How Newt Gingrich Laid the Groundwork for Congressional Staff Unionizing

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The current effort by congressional staff to unionize builds on a legal groundwork laid decades ago by Republicans. In fact, the idea was championed by none other than Newt Gingrich, House speaker from 1995 to 1999. The conservative leader and ideas man thought that if his Democratic colleagues truly believed that unions were so great, then they should get them—good and hard.

Gingrich made it a top item on the reformist agenda he dubbed the “Contract with America” and he followed through on it. The first piece of legislation passed in 1995—after the GOP gained control of the House in nearly five decades—was the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA). The law, among other things, extended the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act to congressional staffers and gave them the right to form unions for the first time ever. Republicans argued that it was wrong for Congress to force other employers to accept unions while exempting itself from having them.

“This contract said that on the first day we would force Congress to live under the same laws as every other American and the fact is we passed that rule on the opening day,” a beaming Gingrich told reporters at a January, 1995 press conference. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), author of the Senate version, said the legislation was about “reestablishing credibility” for Congress.

Gingrich was not exactly noted for being a union ally during his time in office. Rather, he thought that forcing Congress to abide by the laws it passed would be an effective check on Capitol Hill passing new laws and a way of shaming Democratic colleagues.

While the CAA technically granted collective bargaining rights to congressional staffers, it also required the House and Senate to create formal regulations for employees in each chamber to exercise that right. There was no time limit on those provisions of the CAA, and the House and Senate don’t need to agree on unionization rules. Each chamber could pass its own rules by majority vote. Neither the House nor Senate has bothered, even when they’ve had a Democratic majority.

Maybe they have been reluctant because they realized how messy collective bargaining could get on Capitol Hill. According to the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, the entity charged with enforcing the CAA’s labor provisions, there could not be one union to represent all staff. Organizing would have to be done at each individual office or committee, because those are staffers’ direct employers. There would have to be different unions to represent Republican and Democratic staff. Overall, there are an estimated 10,000 Capitol Hill lawmakers who could theoretically unionize.

Thus, a lawmaker who was lucky enough to snag a committee chairmanship could very easily find him or herself having to negotiate with two different unions: one representing personal office regular staff and another representing committee staff. Committee chairs would probably also have to deal at least indirectly with the union representing the opposing party’s committee staff, assuming it exists.

Collective bargaining would primarily cover pay, health benefits, and retirement for staff. Most lawmakers lack control over how much would be allotted for staff. Congressional leaders would likely find themselves pressured to provide more staff budgeting

The most interesting question is whether congressional staffers will be allowed to strike. The CAA doesn’t give them that right—but neither does it say that they couldn’t. Even if staffers weren’t contractually allowed to strike, they still could engage in other actions that were tantamount to a strike, such as a “sickout”—all calling in sick one day. Would lawmakers who fancy themselves defenders of the common worker try to keep their office working as normal?

The unions would present tricky issues for staffers too.  Accepting a job working for a long-established lawmaker could mean staffers joining a union they didn’t vote for. On the other hand, under the CAA, congressional staffers could not be required to join the union or pay it dues, meaning that all offices would in effect have right to work status. This would lead to some turmoil within the office itself, if staffers who wanted a union resented the staffer who refused to join.

We may soon find out. After years of lawmakers rhetorically promoting unions, the idea has taken root with their staffers. Decades after the fact, Newt Gingrich may finally get his way.