While congressional staffers‘ talk of unionizing its long-overlooked workforce has suddenly accelerated, they’re already crashing headfirst into the more complicated reality.
Buoyed by an endorsement from Speaker Nancy Pelosi herself, dozens of senior House staff, mostly on the Democratic side, are searching for the next steps for their union drive. But it turns out that many of the problems with the Capitol as a workplace — notably, that there are more than 535 offices, each of which sets their own policies — are some of the same reasons it would be so tricky to collectively organize.
While lawmakers approving a resolution to officially grant staff the right to organize is the clear next step, most employees agree where to go from there remains incredibly murky. Senior House aides confirmed that institutional lawyers are looking into the matter, acknowledging there are huge questions about what comes next. For staff, that includes how to keep union momentum in an environment subject to high employee turnover and whether senior staff could be in the same union as junior staff.
Meanwhile, the idea remains effectively a nonstarter in the Senate, where it would require GOP support.
“There are complicating factors, because of the way the House is organized — and the Senate — into 535, effectively, separate employers,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who said he supports the unionization efforts. “But we have to look at this very closely.”
The resolution, sponsored by Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) will be introduced Wednesday morning and will not elucidate details of what comes after lawmakers codify staffers’ right to organize and collectively bargain.
“It is very simple. It’s not anything about how people organize or what bargaining is,” Levin said about his measure on Tuesday. He declined to answer questions about how the union effort would move forward, saying: “The whole thing is to let it be worker-driven.”
Levin said he has talked to leadership but doesn’t have a time frame for a formal vote on the floor, especially with the House set to leave town Wednesday through the end of February. Hoyer confirmed Tuesday that the vote is a possibility.
But the real hard part would come after.
The actual organizing is far more complicated than passing a measure on the House floor, according to interviews with multiple senior House aides. It’s not even clear if staff could join an existing guild or if the process would force them into the unusual step of creating one from scratch. Many unions, including the American Federation of Government Employees the largest federal employee union, have backed the effort, but none have publicly stepped up to lead the Hill push.
And some House staffers are acknowledging their efforts could take years, prompting them to look at more feasible short-term solutions. Some offices are floating options such as an across-the-board “pay floor” that would require all offices to pay staff at least a living wage in D.C. Others say they want to push more offices to compensate employees for overtime work — an uneven practice across the Capitol.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), whose House campaign staff has already unionized, said she supports a standard “base” salary for all congressional staff, noting that her office pays no one below $52,000.
One of her top concerns about unionization at the Capitol is what would happen to staffers whose members don’t support unionization: “Does that mean that it’s acceptable for those staffers to be paid less than a living wage or have unacceptable work conditions?”
But, she added, the strategy going forward “is in the hands of a staff.”
Improving staffers’ pay and working conditions has taken on sudden urgency in recent weeks, as staffers‘ personal stories of meager pay and demeaning bosses have flooded a popular Instagram account called “Dear White Staffers.”
But efforts to improve Hill culture are hardly new: Many lawmakers have tried to tackle the problem for decades, including a relatively new effort by the House’s under-the-radar Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.
And some member-led improvements to workplace culture have been made, such as a new human resources “hub” for member, committee and leadership staff, since there is no centralized office. It offers sample job listings, salary and benefits frameworks, and even suggested pay “bands” for every job in a House office, though senior staff acknowledge that not every office realizes those resources exist.
House Administration Committee Staff Director Jamie Fleet briefed Democratic chiefs of staff on Monday about what it would mean for unionization to come to Hill offices, outlining those existing resources and reiterating the caucus’s support for staff unionization generally. Several people listening to the call acknowledged leadership staffers provided little clarity on how the process could work.
Several long-time staffers on the Hill said they’ve seen more enthusiasm for the idea than at anytime in recent memory. It was more than the anonymous Instagram stories, they said, also pointing to the pandemic and the violent attack on their workplace on Jan. 6, 2021, which put additional stress on what was already a high-pressure work life.
Still, they acknowledge there are several complicating factors, including the notorious turnover of Hill offices. The average length of a staffer’s tenure is just over three years, which could mean that some aides move on to greener pastures before a union is formalized or a contract ratified.
Then there’s the question about the size and scope of bargaining units, as well as who would qualify as “management.” Some chiefs of staff want to eventually be in the unit, despite serving a classic management role. While almost nothing is unprecedented on Capitol Hill, these efforts seem to have no apparent roadmap.
“I don’t think anybody wants to stop unionization. No one knows how it would work,” one senior Democratic aide said.
The chair of the House’s modernization committee, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), has spent years on bipartisan proposals to improve staff pay, diversity, professional development and retention. He said there’s sometimes a knowledge gap, particularly on such a massive campus. Kilmer and his panel are forging ahead, with or without a union, on what he called a “world tour” to get the word out to offices and committees about the new tools, “so that they can hang on to people.“
“We can start putting some tools in the toolbox for offices, so that they can recruit so that they can retain and so they can have more diverse staff,” he said.
And he stressed that the driving forces behind the union drive are not just about improving staffers’ lives, but also benefiting the people who seek help from congressional offices.
“These measures are not just good for workers. It’s important for the American people because the capacity of the institution to solve big problems is undermined when we, as an institution, can’t hold on to smart, talented people who know how to solve problems for the American people,” Kilmer said in an interview.