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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with staffers.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and staff members arrive at a press conference with Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) on February 6, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Progressive Lawmakers Back Union Push by Hill Staffers

With low pay and toxic work environments in many offices, said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Congress "sounds like a perfect place for a union."

Julia Conley

Progressives in Congress offered their full-throated support to Capitol Hill staffers as they launched a unionization effort on Friday, with several lawmakers acknowledging that low pay and poor treatment are common in many congressional offices.

"I'm proud to pay my staff a living wage and offer the most generous benefits Congress has to offer," tweeted Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.). "But that's the exception. That's why we need to allow congressional staff to unionize."

Following numerous anonymous social media posts by Hill staffers about racial and gender discrimination at work and struggling to afford essentials in Washington, D.C.—among the most expensive cities in the U.S.—the newly-formed Congressional Workers Union publicly announced Friday that workers plan to organize individual offices of lawmakers as well as congressional committees to join the union.

The staffers are unionizing "in solidarity with our fellow workers across the United States and the world," said the group.

"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," organizers said. "That starts with having a voice in the workplace."

The statement was released a day after Drew Hammill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) deputy chief of staff, tweeted that the Democratic leader would support staffers' efforts to organize their workplace.

Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a former organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), was among the first lawmakers on Friday to offer his support after the union released its statement.

A report released last month by the Congressional Progressive Staff Association found that out of more than 500 staffers who responded, nearly half struggle to pay their monthly bills, 85% believe Congress is a "toxic work environment," and more than a quarter do not have at least one month's rent in savings in case of an emergency. More than 90% of the respondents said they wanted more protections at work.

On social media, staffers have posted anonymous accounts in recent years—with activity on an Instagram account called "Dear White Staffers" increasing last month—detailing abusive treatment by some lawmakers, compensation low enough for workers to qualify for SNAP benefits and housing assistance, and high turnover on Capitol Hill.

Congress, tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), "sounds like the perfect place for a union."

Ocasio-Cortez announced after taking office in 2019 that her staff members would be paid a minimum salary of $52,000 per year, far higher than the median annual salary of about $38,000 made by entry-level staff assistants in 2020.

Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) were also among the lawmakers who expressed support for the Congressional Workers Union.

"I am in full support of this effort to unionize the very people who help serve the residents we fight for," tweeted Tlaib. "Let's get it done."

To recognize the workers' union, the House and Senate could each pass resolutions implementing provisions in the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act.

"It's time for Congressional staff to unionize and I'll do whatever I can to help them make it happen," said Bowman.

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