A Brief Recent History of Unionization in Congress

Working conditions for Congressional staff have recently been prominent in the news. News stories recount staff shamed by their offices for wanting to wear masks in the face of COVID-19 or being unnecessarily forced into their offices. Congressional staff are also significantly underpaid compared to their Executive branch (or historical) counterparts; their health insurance has been used as a political football; and they have less recourse when they’re subject to harassment or other mistreatment in the workplace.

The traditional response by staff to difficult working conditions is to unionize. But can Congressional staff unionize like their Executive branch counterparts?

To answer this question, we have to go back to 1995, when Congress enacted the Congressional Accountability Act, which was intended to apply to Congress the laws that apply to the rest of the country. One of its provisions was the right for Legislative branch staff to unionize.

The CAA provided for the right to unionize for some Legislative branch support agencies staff (like those in the Capitol Police, the Library of Congress, and GAO) upon the enactment of that law and the promulgation of regulations by the Office of Compliance’s Board of Directors. It also extended that right to certain congressional staff (personal, committee, leadership, and some support offices), but only upon the conclusion of a process set forth under Section 220(e) of the CAA.

Under Section 220(e), the Office of Compliance’s Board of Directors was to engage in a notice and comment rule-making concerning whether and which staff would be able to unionize — a process that was completed on September 4, 1996.  To the surprise of House leadership, a majority of the OOC board members found that no exceptions were necessary and that congressional staff should be permitted to unionize under similar rules as the Executive Branch, and promulgated regulations setting forth how this process would work.

The final step to those regulations going into effect was the requirement that a resolution be passed in the House (to apply it to House staff), in the Senate (to apply it to Senate staff), and via a joint resolution (to apply to the remaining Congressional staff). A joint resolution would have covered everyone throughout the Legislative branch. However, the Republican House of Representatives did not adopt the OOC rules and were furious at and surprised by the Board’s decision. The Senate declined to go forward in the absence of House action, although Sen. Grassley was incensed by the House’s failure and wrote a law review article in support of unionization.

This is where the matter stands today. The underlying law is in effect, the enforcement body is the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (formerly the OOC), and a regulation on unionization is in place. Many Legislative Branch support agencies allow their staff to unionize pursuant to the law.

What would it take to allow personal, committee, leadership, and support staff to be able to take advantage of the unionization law, just like their Legislative branch support agency counterparts? A single-house resolution would be enough to allow it for each chamber. The next majority opportunity for that to happen will be in January, when the House of Representatives enacts its rules package — which is a simple resolution.