House Staffers Can Now Unionize

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The House of Representatives on Tuesday approved, for the first time ever, allowing congressional staff to form unions. This will be an interesting experiment. How will the Democrats who spearheaded this effort feel about collective bargaining after they’ve been required to be the management side in a contract negotiation? Will it affect their opinions on the matter?

This will not be a case, as with most congressional actions, where lawmakers can just pass something and then let others deal with the consequences. That’s because each House lawmaker is technically the boss of his or her own staff according to the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights. Under federal labor law, that makes them the one with whom the union would have to negotiate for any contract. Lawmakers could not simply fob this duty off to their party leadership.

Some lawmakers might find themselves having to deal with two unions at once. Committee chairmanships are highly prized by lawmakers for the power and influence they grant. Part of that power is that committees have their own separate staff. If those organize, they will have to do it separately from the chairman’s regular staff. Only House staffers can organize, incidentally. The Senate would have to pass a separate resolution for its chamber.

Democrats might be about to learn what it is like far less authority over their own workers—for example, to no longer be able to demand that certain work be completed by certain deadlines. They might be about to learn what it is like to see budgets shrink as more money goes to paying wages and benefits, and what it is like to have to deal with accusations of unfair labor practices from workers. And unlike other small businesses, those type of charges will attract much more attention and have a much bigger impact on their image.

Presumably, some lawmakers will be able to hammer out contracts with a minimum of drama. It’s likely, though, that more progressive members will have the most contentious negotiations, as their staffers will most likely to know the ins and outs of the National Labor Relations Act. Republican staffers, by contrast, are much less likely to have come from households where unions were a thing.

Another interesting question is what will happen if Republicans regain a majority in the House. Would they roll back the collective bargaining rules? If enough Republican lawmakers have to deal with unionization bids, they might. If staffer unionization becomes a primarily Democratic phenomenon, the GOP might be inclined to let it stand. Sometimes solidarity is found in the strangest places.