Staffers in the U.S. House of Representatives are a step closer to unionizing following a vote by their bosses on Tuesday night.
House lawmakers approved a resolution that grants legal protections to staffers who are trying to organize their offices on Capitol Hill. Workers involved in the union effort say it constitutes a crucial change to a congressional workplace law that would allow them to form unions without fear of retaliation.
The House approved the resolution on a party-line vote. But instead of holding a vote on the resolution itself, Democrats embedded it into a procedural measure setting up votes on several other pieces of legislation, including aid for Ukraine.
The staff union measure can be implemented in the House without a companion resolution being passed in the Senate. The measure only benefits employees in House offices.
House staffers on the Democratic side have spent more than a year building a union campaign they hope will improve working conditions inside Capitol offices. The newly created Congressional Workers Union has been sharing stories of employees who work ridiculous hours, contend with abusive bosses and discrimination and can’t afford to live in Washington on low salaries.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who supported the measure, said having unionized House staffers could ultimately result in Congress passing better legislation down the line.
“The staff people that I’ve talked to, in and out of my office, that are interested in the union are probably the most committed to public policy,” Grijalva told HuffPost.
Separately this month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced a minimum salary for House staffers, setting the floor at $45,000.
Workers on the Hill haven’t enjoyed the same rights to band together and bargain collectively as most other U.S. workers. Congress ostensibly granted Hill staffers the ability to unionize in 1995 through the Congressional Accountability Act, but lawmakers never took the crucial step of formally approving the regulations put together by Congress’ internal workplace agency to make it happen.
The measure the House passed Tuesday would protect workers who are organizing and set up a process for bargaining through the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a former union organizer and strong ally of organized labor, sponsored the House resolution and rounded up support among fellow Democrats.
Two members of the Congressional Workers Union organizing committee told HuffPost ahead of the vote that lawmakers had essentially exempted themselves from collective bargaining for years and that the House was now rectifying a double standard. The two committee members spoke on condition of anonymity because they still felt unprotected from retaliation.
“There’s a culture of secrecy, and you have to pay your dues to make your way up the ladder. That’s really what allows these workplace abuses to fester,” one said. “Without giving staffers the legal protections that other workers across the U.S. have, we’re in a place where we can’t fully address these concerns.”
If House members blocked collective bargaining in their own workplaces, that would suggest they feel that “they’re above the laws that they create,” the staffer added.
Unions have made some major breakthroughs recently. The union Workers United has won more than 60 elections at Starbucks stores around the country in a matter of months after Starbucks was union-free in the U.S. for decades. The recently formed Amazon Labor Union stunned the labor movement when it won a historic election at a Staten Island, New York, warehouse in early April.
Progressive Democrats have cheered on those developments and lambasted companies like Starbucks and Amazon for their anti-union campaigns. With the Democratic Party shifting in a more pro-labor direction in recent years, it would be hard for Democratic lawmakers to oppose their own staffers’ union effort without looking like total hypocrites.
One of the staffers said even some progressives won’t like the idea of bargaining with a union, but they’ll have to if they want to abide by their own principles.
“If you look at who signed on to the resolution, there were many, many progressive leaders who were not the first to sign on,” the staffer said. “I do think there’s public pressure that exists for those progressives.”
“There’s a culture of secrecy, and you have to pay your dues to make your way up the ladder. That’s really what allows these workplace abuses to fester.”
It remains to be seen what, exactly, collective bargaining will look like in Congress. John Uelmen, the general counsel for the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, testified in a House hearing in March that workers could unionize on an office-by-office basis, rather than being lumped together in one bargaining unit, according to Roll Call. Within committees, each party would have its own staff bargaining unit, since the unit members would answer to different leaders.
In all likelihood, the organizing would happen primarily — and perhaps exclusively — on the Democratic side of the aisle. Republican lawmakers have opposed paving the way for their own offices to unionize, and many of their own conservative staffers may not be interested in bargaining a union contract.
It’s also unclear what, exactly, staffers would be able to bargain over. The union committee members told HuffPost they want to have a say on everything unions typically do: salaries, the promotion process, discipline and grievances, severance, health and safety issues, and more. (Federal workers outside the legislative branch have collective bargaining rights, but under the law, they can’t negotiate over pay.)
The congressional staffers said they would consider any efforts to restrict their bargaining abilities as a form of union-busting.
“At a time when workers across the country are standing up and fighting for their own rights, we are looking to members of Congress, especially Democratic leadership, to stand up for them,” one staffer said. “For any of that union-busting to happen would be a sad, sad thing for our party.”