Congressional staffers draw Dem, AFL-CIO support for unionizing drive
Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., speaks about the resolution he introduced on the rights of congressional workers to unionize during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 9, 2022. Mariam Zuhaib | AP

WASHINGTON —Hours are long, often erratic. Sexism is rampant. Pay is low when compared to earnings of similarly talented and bright peers. Firings without cause are common. Depending on individual CEOs’ preferences produces rampant racism. Many immediate supervisors, and some “CEOs,” engage in sexual harassment on the job.

Welcome to Capitol Hill, nicknamed “The Last Plantation,” by some staffers who toil there. They’re the workers who answer the phones, handle constituent requests, run errands, handle research, and actually write the legislation their congressional bosses pontificate about. Staffers often write the lawmakers’ speeches, too.

And when lawmakers engage in marathon 24/7 sessions, so do the staff—without overtime pay.

Now, having had it up to here, congressional staffers want their own union. They went public in mid-February with an organizing drive, after a year of volunteers working behind the scenes. And 130 congressional Democrats, marshaled by former top union organizer Andy Levin of Michigan, support them.

The Congressional Workers Union did not list an affiliation with any larger union in its organizing statement on February 4. But it laid out the reasons why, after collecting responses from their colleagues. It also cited a survey by another group, the Congressional Progressive Staff Association, which recorded 91% support for more protections and rights on the job.

“While not all (congressional) offices and committees have the same working conditions, we strongly believe that to better serve our constituents will require meaningful changes to improve retention, equity, diversity, and inclusion. That includes having a voice in the workplace,” their statement said.

Levin, a former AFL-CIO Deputy Organizing Director, SEIU organizer, and strong advocate of the Protect The Right To Organize Act, introduced House Resolution 915 to formally let the staffers unionize. He quickly picked up backers. The federation supports their organizing drive, too. The GOP? So far, not a word.

Levin explained that in 1996 Congress’s own Office Of Workplace Rights ruled a resolution is needed to give staffers get “legal protection to organize and bargain collectively.

“Twenty-six years later, we are finally taking that step…We could not serve our districts or states without the hard work and dedication of congressional staff, and we honor the staff-led efforts to organize Congress,” he elaborated.

“In recent weeks, congressional staff have shared bravely their workplace experiences, good and bad, clearly illustrating their need for the protected right to organize.”

The staffers have crafted and pushed the organizing drive and must continue to do so, ex- organizer Levin stated. Details of unionizing can be worked out after the resolution passes.

But it’s “about a simple proposition–that congressional staff must enjoy the same fundamental rights of freedom of association at work, to organize and bargain collectively for better conditions, that all workers deserve.”

That means, he pointedly added, organizing “without fear of retaliation”—unlike what happens in scads of private sector and many public sector workplaces. That resolution and retaliation ban “should have been done decades ago,” Levin said.

While waiting for the House to consider his measure, Levin urged other lawmakers to voluntarily recognize the union, if a majority of office staffers back it. “We have an opportunity to demonstrate our values of believing in the collective voice and power of workers,” he said.

“To the brave congressional staffers sharing their stories and speaking out for change: We stand with you,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a video statement. “You are demanding better pay and working conditions, and you have a home in America’s unions.

“Across the country, working people are standing up and taking risks, refusing to settle for business as usual. This national reckoning has now reached the halls of our lawmakers in Congress. And it’s about time. We will continue to be there for any worker who wants to join our movement and negotiate for dignity and respect on the job,” she pledged.

The resolution’s 130 cosponsors, all Democrats, include political heavyweights—committee chairs and the like—and House members who are unionists.

Some of those are School Administrator Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), National Education Association social studies teacher Jahana Hayes (Conn.), Unite Here Local 226 member Steven Horsford (Nevada), Air Line Pilot Kai Kahele (Hawaii), and building trades member Steven Lynch (Mass.). ALPA promptly weighed in with its own pro-union tweet for the staffers.

Some others are Musician Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.), Electrical Worker and former South Jersey Building Trades President David Norcross (N.J.), Painter Mark Pocan (Wis.), Electrical Worker Linda Sanchez (Calif.), Nurse Lauren Underwood (Ill.), and Teachers (AFT) member Frederica Wilson (Fla.).


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.