Working on Capitol Hill can be grueling. Many of the staffers for some of the most powerful people in the world make poverty wages—barely enough to survive in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Some junior congressional staffers rely on food stamps or have to take on second jobs and gig work to get by. They deal with abusive bosses, brutal hours, and demoralizing work environments, and they lack legal protections to organize and collectively bargain.
In February, a group of staffers announced the launch of the Congressional Workers Union, an effort to “unionize the personal offices and committees” of Congress members that they’d been quietly organizing for over a year. “While not all offices and committees face the same working conditions, we strongly believe that to better serve our constituents will require meaningful changes to improve retention, equity, diversity, and inclusion on Capitol Hill,” the union said in a statement. “That starts with having a voice in the workplace.”
Top Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden, immediately expressed their support. Michigan Representative Andy Levin, a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor and a former assistant organizing director for the AFL-CIO, introduced a resolution to formally recognize House staffers’ right to organize, which gained more than 160 Democratic cosponsors. A recent House Administration Committee hearing on Levin’s resolution also gave the organizing push some momentum.
Yet despite this apparent support, Democrats are dragging their feet on the issue—and aides are not buying their excuses. Congressional staffers have technically had the right to unionize and collectively bargain since 1996, under the Congressional Accountability Act. But the final step to formally authorize these legal protections was never taken, and aides have not seriously attempted to unionize until now, largely out of fear of getting fired or blacklisted. In 1996, a resolution that extended legal protections to the employees of some legislative support agencies, such as the Library of Congress, was introduced, brought to the floor, and passed in both the House and the Senate the next day. In the case of Levin’s resolution, it would only have to pass the House—no Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema to worry about.
“There aren’t really great excuses for why they’re walking so slow,” a member of the Congressional Workers Union organizing committee told The Nation. “If anything, they’re making it harder for themselves because it’s giving us the opportunity to agitate.”
A January survey by the Congressional Progressive Staff Association found that 39 percent of the 516 staffers polled had taken out loans to cover living expenses, and about half of nonmanagers said they’d struggled to “make ends meet.” The turnover among House staffers has reached its highest point in at least 20 years, according to a new study.
Last month, the House received a boost to the Members’ Representational Allowance, the pool of money that funds office budgets, including staffer salaries. “My chief hasn’t brought it up at all or discussed it with us,” another member of the organizing committee told The Nation. “We’ve had multiple staff meetings internally since that increase came through, and it’s been total radio silence.” The inaction has helped the union drive win over skeptics.
Republican lawmakers are largely against the push, but that hasn’t stopped some current and former GOP staffers from reaching out to the union, organizers said. At the hearing on Levin’s resolution, House Republicans previewed their union-busting arguments. “Not only do most congressional staff already have the benefits most unions fight for, voting to unionize congressional offices and committees would create serious problems and lead to even more dysfunction in Washington,” said Representative Rodney Davis of Illinois. He went on to say that a union “could create numerous conflicts of interest and impact members’ constitutional responsibilities to the American people.” Another Republican, Representative Barry Loudermilk of Georgia, insisted that a union would bring “several pitfalls” that could impact constituents.
Some Democrats are privately worried about using the MRA increase to close the pay gap among staffers; they also fear that the unionization drive could provide fodder for Republican attack ads. But mostly Democrats say they support the fight. Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland countered the Republican arguments at the hearing, saying that he doesn’t think the unique conditions of a Capitol Hill job represent insurmountable obstacles.
“We can design it the way we think we need to design it in order both to vindicate the interests of staff, to have a fair workplace where their interests are recognized and taken into account, as well as the paramount interests of the government in legislation,” Raskin said. “And I think we can do both.”