The union organizing wave that’s hit Amazon, Starbucks and Trader Joe’s came to a new workplace this week: the United States Congress.
Staff members in the office of Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) voted unanimously to join the new Congressional Workers Union, the group announced Monday. Levin’s staff is the first on Capitol Hill to gain union representation, following a vote by House Democrats to extend new labor rights within the legislative branch.
The union says staffers of Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.) will vote in additional elections later this week.
The union said in a statement that it is “ecstatic” about the landslide win in Levin’s office, and that it looks forward to bargaining a contract there.
“The workers clearly and emphatically expressed their desire to bargain collectively and have a seat at the table to determine workplace conditions and benefits,” the group said.
Congressional offices were traditionally carved out of collective bargaining laws, but Democrats, led by Levin himself, passed a resolution in May clearing the way for them to form unions. Because of the way Congress is set up, the workers must unionize office by office, rather than as one large bargaining unit, meaning some will likely opt for representation and others won’t.
The Congressional Workers Union has said that forming unions would be the best way to push for better pay and safety standards for those who work for lawmakers at the Capitol. Staffers say that many salaries are exploitatively low ― House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced a new salary floor of $45,000 in May ― and that staffers are subjected to discrimination and harassment.
As a member of the Congressional Workers Union organizing committee told HuffPost earlier this year: “There’s a culture of secrecy, and you have to pay your dues to make your way up the ladder. That’s really what allows these workplace abuses to fester.” Being without union rights left workers “in a place where we can’t fully address these concerns.”
Although some members may not like the idea of having to bargain with their staff, Democratic lawmakers could not have withheld collective bargaining rights from their employees without being called hypocrites. Democrats by and large are supportive of unions, and many have cheered on the organizing successes this year at big-name employers like Starbucks.
The House measure passed on a party-line vote over the opposition of Republicans. The Senate would need to pass its own, separate resolution in order to open the door to members’ staffers forming unions.
The fiercely pro-labor Levin comes from a union background, having worked as an organizer with the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO union federation before coming to Congress. He said passing the resolution on collective bargaining in Congress was a “major highlight” of his career.
Any union contract Levin’s staff can secure would be short-lived: The progressive lost a bruising primary in August to fellow Democratic Rep. Haley Stevens, after the two members were redistricted into a contest with one another. Levin’s term ends in January.
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