Congressional Staff Unionization: Could It Happen?
Discontent is growing on Capitol Hill. But the issue is not taxation, or infrastructure spending, or how much Congress should allow federal overseers to regulate bitcoin. And the uproar is not coming from any constituents or lobbying group.
It is coming from the individuals who work for the 535 members of the U.S. House and Senate and the committees on which they serve. Congressional staffers. Weary from working long hours for wages that are eons below their counterparts in the private sector, chiefs of staff, legislative assistants, and press secretaries are threatening to unionize.
But how exactly would this work? The short answer is: no one really seems to know. As the branch of government responsible for making the laws, Congress frequently exempts itself from the statutes it creates, and, as a result, every member of Congress is granted wide latitude with regard to managing their staffs.
What’s Driving the Desire to Unionize?
Salaries, rather than long hours, seem to be the primary issue driving staffers’ complaints. And data tends to reveal there are is good reason for their discontent.
While the median annual salary for House staff was $59,000 last year, Issue One, a “crosspartisan” political reform group, found nearly 1 in 8 congressional staffers do not make a living wage. (For Washington, D.C., a living wage is judged to be $42,160 for a single person with no children.) Additionally, the average House staffer reported they had not received a pay increase in more than 14 months. As a result, according to Politico, it is “super common for congressional staff” to live in affordable housing (or housing for which they qualify for government subsidies because their income is too low to afford rent).
According to Roll Call, salaries have not kept up with inflation. Office managers, for example, earn about 25 percent less than they did in 2001 when adjusting for inflation. Executive assistants make 21 percent less. There also is a gender gap. Roll Call cited data from the Women’s Congressional Staff Association, which found the average gap between male and female staffers is more than $5,500 in the House and $7,500 in the Senate.
Democrats have tried to address pay concerns. The House-passed legislative branch appropriations bill for this year would increase lawmakers’ office budgets by 21 percent. In August 2021, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced House aides would be allowed to make more than lawmakers themselves. (Salaries for lawmakers, if they do not hold leadership positions, are $174,000. Staffers may now make up to $199,300, but, as noted above, most do not make anywhere near that amount.)
At the time, Speaker Pelosi said the change would “help the Congress recruit and retain the outstanding and diverse talent that we need.”
Outside observers agree. “Giving staff both the financial incentive and ability to stay in their roles and advance upward means that members of Congress won’t need to keep retraining employees and that valuable institutional knowledge will be retained,” concluded the Issue One report.
The Unusual Origins of Staffers’ Right to Organize
While many Democratic lawmakers — and President Joe Biden — quickly announced support for the staffers seeking to unionize, as long-time Atlanta Journal-Constitution politics reporter Jamie Dupree explained, it was actually former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) “who opened the door to unions in Congress.” But it was not Speaker Gingrich’s love of unions that drove that decision. GOP lawmakers simply “wanted Congress to taste the same federal rules and regulations” that businesses had to live under, Dupree wrote.
So what exactly did the Republican House do in the mid-1990s under Speaker Gingrich?
As the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR) explained, Section 220 of the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 “protects a legislative branch employee’s right to form, join, or assist a labor organization for the purpose of collective bargaining without fear of penalty or reprisal.” A union can be formed through “a secret ballot election among the affected employees.” The OCWR is charged with overseeing those elections. Staffers would need a simple majority vote to form a union. (One difference from the private sector: legislative branch employees cannot strike and “picketing of an employing office in a labor-management dispute is also not permitted if the picketing interferes with an employing office’s operations.”)
A special board actually ruled in 1996 that all Congressional staff could organize, but U.S. House leaders never approved rules for doing so.
Now the movement is picking up again. But how would it work … and could it work?
Can Congressional Staffers Really Make Unionization Happen?
The first step toward congressional staff unionization runs through the very people who employ these workers: federal lawmakers.
Before any union can be formed within the House or Senate, lawmakers in that chamber must approve a resolution to officially grant staff the right to organize. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) already has introduced a resolution for the House. That legislation currently has 144 cosponsors, all Democrats. Rep. Levin only needs the support of a majority of his colleagues to allow House staff to organize.
If Rep. Levin’s resolution is agreed to, it would set off a free-for-all, and the chaos could create disparities and confusion. That’s because it appears that staffers in each congressional office would have to create their own union — they could not work together to create a larger union. (As The Hill has explained, there is debate about this point.)
Even House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has acknowledged that this fact could result in problems. “It’s more complicated than the private sector,” Rep. Hoyer said. “It’s a complicating factor in that you have 435 … different employing entities.”
In addition to the 435 House offices, there are more than a dozen standing committees in that chamber. According to Roll Call, “There’s a chance that the majority and minority staffers on each committee could try to organize separately, which in practice would likely mean only the Democratic staff would organize.”
What happens if power on the committees shifts after an election? It would be up to unelected congressional officials. “If, for example, Democratic staffers for the House Appropriations Committee formed a union this year and then Republicans took over the chamber after the election, it would be up to OCWR, presumably, to decide whether the union would still represent majority staffers or follow the Democrats into the minority,” Roll Call explained.
That means, as Bloomberg Law said, there would be “a patchwork of unionized and non-union” staffers on Capitol Hill.
And that’s even before the Senate has had a chance to consider unionization. If senators do not take up a resolution similar to Rep. Levin’s, or approve it, it would mean House staffers could organize, but their colleagues in the upper chamber of Congress could not.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has said he plans introduce a unionization resolution, but has yet to do so. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he supports staffers’ right to organize, but does he have enough votes to get a resolution through the Senate?
No. A resolution to change Senate staffers’ right to organize would need 60 votes, an impossibility in a 50-50 Senate.
Sen. Manchin Could Stop Unionization, Too
Republican senators have made it clear they will oppose efforts to unionize staff. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has said the idea “is nuts.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has said it is “a terrible idea.”
But it is not only GOP senators who are resistant. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), that perennial thorn in his party’s side, “appeared skeptical” of the idea reported Yahoo! Finance. When asked about staffers’ organizing efforts, Sen. Manchin would only say, “I’m here at the will and pleasure of the people. They have a chance to change and things of that sort.”
While Senate staffers are unlikely to get unionization to the finish line this term regardless of Sen. Manchin’s stance, a victory in the U.S. House might not be durable.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who hopes his Republican party will be in charge of the House after the November 2022 elections, has said unionization would “not be productive for government.” If elected speaker in January 2023, Rep. McCarthy would try to reverse unionization.
But could he? Again, no one seems to know.
According to Bloomberg Law, “If lawmakers give staffers the ability to unionize, it’s unclear whether Republicans could take back that right if they win the majority.” That’s because former Speaker Gingrich’s Congressional Accountability Act “includes a provision on how to turn the provision on, it doesn’t clarify how it would be turned off.”
As a result, according to Politico, House staffers have acknowledged their efforts to unionize “could take years.”