U.S. Capitol (275782)
U.S. Capitol Credit: Pixabay

“The results are in! Staff in @RepAndyLevin’s office unanimously voted to form a union, making it the FIRST congressional office union in the history of the U.S. Congress. 🎉🥳” the Congressional Workers Union (CWU) declared in a celebratory tweet on Sep. 26.

The CWU has been organizing Washington, D.C.’s congressional staff since July. Legislative workers had come together this past February to create the CWU—and they asked Rep. Andy Levin (D-Michigan) to draft a bill that would grant Capitol Hill staffers the right to unionize and collectively bargain.

That bill, H.Res. 1096, passed the House on May 10, 2022 and, after a 60-day probationary period, on July 18 staffers were permitted to begin organizing.

And now it’s the staff in Rep. Levin’s office who have formed the nation’s first unionized congressional office. Staff voted electronically in the Levin office union election and the next elections are set to take place in the offices of Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) on Sept. 28 and Sept. 29.

“It is with great pride we announce the landslide union election victory in Congressman Andy Levin’s office,” the CWU said in a press release. “While exercising their right to vote, the workers clearly and emphatically expressed their desire to bargain collectively and have a seat at the table to determine workplace conditions and benefits. CWU is ecstatic to support these workers as we move to the bargaining table and negotiate a contract representative of workers’ needs for the first time in congressional history.”

Legislative workers have been speaking out about the drudgery of the work their members have had to put up with: they are often tasked with helping politicians create legislative proposals, write speeches, and assist politicians as they provide services to people in their districts. Many legislative staffers say that a job whose profile promotes positive public service too often leads to their being stuck with low pay, long work hours, and occasionally abusive bosses.

House and Senate staff workers received raises this Sept. 1 after lawmakers increased their office budgets, but people of color and women claim they still are being paid less than their white counterparts.

Disparate pay for some, and low pay overall, makes for unhappy workers, legislative staff say. “Fairly compensating congressional staff, especially junior-level staffers, will help Congress

attract and retain a diverse and capable workforce,” notes the cross-partisan political reform group Issue One. “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. In these ways, better financial compensation for staff will both help curb the brain drain from Capitol Hill to K Street and guard against the undue influence of special-interest lobbyists.”

A recent survey by the Congressional Progressive Staff Association found that Capitol Hill staffers continue to find themselves underpaid for the work they do:

“● 47% of respondents reported that they find themselves struggling to pay bills or make

ends meet. This statistic was higher among non-management staff, reporting 50%

struggling to pay bills compared to only 36% of management staff.

“● Over a quarter, 27%, of non-management staff, 109 participants, reported not having at

least one month’s rent in savings in case of emergency.

“● 39% of all respondents reported that they currently or previously have taken out debt to

make ends meet.

“● 31% of non-management staff reported they have had a second job to supplement

their income. 30% of non-management staff reported that the demand of working

hours in their current role don’t allow them to have a second job.”

The CWU has so far only been able to organize staff in the offices of congressional Democrats, all members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Staff in the offices of Representatives Cori Bush (Missouri), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Jesús “Chuy” García (Illinois), Ro Khanna (California), Andy Levin (D-Michigan), Ted Lieu (California), and Melanie Stansbury (New Mexico) all agreed to hold union elections.

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