The House GOP’s questionable attempt to shut down congressional unions, explained

Congressional Workers Union
Philip Bennett, president of the Congressional Workers Union, speaks during a news conference about the union outside the US Capitol on July 19, 2022. | Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

“We’re not going to stop”: Staffers are undeterred by Republicans’ union-busting efforts.

In addition to the myriad changes to things like proxy voting and committee investigations, Republicans’ new rules for the House include a less discussed provision: an attempt to gut staffers’ ability to unionize.

In 2022, House Democrats passed a resolution guaranteeing protections for staff who tried to unionize in the lower chamber. Since then, staffers in 14 Democratic offices have opted to move forward with the unionizing process, which is overseen by the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR). So far, one — former Rep. Andy Levin’s office — has completed it and ratified a contract.

Republicans’ new rules try to put a stop to these efforts, but because of the way they’re written, it’s unclear how much legal weight they actually have. Depending on how they are interpreted, they could potentially slow staffers’ attempts to organize and ignite legal battles over their rights to continue doing so. Whether this is the case, however, remains to be seen.

As outlined by the Republican rules, the unionizing regulations passed last year by Democrats would have “no force or effect” in the 118th Congress. That language, ultimately, may not be sufficient to actually stop staffers from organizing because it doesn’t change the underlying law that establishes their right to unionize or put forth an explicit new rule preventing such activities.

“I don’t think they are hitting the mark,” Kevin Mulshine, a legal expert who previously served as senior counsel at Congress’s Office of Compliance, told Vox. “It could be done, but I don’t think they are succeeding in doing it.”

The Congressional Workers Union, a group of staffers leading the House’s organizing drive, echoed this sentiment, noting that they plan to continue unionizing efforts. “It’s our understanding that this doesn’t have any effect on our current organizing or future organizing activities,” said Taylor Doggett, a spokesperson for CWU.

Even though it may not have an immediate practical impact, Republicans’ inclusion of this rule is still significant, however. By trying to roll back the progress staffers have made, the GOP is sending a decidedly anti-labor message that pushes back on unions in Congress, and beyond.

If the House GOP wanted to stop workers’ unionizing efforts, there are two ways they could decisively do so.

The first would be to pass a law that repeals the part of the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 that guarantees staffers the right to organize. That avenue, however, is unlikely to advance with Democrats holding the Senate.

The second would be to write a rule that explicitly bars unionizing in the House, says Mulshine. Republicans thus far have stopped short of taking this approach as well, and have not responded to a request for comment about the language they used.

As written, the GOP rule basically calls on OCWR to stop implementing regulations the House approved last year. Currently, staffers need to file petitions with OCWR if they want to unionize their office. Then the agency oversees a vote in that office, and if a majority of members are in favor, their union is recognized.

If the Republican rules were followed, OCWR could effectively ignore any new unionization petitions it receives, and refuse to oversee more votes. As Jim Saksa explains for Roll Call, it’s unlikely that the rule would affect unions that have already been recognized in multiple offices, including those of Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ro Khanna (D-CA), Melanie Stansbury (D-NM), Cori Bush (D-MO), Jesús “Chuy” García (D-IL), and Ted Lieu (D-CA).

Interpreting this directive will be up to OCWR, an independent five-person agency that includes members named by both parties. Exactly how they go about doing so is still up in the air, as OCWR has not commented on the new rules and did not respond to a request for comment.

Mulshine argues that OCWR has the right to simply disregard Republicans’ rules package and continue accepting staff petitions. “I would hope they would be robust in their response saying we’re an independent office, you can’t tell us what to do,” he said.

Depending on how OCWR responds, it’s possible that either Republican leadership or the CWU could take legal action, though neither has said they intend to take that step just yet. As Saksa writes, there is a lot of gray area in how the Republican rules would get enforced:

If [the OCWR] continued to oversee union elections, the speaker might sue; if they didn’t, the unions or would-be organizers might sue.

In either case, a federal court might decide it’s a nonjusticiable political question, leaving the legal matter unsettled.

All that’s to say that the impact of GOP rules against unionizing is still uncertain.

Union organizers are forging ahead

Union leaders emphasize that they’re not put off by the Republican rules package and intend to keep on organizing offices that have already started the process, or are interested in doing so.

In 2022, congressional staffers kicked off their unionizing effort in an attempt to push back against low pay, unpredictable hours, and hostile working conditions. Since then, they scored major wins when the House passed new protections that made retribution for unionizing less likely, and when then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi raised the pay floor for workers to $45,000. This year, they’re hoping to build on those gains.

“Our answer is that we’re not going to stop altogether,” Doggett told Vox.

Thus far, 14 Democratic offices have filed petitions to unionize, seven of which have been recognized. (Levin’s office is among those that have been recognized, though he’s since left Congress.) Those still awaiting votes include the offices of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MN), and Mark Takano (D-CA), among others. Other new lawmakers including Reps. Maxwell Frost (D-FL) and Chris Deluzio (D-PA) have also expressed support for the unionizing effort on Twitter, a sign that their staff could later be interested in filing new petitions.

Currently, no Republican offices have opted to unionize, a dynamic that could affect just how aggressively GOP leaders try to enforce these provisions, since their staffers haven’t been involved.

Whether or not these rules take full effect, union organizers argue that the anti-labor message they send is clear, making evident where Republicans stand on workers’ rights and protections, despite the party’s attempts to frame itself as an advocate for the working class. Republicans’ treatment of congressional staff is indicative of their attitude to labor overall, they say.

“I think it really goes to show that House GOP are interested in … taking away and stripping rights from workers,” says Doggett.

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