For years, Democratic politicians have enjoyed union endorsements and supported organized labor while many of their own employees lived in poverty, sometimes splitting rent with several roommates or working second and third jobs to support their early careers as assistants to leaders of the wealthiest country in the world. But encouraged by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s May announcement of a $45,000 salary floor, staffers in eight congressional offices filed petitions in July to unionize, bringing what some labor organizers have called a “Hot Union Summer” to Capitol Hill.
Talk of unionizing has been ongoing in Hill circles since early 2021, but it wasn’t until this past February that the majority of Democrats signed a resolution to grant their employees the same organizing rights held by the Capitol police department, the Architect of the Capitol staff, and the Library of Congress. The resolution received leadership support from Pelosi, who later brought it to a vote among her party in early May, just after establishing the salary floor.
Emboldened by this support, staffers filed petitions to form unions in the offices of eight members of the House of Representatives: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ilhan Omar (MN), Ted Lieu (CA), Ro Khanna (CA), Cori Bush (MO), Jesús “Chuy” García (IL), Melanie Stansbury (NM), and Andy Levin (MI). According to a spokesperson for the Congressional Workers Union, there are more offices planning to unionize.
“We were working with offices that had nearly full, if not 100 percent staff interest in signing the petition—non-management or non-supervisory staff, non-confidential staff, whatever it may be,” the spokesperson said. “We had an idea that they were going to be relatively friendly offices that had already expressed statements of support for congressional staffing unionization or are more generally pro-labor, in order to try to chart a path in which these first initial offices are paving the way and kind of setting an example in some ways.”
One of the main obstacles to unionizing has been educating staffers on just what a union can do for them, especially since strikes are prohibited by the organizing rules, as is leveraging collective power to push a congressperson to vote a certain way. “We’re thinking about salary, location policies and procedures about telework, sick leave, compensation time, severance for disciplinary and grievance,” said the spokesperson. “Those are our legislative policies that are solely focused on creating a better workplace for our members.”
Union membership has declined across the country in the past forty years, and some don’t associate organized labor with the polished world of politics. No Republican staffer would agree to speak on the record for this story, but each expressed a cynicism for the union, insisting that organizers were looking for excuses to not work as hard. But union members say the work is plenty demanding and the conditions are sometimes degrading.