House votes to allow staff unionization

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The House of Representatives will officially allow congressional staffers to unionize, marking a milestone after years of workplace complaints on Capitol Hill.

Democrats helped shepherd the effort while passing several other bills Tuesday evening, including the resolution that was the necessary final step to protect staffers from facing retribution if they decided to pursue forming a union within a member’s office or a committee and bargain collectively.

Starting immediately, 30 percent of employees within an office can file a petition with the executive director of the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, who would settle any disputes between employees and management — a team that is likely to include the member, chief of staff and staff director. Once the issues are resolved, a majority of employees would vote in a secret ballot to officially consider an office unionized.

Staffers could then negotiate salary, promotion policies, paid and sick leave, among other measures. But they are limited on benefits that are established under law, including health care and retirement benefits.

“I can say without a doubt that here in the people’s house, we could not serve our districts without the hard work and dedication of congressional staff,” Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), who introduced the resolution, said on the House floor Tuesday.

The feat comes months after an Instagram page called “Dear White Staffers” began posting hundreds of anonymous testimonials about members of Congress and their office culture earlier this year, forcing a conversation about staff treatment to the forefront after years of it going unacknowledged. It also pressured congressional Democrats to take on the issue after championing themselves as the party for unions but failing to allow the option within their own offices.

While House staff will now be able to unionize, the resolution does not extend to the Senate. That chamber would have to pass its own resolution, which is unlikely to happen since it requires support from 10 Republicans to overcome the filibuster.

The 1995 Congressional Accountability Act provided a legal framework for House and Senate staffers to unionize, but it required a resolution passed by each chamber to formally allow the staffers of member offices, committees and subcommittees to do so.

The resolution was introduced by Levin in late February after the Instagram page became the talk of Capitol Hill. It quickly gained support from liberal Democrats and has 165 co-sponsors. Only 57 House Democrats did not sign onto the measure, most of them moderates who are facing tough reelection prospects in November.

The initial thrust of support gave the appearance that the issue would soon be resolved earlier this year, but it faced delays after the House Administration Committee held a hearing in March, with some members and staffers privately expressing concerns that implementation would be untenable.

A group of Hill staffers — who remain anonymous in fear of facing retribution — created the Congressional Workers Union (CWU) earlier this year to counsel staff on how best to pursue forming a union. They also publicly pressured Democratic leadership to hold a vote, writing a letter to them in late April that 100 days had passed since they initially pledged to support the resolution on the floor.

On Friday, Pelosi officially stated that the House would vote on the measure this week as well as announced a $45,000 minimum annual pay for staffers starting on Sept. 1. Lower-tier House staffers had long complained about making as little as $25,000 a year, a wage that makes it impossible to live in Washington, where rents have steadily increased.

The CWU celebrated the vote, acknowledging that they were able to hold members who have long championed labor rights to account. “Tonight is a reminder of the power of collective action and what the freedom to form a union truly means — democracy not just in our elections, but in our workplaces too. To our fellow congressional workers: today belongs to us,” the group said in a statement Tuesday night.

Each member office receives a yearly budget, known in the House as a Member Representational Allowance (MRA), that goes toward staff pay, member travel to Washington, office supplies and other official business. While the House was able to increase funding for the MRA by 21 percent in last year’s government funding bill for the purposes of retaining staff, individual offices have the last say on how that extra money is allotted.

The median pay for House staffers was $59,000 a year as of July 1, according to a House Office of Diversity and Inclusion report, with entry-level staffers making far less, often in the $30,000 range.

Beyond pay, staffers — who spoke on the condition of anonymity in fear of retribution from their offices — cited burnout and an early tense partisan environment after the Jan. 6 attack as reasons they view their jobs as a quick steppingstone to working as a lobbyist or moving into another industry where their DC experience is valued.

The frustration to retain talented public servants has not been lost on House Democratic leaders. Pelosi created the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which has made scores of bipartisan recommendations to improve staff development on the Hill, some of which have been permanently instituted.

She also made a decision last summer that senior staff could earn close to $200,000, which exceeds the legal base pay for members by about $25,000.

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (DN.Y.) had been pushing the 21 percent increase in the MRA for years and are now asking appropriators to allow for offices in the House to receive a 4.6 percent automatic cost-of-living adjustment and offer employees more child-care subsides, among other provisions.

Republicans, meanwhile, have remained critical of establishing the right to unionize, arguing that it is not the best course of action to improve staff pay and work conditions on Capitol Hill.

“While unions play a vital role in many workplaces, including throughout my district, they just aren’t feasible for Congress,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the Republican ranking on the House Administration Committee. “One of the main concerns of staffers is low pay, yet collective bargaining would not and could not address the issue, as federal law forbids this.”

Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), who chairs the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, applauded the steps taken by the House but acknowledged that more needs to be done to support staff, train managers and attract talented individuals to diversify its ranks.

“If we want Congress to be a place that’s capable of grappling with complicated issues and solving big problems, then it needs to be a place that can recruit and retain people who have expertise,” he said.

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