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House votes to allow staffers to unionize

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Washington — The House passed a resolution Tuesday night allowing congressional staff to unionize, approving the measure by a party-line vote of 217 to 202. 

The move, sponsored by Democratic Congressman Andy Levin from Michigan, allows House staff members to form unions and collectively bargain, although it limits their ability to negotiate on wages and benefits. It only applies to staffers in the House, not the Senate. 

"The Congress has long been strengthened by the skill, dedication and patriotism of our hard-working staffers, who enable us to fulfill our legislative and constituent responsibilities," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Tuesday night. "The Democratic House is committed to honoring their service, while ensuring the Congress is well-positioned to compete for outstanding and diverse staff."

House staffers will be able to join a union, if they choose, but it isn't a requirement under the resolution. Congressional staffers announced they were founding the Congressional Workers Union in February. The group describes itself as a volunteer group of staffers organizing to unionize members' offices and committees' offices, with the "common goal of providing congressional staffers the right to organize." 

Congress approved the framework for Hill staffers to unionize when they passed the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, but never followed up by formally passing a set of regulations to allow staffers to begin the process.

Illinois Congressman Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, argued that unions aren't feasible for Congress because of the unique office structures — each of the 435 member offices act like a separate workplace — as well as frequent turnover and partisan changes. Plus, he said, it wouldn't address a chief concern of low staff pay, because that is forbidden by federal law.

"Union dues would just take more money out of staff's hard-earned paychecks without really anything to show for it," Davis said in a statement. "Unionization also creates potential conflicts of interest that could impact a member's constitutional responsibilities, including unique influence over members' development and passage of certain legislation, and political contributions to members using dues paid by their staff. As a reminder, under current law, congressional staff are not allowed to make political contributions to their employers."

The unionization resolution was approved shortly after Pelosi announced a new minimum salary for House staffers of $45,000. There had previously been no minimum salary. 

"These new steps build on the actions that I have been proud to take as Speaker to strengthen and diversify our Capitol Hill workforce, including establishing the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion to help open the doors to public service for underrepresented communities," Pelosi said in her statement Tuesday night. 

Entry-level staffers on Capitol Hill are notoriously underpaid in of the most expensive cities in the country, often preventing young people without access to family money from working on the Hill, and skewing the congressional staffer population to be Whiter than the rest of America on average. The lower salaries mean more experienced congressional staffers often leave for the private sector, where they can earn more, taking with them institutional knowledge that's supplemented by lobbyists. 

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