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Come on, Bernie

Why Has Only One Senator’s Staff Unionized?

Last year, the staffs of 17 House Democrats unionized. Things are moving much, much slower in the Senate—and now that the GOP has the House, things are weird there too.

Ed Markey
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Good on you, Ed Markey

Just over a year ago, the House of Representatives passed a resolution strengthening workplace protections for staffers looking to unionize their Capitol Hill offices. Unions have since formed in 17 House offices—all progressive Democrats’.

Progress has been much slower on the Senate side, where only one office—that of Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts—has unionized, back in March. “I applaud these passionate, dedicated workers who are exercising their right to organize through this fundamental, critical exercise in democracy,” Senator Ed Markey said in March after his staffers sought voluntary recognition of their union. 

Why has the Senate been so slow—aside from the general historical fact that the Senate is slow about everything? The House’s resolution, adopted in the last Congress, was authored by Michigan Democrat Andy Levin, and granted the House’s roughly 9,100 staffers the right to unionize if they so choose. The Constitution gives each chamber the right to make its own rules, and no such resolution has been adopted by the Senate, so the movement has been halting so far. 

The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, which advocates for workers generally but does not represent workers in union negotiations, said more is possible in the Senate. “A resolution similar to that adopted by the House may be introduced in the Senate,” according to OCWR’s website. But it hasn’t happened yet. In February, the Congressional Workers Union sent a letter asking for a unionizing resolution to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Rules Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar, Majority Whip Dick Durbin, and Senator Bernie Sanders.

Neither Schumer nor Durbin would say if a resolution was in the works for the Senate. Markey seemed to be caught off guard when asked for an update on the union movement in his office. “The union supporters are talking to my deputy chief of staff, and they’ve got a process they are working,” Markey told The New Republic on Tuesday. Any Senate resolution would require the support of nine Republicans to clear cloture, which means it’s nearly impossible. But that doesn’t prevent ideologically sympathetic senators from voluntarily recognizing a union in their office,  committee, or anywhere they employ workers in Congress.

Markey is a leading Senate progressive—the Senate-side sponsor of the Green New Deal. His embrace of a staff union raises the question of where other progressive senators stand. The New Republic asked them. Senator Sherrod Brown said discussions about potentially unionizing his office are ongoing. “I support a unionizing effort, if it comes to that,” said Brown. “I will always do card-check neutrality, but I’m not a lawyer. I know people are talking to lawyers. There is a prohibition on striking, I know, but I just don’t know enough yet.”

“I support protection for my staff if they want to unionize, but that’s not part of the current rules,” Senator Elizabeth Warren said on Monday. “If my staff wants to unionize, great! But I want to change the rules so that anyone who tries to unionize would be protected by federal labor law. Right now that’s not the case for congressional staffers.” 

Asked on Monday whether there have been any discussions in his office about unionizing, Sanders said, “Right now, we’ve got a few other things to worry about.” However, the three-term independent is on record as supporting legislation allowing staff to unionize, as well as voluntarily recognizing such a union. (After this article was published, a Sanders spokesman confirmed the senator’s position to The New Republic.)*

Back in the House, meanwhile, the progress made last term is very much on hold. The new GOP majority passed rules deeming that the Levin resolution from the last Congress has “no force or effect” in the current one. “It’s our understanding that this doesn’t have any effect on our current organizing or future organizing activities,” Taylor Doggett, a CWU spokesperson, told Vox in January. CWU declined to go on the record for this story, but The New Republic spoke with over a dozen current Hill aides, all from unionized congressional offices. None could say for sure what’s going on behind the scenes with regard to collective bargaining. 

“It does feel like the momentum kind of fell flat after our staff voted [to form a union],” said a chief of staff who declined to be named for this story because they are not authorized by their member to discuss personnel matters with the press. Senior staff from two unionized House offices said that the Office of House Employment Counsel, or OHEC—the opaque, controversial human resources entity in Congress that protects members’ interests—has been involved in employee contract negotiations.

OHEC reports to the House clerk. In December, as the first-ever union elections and bargaining sessions were getting underway in the House, the clerk’s office hired union-busting law firm Seyfarth Shaw for $28,626.50, according to the House statement of disbursements. While there is no public information on whether Seyfarth advised lawmakers on organizing and collective bargaining, OHEC is the only division of the House clerk’s office known to engage in legal representation for employers, Seyfarth’s specialty. A spokesperson for Seyfarth offered no details of the firm’s work for the House.

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, the former House Rules Committee chair who worked with Levin to draft the unionizing resolution last year, said she has no idea why collective bargaining efforts appear to have stalled in the current Congress. “I did what I could to make it possible,” said Lofgren of writing the resolution, “but I haven’t really followed the efforts since that time.” 

Prem Thakker contributed to this report. 

* This article originally mischaracterized Senator Bernie Sanders’s position on staff unionization.