Unions on the Hill

Congressional staffers are looking to organize.
Philip Bennett, president of the Congressional Workers Union, speaks during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, July 19, 2022 (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images).

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.

“It’s definitely no secret that in D.C. the conditions for working are deplorable. There are staffers who are working sixty- or seventy-hour work weeks,” the spokesperson said. “There are staffers that are doing job duties that are far outside of the description of their actual job description or even the ethical limits.” Not everyone who takes the job has a diploma from an elite school or support from a trust fund. “This resolution covers nine to ten thousand workers and not all of them are necessarily Princeton grads working in Nancy Pelosi’s office,” a spokesperson said. Some of them aren’t even college graduates. While some offices require employees to have a bachelor’s degree, many others don’t, and there are plenty of middle-aged Hill staffers working late nights and early mornings.

“That’s the cool thing—the older demographic does have more familiarity with [unions],” the spokesperson said. “This isn’t one of their first jobs. I’ve talked to some district staffers that have been union stewards at past jobs.”

‘This resolution covers nine to ten thousand workers and not all of them are necessarily Princeton grads working in Nancy Pelosi’s office.’

The union effort highlights a recent development in the contours of the Democratic party. Since the days of the New Deal, Democrats have supported unions because they claimed to value the dignity of workers, and in return, unions became reliable voting blocks. Their support gave Democrats a kind of kinship to the working-class voters it courted, differentiating the party from “country-club Republicans.”

In the 2016 presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders ran to the left of Hillary Clinton, with the support of the Democratic Socialists of America on a pro-labor platform that criticized the links between corporate donors and the Democratic establishment. Many Clinton supporters highlighted the identity of their candidate and the prospect of the first female president, while Sanders asked his supporters to “fight for someone they don’t know.” Though Sanders lost, his campaign cast the left wing of the party as an ally to labor movements and an enemy to the wealthy elite—his was the only faction willing to criticize Democrats for accepting donations from large corporations. 

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that three of eight offices that unionized—Bush’s, Omar’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s—belong to members of “the Squad.” Khanna is considered by some to be an honorary member, and Levin received an endorsement from Sanders in his primary a few weeks ago before losing. 

But Levin’s loss also raises questions about the efficacy and longevity of a union chapter that dissolves when its congressperson ceases to hold office. Staff members found in him a champion of workers rights, but now instead of negotiating for better pay, they’re asking him for a severance package. 

“Given the high turnover of members in the House and also the fact that you have to run for a reelection, that makes the team-Levin bargaining unit all more important in helping us set a precedent for what to do in these circumstances where a member decides to resign or they lost their primary or they retire at any point,” the spokesperson said. 

Organizers with CWU remain optimistic. Though the number of unionized offices may be down from eight to seven, there are plenty more staffers having these discussions internally. It’s unclear how fruitful those will be, though, if Republicans regain control of the House in November and the CWU is forced to work not with Pelosi but Kevin McCarthy instead. In the meantime, they’ll continue to spread the word at happy hours in the beltway, while they find out how far $45,000 goes and the Hot Labor Summer turns to fall.

 

Editor's Note: This article originally misstated the number of workers the Congressional Workers Union represents. It is, "nine to ten thousand," not "92,000."

Published in the October 2022 issue: 

Timmy Facciola is a reporter based in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

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