- The House of Representatives passed a resolution that gives its staff a green light to unionize.
- Each individual member’s office and committee will have to form their own unit.
- It’s a win for Hill staff who have advocated for greater power to improve their working conditions.
The US House of Representatives passed a resolution on Tuesday night allowing staffers to begin unionizing for the first time in the chamber’s 233-year history.
The vote was 217-202, passed with Democratic support and Republicans holding out. The resolution does not need to pass the Senate.
Should enough offices and employees organize their workplaces, it could dramatically restructure the balance of power between members of Congress — who currently hold all the cards — and their staff.
“This resolution opens the door for over 9,000 workers here on the Hill to unionize without fear of retaliation,” Michigan Democrat Rep. Andy Levin, the resolution’s sponsor and a former labor organizer, told Insider in a prepared statement. “I’m filled with pride to be able to deliver these results for employees throughout the House.”
Congress passed a law in 1995 that allowed its staff to form unions, but it required the House and Senate to first pass resolutions to extend legal protections to their legislative staff. Neither chamber had done so until the House passed its resolution on Tuesday. Some Congressional agencies, like the Library of Congress, are already represented by unions.
The resolution applies only to staffers for individual members, committees, and nonpartisan support offices in the House. The Senate has not considered a resolution that would impact its workers, and it’s unclear if it will do so before the midterm elections. The chamber’s filibuster rule could also make it difficult for any such measure to overcome Republican opposition.
The House resolution does not create a union for congressional staff. Rather, it extends legal protections to employees that would prevent their bosses from retaliating against them should they choose to form unions, effectively giving House staffers the green light to begin organizing in the open.
The Congressional Workers Union, which spearheaded the push for a resolution, praised the effort in an interview ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
“We want to ensure the next generation of congressional workers is able to have it better than we did, so that they’re able to better serve the American people and meet the needs of our constituencies,” one member of the Congressional Workers Union said .
(Insider granted representatives from the Congressional Workers Union anonymity due to concerns they could face professional retaliation for organizing. Their identities are known to Insider.)
The resolution’s passage will kick off an unprecedented process where staff in each individual member’s office, committee, and eligible nonpartisan office will have to form their own units. With 435 individual lawmakers’ offices and dozens of eligible committees, the process could take months if not years to play out.
The Congressional Workers Union, which currently operates as an independent union, will act as an umbrella organization to support each individual bargaining unit.
The staffers’ victory is the latest in a growing wave of unionizing efforts by Democratic employees to organize their workplaces, including campaigns, party organizations, and private political firms.
“We look forward to meeting at the bargaining table to negotiate the long list of improvements necessary to ensure livable wages, dignified work conditions, and equity on Capitol Hill,” Levin said at a press conference Wednesday morning, following the successful vote.
The state of the congressional union
Tuesday’s legislative victory was the culmination of a year of underground organizing from the Congressional Workers Union and their allies, who sought to win more power over their working conditions.
It also follows more than two years of anonymous accounts, published by the Instagram account Dear White Staffers, which detailed workplace horror stories from within the halls of Congress.
In February, the union organizers went public after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would support House staff unionizing in response to a question from a reporter. Shortly thereafter, the Congressional Workers Union began working with their allies, and Levin signed up as the sponsor for the resolution.
Levin confirmed to Insider that he had worked with the Congressional Workers Union to get the legislation through but declined to go into detail, citing the desire to protect the organizer’s identities.
Capitol Hill staffers for years have endured salaries starting in the low $20,000s, with many taking second jobs just to get by. The institution has few trusted avenues for recourse for employees who experience sexual harassment or other forms of workplace abuse; the possibility of getting blacklisted in politics for speaking up against a member or manager has helped enforce a culture of silence around bad behavior.
The Congressional Workers Union has included about 30 members, primarily Democrats, over the course of its existence. It began its efforts in the wake of the pandemic and the January 6 insurrection, which had a profound impact on the mental and physical well-being of Hill staff. Insider has reported on the widespread burnout and mental health struggles experienced by congressional employees throughout the last year as they reckoned with the effects of protracted pandemic and workplace issues.
The stress of that year seems to have taken a measurable toll. In 2021, Hill staff departures hit their highest levels in 20 years, and departures were up 55% from 2020 according to Legistorm, which tracks data about the Congressional workforce.
“There at some point in time, was this recognition that these conditions aren’t going to just change,” another member of the Congressional Workers Union told Insider. “Members of Congress aren’t just gonna wake up one day and decide to start paying their staff livable waves. That it was gonna require coming together collectively and demanding these changes.”
“And one way for us to do that is through a union,” the person said.
Are you a Capitol Hill staffer who is making an effort to organize your office or committee? We want to hear from you. Email the reporter Kayla Epstein at firstname.lastname@example.org