House OKs measure to let its staffers form a union
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Friday that the House would soon vote on a resolution allowing congressional staffers to unionize. Here, Pelosi takes questions at a news conference on April 29. | Jaquelyn Martin/AP

WASHINGTON—One of the least-visible important groups of exploited workers—staffers for U.S. House members and committees—can now go ahead and unionize, after lawmakers approved a resolution, needed under House rules, to let them do so.

Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., authored the measure earlier this year and lobbied colleagues to sign on, after he met with members of the Congressional Workers Union. It was tucked into a rule for debate on additional U.S. aid to Ukraine. That rule, in turn, passed on a 217-202 party-line vote: All Democrats for, all Republicans against.

The thousands of congressional staffers actually do much of the heavy lifting on Capitol Hill, a point Levin, a former top organizer for the Service Employees and Deputy Organizing Director for the AFL-CIO, acknowledged in a brief floor speech on May 10.

Staffers surveyed and those who spoke with Levin “shared bravely their workplace experiences, good and bad.” That record, including long and erratic hours with no overtime pay rights or other job protections, “clearly illustrated their need for the protected right to organize and demonstrated the sheer power of worker solidarity,” he explained.

The least lawmakers could do is “to grant them [staffers] a fundamental human right to organize and bargain without fear of retaliation,” and “honor and respect” their organizing drive, he added.

“For months now, the workers have been organizing in the shadows because they lack legal protections. It should not and does not have to be this way for workers seeking to exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of association.”

Congressional rules established in 1996 said staffers could organize, but only after lawmakers passed an official resolution to let them do so. The House has ducked an actual OK until now, said Levin.

Besides praising the staffers’ work for lawmakers and their constituents, he noted the staff has gone through two big traumas: The pandemic and the Jan. 6, 2021 invasion of the Capitol, which threatened people’s lives. Levin did not verbally link that coup attempt to former Republican Oval Office occupant Donald Trump, who egged the invaders on—or worse.

The union called the vote “an historic moment for thousands of congressional workers who have won basic labor protections to organize and bargain collectively without fear of retaliation,” even though no actual union recognition vote has been reported.

“For 26 years, Congress has had the opportunity to pass this resolution but has failed to act, until our collective demands were too loud for them to ignore. 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. Tomorrow, we continue the fight. Solidarity forever and onwards!”

Most House Democrats, including several who had been staffers themselves—such as Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Boston—signed onto Levin’s measure. A carload of unions and progressive organizations such as civic and church groups, plus the union-backed BlueGreen Alliance and MoveOn, backed it.

After the vote, the California Labor Federation tweeted congratulations to the House staffers, saying: “Historic vote last night. Now all eyes are on California. The CA legislature must immediately pass legislation to give Capitol staffers the freedom to join a union!”

Oregon legislative staffers unionized in 2020 with the Electrical Workers, the first such group to do so. The House staffers have not affiliated with any national union. Pressley said: “From Capitol Hill to Beacon Hill, every worker deserves fundamental workers’ rights including a living wage and essential benefits, a sustainable and healthy work environment, and the right to organize.” Massachusetts legislative staffers are not unionized.

And Levin noted afterwards that U.S. Senate staffers must separately get lawmakers there to approve a similar resolution covering workers for that chamber of Congress and its committees. His measure covers only the House.


CONTRIBUTOR

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 a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

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