WASHINGTON — Aides to eight of the most progressive members of the House filed petitions on Monday to form unions in their offices, the first substantial action by congressional staff to organize collectively to bargain for better work conditions.
The move, which has been in the works for more than a year, paves the way for House aides to begin negotiating on working conditions, promotion policies and paid and sick leave without the threat of retaliation — a right that other federal workers already enjoy. It follows a resolution passed in May that granted congressional staff members such labor protections for the first time and took effect Monday.
Petitions were filed by staff aides to Representative Andy Levin of Michigan, who sponsored the resolution, as well as seven other liberal Democrats: Representatives Ro Khanna and Ted Lieu, both of California; Cori Bush of Missouri; Jesús “Chuy” García of Illinois; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York; Ilhan Omar of Minnesota; and Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico.
Organizers said they hoped the petitions were just the first wave of a far broader unionization effort across Capitol Hill, where Mr. Levin said 9,000 aides now have protection for collective bargaining.
“For far too long, congressional staff have dealt with unsafe working conditions, unlivable wages and vast inequity in our workplaces that prevent Congress from properly representing the communities and needs of the American people,” the Congressional Workers Union said in a statement. “Having a seat at the bargaining table through a union will ensure we have a voice in decisions that impact our workplace.”
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Union representatives said the petitions would affect 85 congressional aides in the eight offices that petitioned, though staffers are not required to join their office’s union.
The aides who filed the petitions will be the first test of how Congress, which is exempt from many workplace laws, will answer key labor organizing questions, such as who qualifies to be in a union.
The unionization effort on Capitol Hill has highlighted the tough working hours and low pay of congressional staff aides, a widely known phenomenon that is seldom discussed. The working conditions have contributed to a lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity as well as a revolving door of top staffers who seek higher pay and better treatment.
It has intensified amid a broader unionization movement that took hold as Americans re-evaluated their relationships with work after the pandemic began.
“The workers of the U.S. House of Representatives keep our democracy going, and it’s long past time that they’ve had these rights,” Mr. Levin said in a statement.
“Every worker deserves a living wage and a union, including in the halls of Congress,” Ms. Omar said in a statement. “None of the work we do in Congress would be possible without our tireless staff.”
The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights will determine if each office has an appropriate bargaining unit and then hold an election to establish a union officially. If a majority of workers vote in favor of unionizing, then the members can begin the bargaining process.
The movement gained traction earlier this year as staffers reassessed their workplace safety in the aftermath of the Capitol riot and workplace culture. Several stories gained visibility on a popular Instagram account, Dear White Staffers, that began as a venue for lampooning the lack of diversity on the Hill but quickly became a medium for staff members to air serious grievances and share their toxic experiences working on Capitol Hill.
A congressional union formed in February, and a majority of House Democrats signed onto the resolution extending labor protections. Under the resolution, bargaining units would be separated by representative or committee office, meaning no single unit represents the entire chamber.
Congress first voted to give its employees the right to unionize over 25 years ago but did not take additional action to extend worker protections to those who sought to bargain collectively, so the right was essentially meaningless.
Daniel Schuman, the policy director for the progressive organization Demand Progress and a specialist on congressional unions, said those protections could be fleeting, especially if Republicans — who typically oppose unionization efforts — take control of the House in the midterm congressional elections.
Mr. Schuman said the unionization effort is particularly important in Congress given that it operates by political cycle, with the majority party dictating who gets the top jobs.
“The ability to unionize is a 140-year-old mechanism by which public employees dealt with what used to be the spoils system that still lives in Congress,” Mr. Schuman said. “Having a stabilizing mechanism is essential to Congress going forward.”