zoom call with one speaker raising fist
Toggle caption Photo by James Steinberg for TIME

James Jones in TIME: "Inside the Capitol Hill Staffers' Effort to Unionize Congress"

This story originally appeared in TIME magazine

Congressional staffers spend late nights and weekends helping to broker deals and write the laws that govern the U.S. Many do so on salaries so scant they qualify for the welfare benefits they help legislate. And they’re sick of putting up with it.

On a Thursday afternoon in February, as many members of Congress were flying back to their districts, eleven Democratic House staffers convened for a secret meeting on Zoom to discuss their plan to unionize both chambers of Congress for the first time in history. The staffers, who represent the as-yet-still-aspirational Congressional Workers Union (CWU), have two goals. The first is to get both the House and Senate to pass resolutions granting them legal protections to unionize. The second is to leverage the power unionization would provide to improve their lot. “It’s a privilege to work here,” says one staffer on the Zoom call, “but it shouldn’t be a privilege to earn a living wage here.”

Capitol Hill staffers’ gripes are not without merit. A recent analysis of 2020 data by Issue One, a nonprofit political reform group, showed that 13% of Washington-based congressional staffers—roughly 1,200 people—earn less than $42,610 annually. That’s the amount, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology living-wage calculator, needed to cover bare-minimum essentials like rent and groceries in Washington, D.C., the fifth most expensive city in the nation, where an average one-bedroom apartment rents for $2,444. Young people who come from working-class communities often can’t afford to take such low-paying jobs—which hurts their own careers and exacerbates the lack of low-income and minority representation in Congress.

While a handful of Hill staffers have been whispering about unionizing since December 2020, the effort lacked momentum. That changed in February, when top Democratic leaders, including President Joe Biden’s White House, announced they would, in theory, back a unionized congressional workforce. Within weeks, CWU was flooded with interest from hundreds of staffers. “It had been snowballing pretty smoothly,” says one CWU member, “until that week created an avalanche.”

But the path forward is hardly easy. One problem is that CWU members face legal risk. While federal labor laws protect most U.S. employees’ labor-organizing activities, Congress exempted itself from its own legislation, leaving Hill staffers without formal legal protections until the resolutions pass. Many fear being fired or blacklisted. (The CWU members are not named in this story because the resolution that would provide them legal protections against employer retaliation has not yet passed. TIME has verified their status as Congressional employees.)

Read on at TIME.com