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Congressional Staff Say “Cruel Ironies” of Their Jobs Make the Case for Unions

“We advocate for livable wages while qualifying for food stamps due to low pay,” they wrote.

Capitol Hill staffers wait outside a Senate weekly Democratic Party policy luncheon on February 15, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Congressional staffers are in dire need of unionization to combat long hours, low pay and abusive working conditions, members of the Congressional Workers Union recently argued in a new op-ed.

While congressional staffers work to secure better working conditions for the public, they face the same conditions they’re seeking to end, two Democratic staffers argued in an op-ed for The New Republic. On behalf of the 12-person organizing committee, which has been organizing for over a year, the staffers urged Congress to pass Rep. Andy Levin’s (D-Michigan) resolution, which would unlock a provision in a decades-old law that would allow staffers to form unions on an office-by-office basis.

The op-ed comes ahead of a crucial vote for the union, which is scheduled for Tuesday evening. Last month, the union had urged Democratic leaders to schedule a vote on the measure, which currently has strong support among the Democratic caucus with 165 cosponsors. The union is made up entirely of Democratic staffers.

“The cruel ironies of our jobs in Congress are hard to swallow,” wrote the workers, whose names were kept anonymous to avoid potential retaliation from their bosses.

“We advocate for livable wages while qualifying for food stamps due to low pay. We write speeches condemning corporations’ failure to protect against sexual harassment in the workplace, even as we too, lack sufficient recourse,” they continued. “We assure our constituents they’re being represented, even if we are the only person of color in the room. We fight for working families while questioning whether we can financially survive another year in public service.”

Low salaries mean that the offices only hire candidates who can afford to live in D.C.; as a result, opportunities often go to white people from privileged backgrounds.

“In 2020, 89 percent of top Senate aides and 81 percent of top House aides were white,” the op-ed went on. “If Congress is advised by workers far whiter and wealthier than the communities we represent, how can we ever hope to achieve our promise of equal justice under the law?”

Low wages are also causing a “brain drain” from Congress, as well-qualified staffers are taking better paying jobs in the private sector, often as lobbyists. “Collective bargaining will help Congress retain the talent it needs to serve the American people,” the staffers said.

The writers then asked lawmakers if they would live up to the principles they claim to uphold for the public by voting to pass the resolution. Last year, every Democrat but one, Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), voted for the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would make it far easier for workers across the country to form unions.

The staffers also detailed facing “abusive bosses” and working 60 to 70 hour weeks while having no room for recourse or seeking accountability. The abusive conditions became especially clear after the Capitol attack on January 6, 2021, which triggered psychological fallout among staffers — as one staffer told Roll Call last year, “When I see those members in the hallway or the basement, I think to myself that they wouldn’t care if I was dead.”

It’s unclear if Democrats will vote to pass the resolution, which was amended and approved by the House Administration Committee earlier this year. When workers first announced their union in February, many Democratic lawmakers voiced their support for the effort, including Pelosi and figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) — but conservative Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) essentially announced his opposition to the drive, and it’s unclear if there are lawmakers in the House that share Manchin’s anti-union opinion.

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