Inside the Capitol Hill Staffers’ Unionizing Effort

CStaff from the Department of Government spend their weekends and nights helping to write and broker the U.S. laws. Most do this on low wages that don’t allow them to qualify for welfare benefits. And they’re sick of putting up with it.

While many Congressmen were on their way back home, 11 Democratic House staffers met up to Zoom for an informal meeting to discuss how they plan to unify both Congress chambers for the first-ever time in their history. The staffers, who represent the as-yet-still-aspirational Congressional Workers Union (CWU), have two goals. First, to convince both the Senate and House to approve resolutions that give them legal protections for unionizing. Second, they need to take advantage of the benefits unionization could bring to their situation. “It’s a privilege to work here,” says one staffer on the Zoom call, “but it shouldn’t be a privilege to earn a living wage here.”

Capitol Hill staffers’ gripes are not without merit. A recent analysis of 2020 data by Issue One, a nonprofit political reform group, showed that 13% of Washington-based congressional staffers—roughly 1,200 people—earn less than $42,610 annually. That’s the amount, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology living-wage calculator, needed to cover bare-minimum essentials like rent and groceries in Washington, D.C., the fifth most expensive city in the nation, where an average one-bedroom apartment rents for $2,444. Young people who come from working-class communities often can’t afford to take such low-paying jobs—which hurts their own careers and exacerbates the lack of low-income and minority representation in Congress.

Even though a small number of Hill staffers whispered about the possibility of unionizing since December 2019, momentum has been lacking. That changed in February, when top Democratic leaders, including President Joe Biden’s White House, announced they would, in theory, back a unionized congressional workforce. Within weeks, hundreds of staffers began to show interest in the CWU. “It had been snowballing pretty smoothly,” says one CWU member, “until that week created an avalanche.”

However, the road to success is difficult. One of the problems is that CWU member face legal risk. While federal labor laws protect most U.S. employees’ labor-organizing activities, Congress exempted itself from its own legislation, leaving Hill staffers without formal legal protections until the resolutions pass. Many worry about being fired and blacklisted. The CWU members have not been named because they are still waiting for the resolution to give them protection against employer retaliation. TIME confirmed their status as Congressional workers.

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The unionizing efforts create a problem in terms of political optics for Democrats, especially since it is primarily aimed at Democrats. Until now, the CWU movement was dominated predominantly by Democratic staffers. Only Democratic lawmakers support the effort. In a recent House hearing, Republican members dismissed the unionizing effort as a “solution in search of a problem” and an “impractical” one at that. But Democrats, who generally fund-raise and campaign on pro-worker platforms, are perhaps vulnerable to allegations of hypocrisy if they don’t support their own staff’s organizing. “Frankly, we are not, in many cases, walking the walk in terms of the way that staff are getting treated and paid and supported,” says Congresswoman Melanie Stansbury, a New Mexico Democrat, who supports the unionization effort.

There are valid reasons why lawmakers may be skeptical about a unionized Congress. The offices of Representatives and Senators don’t function like normal businesses that can raise wages and increase benefits according to market conditions; each office, instead, is provided a strict yearly allowance, which they use for most expenses, including mail, district travel, and paying aides. That model doesn’t leave much wiggle room to boost salaries. Each lawmaker’s office also operates independently, meaning that each must be unionized independently. A “unionized Congress” is, in reality, hundreds of discrete bargaining units.

CWU organizers say they aren’t intimidated by the significant hurdles ahead. With public support for labor unions reaching a nearly 60-year high and the Great Resignation reorganizing Americans’ priorities, now is the time to act, they say. Since congressional Democrats have failed thus far to advance any significant labor legislation to the President’s desk—including the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would bolster union protections for private-sector workers, or Build Back Better, which included some PRO Act provisions—supporting the effort to unionize Congress offers lawmakers an opportunity to make good on their pro-labor campaign promises. If it can’t act to legislatively protect U.S. workers, says a member of the CWU, “then the next thing that Congress can do to help the labor movement is to look at their own workers.”

The tipping point

It’s no big secret in Washington that Hill staffers are poorly paid and overworked. It’s not uncommon to see aides working at the Capitol past midnight or chauffeuring their bosses to the airport before returning to a tiny, overcrowded D.C. apartment. The past two years have made these conditions even more apparent. The terror and grueling COVID-19-related work conditions, combined with the fear of Jan. 6’s insurrection, fueled a deep-seated desire to see change. Aides began to reach out to each other to find ways to improve the safety of their workplaces in the weeks and days following the attack that forced legislators and staff to flee behind bars and evacuate offices. Three young aides called each other via FaceTime and discussed the idea of creating a union. The call was made in Rayburn House Office Building’s bathroom stall. One young woman, one of the aides, recalls feeling so relieved that no one else had called her. She cried when she finally hung up. “To be at a point today, where we’ve come from these dark moments is so exciting,” she says.

A year later, in early 2022, an Instagram account, @dear_white_staffers, which originated as an meme account bringing levity to the challenges of being a staffer of color in a predominantly white space, transformed into a Capitol Hill Gossip Girl of sorts: sharing anonymous, first-person accounts of lawmakers treating staff poorly to 80,000-plus followers and capturing the media spotlight. The posts, unaffiliated with the CWU organizing effort, were both hilarious and horrifying: multiple staffers claimed that they were required to “sign out” in order to leave their desks to use the restroom; another claimed their pay was docked to tend to their sick child, despite working ample unpaid overtime. On Feb. 3, reporter Pablo Manríquez, citing the account, asked Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi if she’d support a congressional union. CWU organizers seized that moment after Pelosi replied yes.

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Until then, their work had been underground, conducted via encrypted text and clandestine meetings, but the night of Pelosi’s remarks, organizers stayed up until 3 a.m. drafting press releases and creating social media accounts. Both Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, and Jen Psaki (White House press secretary) expressed their support within days. “None of us thought that this would happen at the pace that it is,” says one organizer.

It is difficult to see the future without a clear roadmap. Starbucks workers’ successful push in the last year to individually unionize seven Starbucks-owned cafés offers some guidance on how staffers might go about collectively organizing hundreds of independent offices. Because they work for a private company, though, Starbucks workers’ have more flexibility in bargaining over benefits like health care options and tuition reimbursement.

Bernie Sanders’ staffers’ successful push, in 2019, to unionize the Senator’s 2020 presidential campaign is also instructive. Like Hill offices, political campaigns don’t operate like normal businesses, and form and dissipate along with their boss’s career. All staff are fired if a politician ends their candidacy. In May 2019, his staffers achieved, through both good-faith negotiations with management and pressure tactics by engaging with press—a first-of-its-kind ratified union contract agreement granting them defined salary bands and guaranteed time off, which, according to former campaign manager Faiz Shakir, ultimately made the campaign operate more efficiently.

Both of these are imperfect analogies. Hill employees would, in contrast to campaign workers or Starbucks, be prohibited by federal law form picketing and work stoppages if they unionized their offices.

The entire institution is supported

But Congress’s uniqueness is also what makes the effort so critical, organizers say. Low pay and grueling hours aren’t just dispiriting for individuals; they fuel the brain drain that has contributed to Congress’s crippling lack of institutional knowledge. Staffers are incentivized to “become the lobbyists that the next staffer who has no institutional expertise has to rely on,” says a CWU member. This cements government’s “built-in reliance on lobbyists” to navigate complex policy issues. According to New America, a liberal think tank, the Capitol Hill staff average tenure was three years. 43% of the staff plan to seek employment in the private sector after they leave the Hill. Combining economic and dual stress of Jan. 6 and COVID-19, the rush for the exits was likely to have been exacerbated. LegiStorm data shows that House staff left at the fastest rate for at least 20 years in 2021. LegiStorm is a platform which compiles congressional data. Last year’s attrition rate was 55% higher than in 2020.

Demanding working conditions and meager wages also mean that staff jobs generally go to “people who are privileged,” says James Jones, an associate professor at Rutgers University and the author of the forthcoming book The Last Plantation: Racism within the Halls of Congress A 2020 report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank, found that 89% of top Senate aides—chiefs of staff, policy chiefs, and communications directors—are white. 81% of House aides are white.

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That lack of racial diversity is bad for Congress’s ability to craft legislation on issues like criminal justice reform, home lending laws, and healthcare that take into account the unique circumstances of marginalized populations, Jones says. But it’s also bad for the rest of Washington, which relies on Congress “as a credentialing institution.” “You spend a few years on Capitol Hill, but that experience gives you a license to work in many other elite workplaces, like the White House or the Supreme Court,” Jones says. Top political figures such as Senator McConnell, Vice President Kamala Harris and the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were able to get into Hill positions in their early careers. Or, in other words, the organizers believe that making Congress a better place to work can pay dividends for American democracy.

“It’s difficult when the only people who can afford to work in Congress either have come from a place of privilege, end up marrying a lobbyist or are literally struggling to make ends meet,” says one of the CWU organizers.

Changing this dynamic was what brought together the CWU organizers in the first instance. But they can’t do it on their own. In order to officially introduce it, they needed to find a member to attach his or her name.

Territories uncharted

The CWU employees had, in months leading up to the Pelosi press conferences, identified Andy Levin as a possible candidate. He and his team began communicating via text and telephone calls with them about how they could make the most of the opportunity. “The staff came to me because they knew that I would understand that this isn’t about us,” Levin says, “and it isn’t about what headaches it might cause.”

Levin is familiar with this situation. He was a Williams College student in the 1980s. During a strange wave of scurrying on college campuses, Levin organized a petition requesting that college officials select a less labor-intensive manufacturer to make graduation caps and gowns. This would avoid him crossing picket lines at the old factory. If the administration didn’t comply, Levin’s petition floated what he describes as a “cheeky” threat: the senior class would show up “disrobed” to the graduation ceremony. Levin’s goal was achieved. The school switched manufacturers—and Levin became a lifelong labor advocate, eventually working for SEIU, AFL-CIO and consulting Clinton-era labor Secretary Robert Reich.

So it was not surprising that Levin introduced the union resolution for the Congressional staffers, on February 9. But the pathway to a Congressional staffers’ union actually goes back 27 years, when Republican Senator Chuck Grassley introduced the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act (CAA). This legislation was introduced to expand workplace safety standards as well as labor rights that individuals working in the private and public sectors enjoy for Capitol staffers. The union protections in the CAA would not have been extended to legislative staffers if the two chambers had not voted for the final regulations of what is now the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights. Neither chamber moved to adopt the regulations, leaving them in limbo—until Levin introduced his resolution attempting to codify them last month.

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Barriers remain. For the resolution to be passed, 217 votes would have been required. But only 165 Democrats are co-sponsors. CWU members feel particularly frustrated that 55 House Democrats voted in favor of unionization within the private sector using the PRO Act. But, so far they haven’t signed up for protections to their employees.

Before the resolution can be moved from the Committee on House Administration onto the floor, technical problems must be addressed. The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights has identified a problem with the way Levin’s resolution is worded, says a source familiar with the committee’s deliberations. “Essentially, it does not do what it would purport to do,” the source says. “That needs to be fixed.” The source adds that a solution to the problem should be identified in “the next few weeks.”

The Senate is less hopeful. Senator Sherrod Brown said he planned to introduce a Senate resolution after Levin’s House version, in order to extend the legal protections to Senate staffers, but he has not yet done so. Even if he did, it would have very little chance of passing the Senate’s 60-vote threshold. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin expressed doubts about the ability of unionized Senate staff to work, while no Republican Senators publicly supported the effort.

But as the resolutions stall, the staffers’ ambitions have not. In March, Congress passed an appropriations bill increasing House members’ office allowances by 21%—the largest increase in the MRA appropriation since its authorization in 1996. CWU members have since advised several staffers on how to advocate for salary increases tied to the boost—a small victory, but one that gives purpose. “I feel proud to be a Hill staffer,” says one, “for the first time in a long time. Potentially ever.”

By reporting Mariah Espada/Washington

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