House Staffers’ Union Effort Moves Forward, Open Questions Aside

US House staffers’ ability to negotiate key aspects of employment remains up in the air as they prepare to go to the bargaining table under newly granted union rights.

Capitol Hill staff are scrambling to define the boundaries of a resolution the House passed last month that allows them to unionize and bargain collectively. Senate Democrats have said they will do the same, but face much greater hurdles to adopting a similar measure.

The discussions have brought some of the biggest workplace issues—pay, diversity, long hours, and safety on the job—to lawmakers’ doorsteps at the same time they’re considering a sweeping package of pro-union legislation.

And although Democrats have criticized Amazon.com Inc.Starbucks Corp.and Apple Inc. for alleged union busting, they may soon find themselves facing similar scrutiny if they’re not careful.

Regulations from the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights will take effect July 18, and the Congressional Workers Union, a conglomerate of staffers who have been publicly organizing since February, said there’s a willingness to move forward.

“There’s a big difference between the perceived risk that some folks felt before the resolution was passed as compared to now,” said one of the staffers involved in the organizing process, who asked to remain anonymous because the labor protections haven’t yet gone into effect. “We’re building, we’re mobilizing, we’re talking to workers.”

As federal workers, congressional staffers have limits on what they can bargain over. Some of those guidelines are already established, while others are still up for debate.

One of the biggest question marks is the ability to negotiate pay.

Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), who’s supported the Capitol Hill unionization push, says compensation can be on the table—though some Republicans, labor law experts, and even union activists demurred, pointing to existing federal employee unions that don’t bargain over pay .

“It’s statutory that they can’t collectively bargain pay, but I would be surprised if pay wasn’t discussed and if pay wasn’t implicitly part of the deal,” said Dr. Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, a professor of labor and employment law at Indiana University Bloomington. “They can’t strike over pay or anything like that, but they certainly will be able to discuss the problem, and management will be aware of their interests.”

BGOV Bill Summary: H. Res. 1096, House Staff Unionization Rights

Existing Framework

The Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute of 1978 extended collective bargaining rights to most federal employees.

The law falls well short of providing the same rights as the private sector, banning federal employees from striking and bargaining over wages and benefits. Congressional workers were excluded entirely.

Nearly two decades later, Congress granted the same rights to a limited number of legislative support agencies, including the Capitol Police, the Library of Congress, and the Government Accountability Office.

What’s now known as the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights also was established to administer and ensure the integrity of the act.

In 1996, the office determined that congressional staff should be allowed to unionize and established rules for the process.

Republicans in control of the House at the time refused to adopt the rules, ultimately stopping the resolution in its tracks.

Pay-on-the-Table?

For decades, House staff on both sides of the aisle have complained that low pay leads to a brain drain at the Capitol, where competent workers leave for better offers at lobbying firms and trade associations. House Speaker Nancy Pelosic (D-Calif.) established a salary floor of $45,000 for House staffers last month.

The median salary for House staff was $59,000 in 2021, according to a survey from the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Entry-level workers, such as staff assistants, tend to make less than $40,000—well below the living wage in Washington for a single adult with no children, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Guidance the OCWR last updated on May 26 state that federal executive branch employees can’t bargain over salaries and benefits because those items are determined by law. However, “fewer” federal statutes cover congressional staffers’ pay and benefits, “which may allow these employees to bargain over salaries and benefits,” the frequently asked questions document says.

Just because House staffers can’t negotiate members’ budgets doesn’t mean they can’t negotiate compensation, Rep. Levin said. He said he engaged in informal negotiations with his own staff to establish a salary floor of $55,000.

A senior Republican aide on the House Committee on House Administration, the panel with primary jurisdiction on congressional unionization, disagreed. Already-established congressional unions, like the Capitol Police Labor Committee, can’t negotiate pay, the aide said.

Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America, said it’s unlikely congressional staff would be granted more union rights than other federal employees.

“It’s not going to be the same full-throated bargaining that you would have at John Deere,” he said.

But the congressional union could make progress in other areas, Cohen said, including requiring just cause for termination and limiting the hours staffers spend performing personal work for their respective members, such as chauffeuring and running errands.

The Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute, however, defines “persons” as individuals employed by an agency. Congress is not an agency, which means that the law’s pay and strike provisions don’t apply to Hill staffers, according to union lawyer Suzanne Collins.

“If Congress wants somebody to be able to bargain pay, they can just do that. It’s disingenuous for members of Congress to say, ‘well, the law says you can’t bargain for pay,’ when they’re in charge of the law,” she added.

Lingering Questions

Other issues also may arise during bargaining, like who qualifies as a manager and entitlement to overtime pay. Levin said the management question is something OCWR is prepared to tackle.

“This is not something that is a question of first impression,” he said. “They’re experts at this, and they’ve been doing it.”

The Congressional Workers Union said discussions are ongoing about unionization in the Senate. Levin said he expects a resolution will be introduced, though it would require a 60-vote majority to pass.

sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) plans to work on a resolution in the coming weeks.

“Our staff serve constituents around the country, and like all workers, they deserve to have a voice in their workplace,” Brown said in an emailed statement. “That includes the backing of a union, if they choose.”

It remains to be seen what will happen with the unionization push in the long term, the senior Republican aide said.

“It’s an open question of what this looks like next Congress,” the aide said.

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