one thing that could make Congress even more costly and inefficient than it already is, it’s letting (and maybe eventually demanding) congressional staffs unionize. So of course House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is all for it, as is Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

The Congressional Workers Union – which isn’t actually a union…yet – is made up of a small number of progressive Democratic staffers who want to begin organizing congressional and committee staffs.

Of course, many federal employees already have the option of joining a union. The Office of Personal Management lists more than 100 unions representing federal employees, according to the Federal Times

For example, there’s the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), which represents some 200,000 postal workers; the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) claims to have 313,000 dues-paying members and represents 700,000 federal and D.C. government employees; and the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE), which claims to represent 110,000 federal workers. 

But those wanting to unionize congressional staffs face several obstacles in achieving their goal.

According to Business Insider, Section 220 of the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 authorizes congressional staffs to organize. But the House and Senate must pass a resolution to allow the efforts to begin. Neither has done so. And whether either could do so in this hyper-politicized environment is an open question.

Moreover, each of the 538 congressional (i.e., House and Senate) offices and all the various congressional committee offices must organize separately. So, if one or both of the chambers passes a resolution, we could easily see a situation in which some (mostly Democratic) offices unionize, while most offices either vote down a union or never take a vote. 

Yet the Biden administration is determined to make it happen. President Biden signed an executive order last April establishing the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment. And the president appointed Vice President Kamala Harris to chair the committee.

Her committee just released a 45-page report outlining 70 recommendations “that, when implemented, will promote worker organizing and collective bargaining for federal employees and for workers employed by public and private-sector employers.” 

If Harris proves to be as effective at expanding federal unions as she’s been at handling the border crisis, we can all rest a little easier — about the unionizing. 

How a unionized congressional staff would work in practice is anybody’s guess. By law federal employees are not allowed to strike. 

Remember when nearly 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike on Aug. 2, 1981? Some 7,000 flights were canceled. On Aug. 5, President Reagan fired 11,359 of the air traffic controllers for refusing his order to return to work. And he prohibited the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) from ever rehiring any of them. 

But just because they can’t strike doesn’t mean unionized congressional staffers wouldn’t have options for imposing their demands. They can slow down their work.

I know what you’re thinking, but, yes, Congress could move even slower than it does.

Or they could quietly stage a “sick out,” especially in certain key congressional offices or committees that are facing a time crunch to finish drafting legislation or an analysis of it. 

Could must-pass legislation funding the government to keep it open get bogged down by some aggrieved federal Hill staff?

Staffers pushing unionization will be some of the most progressive people working on the Hill. And for them progressive goals and achievements are often more important than the country or the economy. 

Oh, and the Congressional Workers Union isn’t just demanding better pay, fewer hours and more benefits for congressional staffers. They want “meaningful changes to improve retention, equity, diversity, and inclusion on Capitol Hill.” 

My guess is this effort will never get the House or Senate resolution it needs to become effective. Because even though many elected Democrats proudly pronounce their strong support for unions, the last thing they – or the public – want is a more costly, more demanding and less efficient Hill staff. 

Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillMatthews.

Tags AFL–CIO American Federation of Government Employees Chuck Schumer Joe Biden Labor Labor relations Nancy Pelosi National Federation of Federal Employees Trade unions Trade unions in the United States United States Congress

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