On Friday, congressional staffers declared that they are unionizing, an announcement that was met with an outpouring of support from progressive and Democratic lawmakers.
The Congressional Workers Union has been in the midst of organizing efforts for over a year, they said in a statement.
“[W]e are proud to publicly announce our efforts to unionize the personal offices and committees of Congress, in solidarity with our fellow workers across the United States and the world,” the staffers wrote.
“While not all offices and committees face the same working conditions, we strongly believe that to better serve our constituents will require meaningful changes to improve retention, equity, diversity, and inclusion on Capitol Hill,” they continued. “That starts with having a voice in the workplace. We call on all congressional staff to join in the effort to unionize, and look forward to meeting management at the table.”
Organizers pointed to a survey last month from the Congressional Progressive Staff Association of 516 staffers, in which 91 percent of survey respondents said that they want more protections at work.
Congressional staff are often paid insufficiently to live in Washington, D.C. Annual pay for Capitol Hill staffers starts in the $20,000 range, and even workers making a higher salary say that expenses like childcare costs can deplete entire paychecks.
A recent report found that one out of every eight staffers isn’t paid a living wage, which is about $42,000 for an adult with no children in D.C., according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator. According to the Congressional Research Service, there were about 5,700 Senate staffers in 2020 and about 9,000 staffers in the House in 2021.
The announcement comes just after a spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) said that the Democratic leader would fully back any congressional staffers’ unionizing efforts.
“Like all Americans, our tireless Congressional staff have the right to organize their workplace and join together in a union,” spokesperson Drew Hammill said on Thursday. “If and when staffers choose to exercise that right, they would have Speaker Pelosi’s full support.”
Support from Democratic lawmakers soon followed on Twitter. “Congressional staff need unions now!” Rep. Andy Levin (D-Michigan) wrote on Thursday night. “Congress couldn’t run without them and I’m committed to supporting their voice at work.”
Progressives like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts), Cori Bush (D-Missouri) and Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) also chimed in.
“On Capitol Hill, interns are often unpaid, many staffers don’t make a living wage, and lack of work protections can pave the way for unhealthy environments,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “[S]ounds like a perfect place for a union.”
Last year, Ocasio-Cortez led a push from 110 House representatives requesting larger office budgets from the House Appropriations Committee so that lawmakers can afford to pay their staff fair wages.
“For years, pay and benefits for the staff of Member offices, leadership offices, and committees have fallen farther and farther behind what is offered in the private sector,” the lawmakers said. “At the same time, the cost of living here in our nation’s capital has risen substantially, placing opportunities such as homeownership, rental housing, and childcare out of reach for many.”
Because Capitol Hill staffers are paid such low wages, only a certain demographic can afford to work in Congress. Staff, especially interns, are often white and from privileged backgrounds; poorer people can’t afford to live in D.C. on such low wages, and often take private sector jobs that will pay more for the amount of experience they have. Recently, non-white staffers have taken to Instagram to post stories from current and former workers that expose poor working conditions within Congress.