In a huge victory for congressional organizers, the House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a resolution that guarantees its employees protection from retaliation if they join a union.
This vote marks a significant shift on the Hill, where employees have had little recourse to fight poor working conditions, low wages and long hours. It is also a great victory for the Congressional Workers Union (CWU)a group of staff members that officially launched a union organizing campaign after President Nancy Pelosi voiced her support for union organizing in February.
Prior to Tuesday’s vote, staff members had the right to unionize under Congress’s Accountability Act, but they have long risked being fired and blacklisted if they try to exercise that right. . The new House resolution ensures they have a legal shield against this kind of backlash.
Now that they have these protections, House staffers can begin the process of unionization, even though the Senate has yet to pass its own resolution. Because of the way the Congressional Accountability Act is drafted, each chamber is able to act independently on the issue, with organizing taking place at the bureau level.
In the coming weeks, the CWU plans to play an advisory role, focusing on providing resources to staff interested in unionizing, while allowing individual offices to lead the conversation on what they would like to prioritize, said the organizers to Vox. Currently, the CWU and the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR) – a group that will be heavily involved in this process – have fact sheets on their websites that answer frequently asked questions.
“We are really looking forward to getting started and helping workers get to the bargaining table,” said a CWU organizer.
How would unionization work in practice?
Passing the resolution was an important step in the House, but it is only the beginning. Notably, things may not change for many offices that are withdrawing from the organization: while the CWU has attracted interest from Republican staffers, for example, its work has been driven primarily by Democrats.
However, those interested in unionizing will be able to act soon. After the vote, it will take about 60 days for the regulations to come into effect.
After that time, staff members can begin filing petitions to unionize with the OCWR if 30% of the people within a bargaining unit—usually a member’s office—support one. They’ll also have to decide who belongs in a bargaining unit: Anyone considered management — like a chief of staff — generally can’t participate, says Kevin Mulshine, a former senior counsel in the Congressional Compliance Office.
Senate staffers and those who work in both houses, meanwhile, will not be able to organize until the upper house also passes a resolution. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is expected to introduce a resolution in the Senate later this year, though it is considered more distant given the narrow majority of Democrats and Republican opposition to unionization.
Once bargaining units have filed petitions, the OCWR will oversee a formal vote within each. If a majority of people vote in favor, the OCWR can officially recognize the union and begin negotiations with management on a contract.
This contract could address a range of issues, including pay floors for an office, sick leave requirements and a more formalized overtime policy. Additionally, it could include anti-discrimination clauses that apply to how workers are treated.
In the event of a dispute, the OCWR would be responsible for settling them. Some have questioned, for example, whether staff members can negotiate over salaries, which Mulshine says is well within their rights.
Unionization could transform workplace culture on the Hill
A union would allow staff members to have a much wider voice on working conditions and change the power they wield in their offices, which have traditionally been heavily geared towards a member’s needs.
There is also hope that unionization can help keep people on the Hill, which currently has a high turnover rate, steadily losing talent to better paying jobs in the private sector.
A 2020 report from New America found that 65% of staff members were uninterested in staying on the Hill for more than five years, and many of those planning to leave were considering higher-paying lobby gigs after their departure.
“You need strong, knowledgeable Congress staff who are experts in their field, capable of deepening their knowledge. What you don’t want are people looking to leave after 18 months and go work somewhere else,” says Daniel Schuman, policy director at advocacy group Demand Progress.
Similarly, better working conditions could encourage more people to consider working on the Hill in the first place. Due to low pay, many staff can only accept these jobs if they have family support or a second job. Organizers hope that a union and the protections it offers will make these roles accessible to more people.
For now, it will likely be some time before bureaus start ratifying contracts and tackling these provisions. Tuesday’s vote, however, was a key step forward: The resolution is tough enough to overturn — and it guarantees those protections even if House control changes hands.