Staff working for Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) requested to be voluntarily recognized as a union in a staff meeting held today (March 8). The senator said yes.
This marks the first time US Senate staffers have formed an official bargaining unit, according to the Congressional Workers Union (CWU), which made history last year as the first-ever Hill staff to win a union election. According to the CWU, all members of Markey’s office agreed to submit the request.
Markey said in a tweet: “I applaud these workers who are exercising their right to organize, a fundamental exercise in democracy. I’m proud of their commitment not to agonize, but to organize. I recognize their effort to unionize and look forward to engaging with them.”
The Massachusetts representative, a long-time supporter of labor organizing, has previously endorsed unionization among his staff. In 2020, the 27 members of his reelection campaign formed a union—a first for statewide campaigns in Massachusetts.
An uphill climb for organizing on the Hill
Congressional staffers were only granted the protected right to unionize last year, when the House of Representatives passed a resolution to address a 26-year-old, stalled legislative process.
The outstanding issue dated back to the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, which had directed the Office of Compliance and Workplace Rights (then called the Office of Compliance) to issue rules for Congressional approval that would essentially greenlight the formation of federal employee unions.
That final step was left uncompleted for a quarter century. Then, CWU organizers stepped in last year, providing former Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) with draft legislation to tie up the legal loose end. Levin would go on to sponsor and introduce the bill, which then passed, granting organizing protections to House staffers.
Senate staffers, however, remain exempt from federal labor laws that protect collective bargaining. In order to be included, the Senate would have to adopt the same rules as the House.
Hill staffers are fed up with working conditions
One Instagram account, Dear White Staffers, has played a key role in revealing the grim details of congressional staff working conditions.
The page, which went viral last year, is curated by a group of self-identified “Congressional BIPOC shitposters.” It publishes stories submitted by purported congressional staffers that recount experiences of racism, harassment, exploitation, and financial difficulty while on the job.
The stories are anonymous, and therefore difficult to verify, but congressional employees have a well-documented history of suffering long hours for low pay.
A report released in January 2022 found that one in eight Hill staffers in Washington DC are not making a living wage. Months after the report was released, Congress set the minimum staff salary at $45,000. Congress also lacks a traditional human resources department, leaving wronged employees with one less avenue for recourse.
Unionization among Senate staff is a big milestone for organizers, but the movement is in its nascency. Upper house employees still lack the protections that have been secured in the lower house.
The CWU remains optimistic. As its site reads: “Senate, you’re up next!”