Unionization is Crucial to Improving the Workplace for Congressional Staffers
By Christian Collins and Juan Gomez
Workers have broken new ground in 2022 with unionization efforts nationwide, and their most recent victory in the halls of Capitol Hill is no exception. Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives took a significant step to advance labor rights by approving a resolution granting its 9,000+ staffers the right to organize through regulations provided by the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights. The resolution passed after staff-led efforts like Dear White Staffers (@dear_white_staffers) brought workplace struggles of Congress to light by sharing accounts from junior staff of racial and gender-based harassment and of the difficult financial decisions often associated with working on the Hill.
Staffers have advocated for collective bargaining rights since passage of the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995 but have faced decades of resistance from the offices where they work. Mirroring the federal minimum wage’s stagnation, salaries for junior Congressional staffers haven’t kept up with inflation or the reality of living and working in the nation’s capital, where the cost of living is 53.9 percent higher than the national average. The dismal compensation rates for junior roles in Congressional offices are themselves a large factor in the push to unionize. Median compensation rates at all seniority levels have fallen since the 110th Congress (2009-2010), but junior roles have experienced the brunt of salary decreases.
Nearly half of staffers surveyed by Congressional Progressive Staff Association said they struggle to make ends meet, and over 30 percent have either had to find a second job or taken out debt to pay their bills. In 2020, around 1 in 8 D.C.-based Congressional staffers made less than a living wage, with 70 percent of staff assistants failing to meet that benchmark. When factoring the low salaries in with the lack of workplace harassment protections, Congressional staffers are long overdue in being permitted to organize for improved workplace conditions.
The difficult work environment for staffers of color and low pay have exacerbated the lack of representation for many communities in Congressional offices. Although staff diversity has steadily increased over time, as recently as 2020 only 11 percent of staff in leadership roles in the Senate identified as people of color, despite making up over 40 percent of the U.S. population. Additionally, the high cost of living in Washington D.C., and the low starting salaries are prohibitive to individuals who aren’t wealthy. As a result, people with low incomes and who may have lived experiences of accessing public benefits or working minimum wage jobs don’t have the same level of influence over national policies on those issues. Better working conditions and higher wages will make working in Congress more accessible to those who aren’t wealthy or white and to support staff who not only know the issues their communities face, but actually prioritize them.
Unionization is a key pathway for Congressional staffers’ pay better reflecting the economic realities of living in the D.C. metro area. Being covered by a union contract brings higher wages to workers than in nonunionized workplaces, and high union density results in higher wages for workers regardless of their unionization status compared to areas with low union density. The power gap caused in part by placing junior staff in economic insecurity also leads to workers becoming more vulnerable to harassment and abuse. Unions have a suite of actions to assist staffers in confronting harmful workplace culture, which include:
- Educating workers on their rights and avenues to file claims
- Providing a supportive and confidential environment for staffers to share their experiences without fear of retaliation
- Providing effective representation that staffers can confidently count on for support in filing claims
Collective Bargaining Rights are Key for Staffers in Transforming the Capitol Hill Workplace Culture
Working within the halls of Congress has historically not protected people from experiencing the same exploitation faced by many in the country’s workforce, but the staffers who make up the Congressional Workers Union have taken the first step toward holding Congressional offices accountable to the values that many of them preach. By supporting their staffers through passage of the resolution, the House has also set a standard for statehouse staffers across the country facing their own struggles in recognition of collective bargaining rights from their respective chambers. The efforts of Congressional staff aren’t finished, as Senate and joint committee staffers are still seeking similar approval of collective bargaining rights through the resolution process. However, the end of traditional Hill experiences of overworked and underpaid staff may finally be on the horizon.