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Last month, the House passed a resolution that helps pave the way for its staff members to unionize. The measure essentially grants House staffers the same legal protections other federal employees have against retaliation if they do try to formally organize a labor union. Backers say it’s needed in part because of low pay and high turnover on Capitol Hill. But not everyone thinks it’s a good idea, including Suzanne Bates, a senior writer and researcher at Americans for Fair Treatment, a group that calls itself a union watchdog. Bates talked about what she sees as the downsides on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.
Suzanne Bates: This is a new thing, organizing political staffers. We’ve seen it in some campaigns. And now we’re seeing it in some state legislatures. And then Congress is kind of the big prize, I think, at the end. And so our concerns are that this is already a very political space. Unions are political organizations. They spend a lot of money on politics, including elections and lobbying, $2 billion by their own accounting last year. So I think this is just going to make Congress more political than it already is. And it may lead to some unhappy staffers, not to mention members of Congress.
Jared Serbu: We don’t have a lot of experience with unionizing among members of legislative bodies. But there’s plenty of experience at the agency level. A lot of those folks are in our audience right now listening, and I think they would probably bristle at the idea that membership in a union is affecting their work or influencing their work decisions. So what’s the evidence that this would be a problem in the legislative branch?
Suzanne Bates: Sure, we’re already seeing, I mean, we’ve seen unions in federal and state agencies trying to use their positions to gain a foothold on policy issues. The latest example is the American Federation of Government Employees. One of their locals that represents EPA employees said that during collective bargaining, they plan to ask for a climate emergency declaration by President Biden. That’s, I mean, that’s not what we traditionally think of as collective bargaining, right? We think of it as being just about what the employee needs, their benefits, their pay, their working conditions. So when you add in sort of the public sector, it adds another layer of politics, and it becomes more complicated. And especially if you see something like that, where a union that represents people, members of the bureaucracy asked for an actual policy change in collective bargaining, what does that mean, for Congress, right, where you’re already talking about political staffers? There was sort of this idea that there was a dividing line between people who work for agencies, like you said, and then people who worked in political offices, because, members of Congress, members of state legislators need to be able to be more nimble, perhaps in their hiring and firing decisions. This is going to change that. I mean, we really don’t have that much experience with seeing unions in a politicized environment like this, it’s going to be very different, I think, than what you see at the agency level.
Jared Serbu: And the EPA example, you just used, I can totally understand, disagreeing with the position the union took, there in negotiations. And EPA is free to say, “You’re crazy. We’re not doing that. It’s not your position to make that request in the first place.” But it’s hard for me to get from there to public employees should therefore not have the right to organize. Draw that connection a little more closely, if you could?
Suzanne Bates: Yeah, no, I’m not saying public employees should not have the right to organize. And especially, I mean, again, at the agency level, I think we have a history of that now, we’ve seen sort of how it plays out. I do have some concerns. I mean, we work with public employees who’ve been harmed by their unions in some way. And so in a public environment, it changes the dynamics a lot, because you’re talking about people who can help elect the people who they’re bargaining with, right? And so it just changes the dynamic versus a private sector environment where you’ve kind of got this natural tension between the bosses and the workers, right. It’s just a different environment in the public sector. But we’re not saying you shouldn’t unionize the public sector. But I do think, again, the political staff, it’s just a next level. So what happens if you don’t like what your boss is doing? Do you threaten to primary the member of Congress? Do you spend money in a primary? I mean, we already know that unions do spend money in primaries trying to get rid of, or at least they fund organizations, for example, the Working Families Party, which is mostly Union funded. Primaries, members of Congress and members of state legislatures that are, who are not progressive enough for them. So what kind of bargaining chip does that create in Congress, right, where you’re talking about your boss is a member of Congress. And so are you going to use that leverage? I just think it raises questions and concerns that don’t exist again, at the agency level.
Jared Serbu: In the legislative branch, I want to address the issue of referring to these folks as political creatures. Some of them certainly are. I mean, you’ve got tons of examples of legislative assistants and communications directors, et cetera, et cetera, moving back and forth between the campaign and the congressional office. There’s a lot of people too, though, that spend their time on policy stuff, especially at the committee level. Could you could you solve some of the concerns that you have by, I don’t know, narrowing the right to unionize in some way so that people who are more directly involved in the political side of things are restricted? Or let me broaden the question out even further, is there anything in this House resolution that you would change to solve some of the concerns that you have while allowing some kind of organizing?
Suzanne Bates: Well, so we don’t know yet what the scope of collective bargaining will be. And so that wasn’t addressed in this resolution. So there’s still so many unanswered questions. So I mean, there’s some idea that we won’t see bargaining over wages or benefits. So what will they bargain over? So I think if you have a very narrow scope, then potentially, but maybe something besides like, unions, again, are just such political organizations at this point, and where we are in America, that I just can’t picture introducing unions into the legislature and not having them create more tension and a more deeply partisan political atmosphere. So like, you’re talking about the committee staff versus an office staff, right. They’re also hired by political parties to run those committees. It changes, depending on who’s in control of the of the legislature at that time. So they’re political, I mean, that’s their function. Their function is to answer to political partisan members of Congress. And so what will it mean to introduce, again, a deeply partisan political organization into that dynamic? Will it change, if the Republicans take control of the House, will the unions not be invited in anymore? I mean, I think there’s just so many questions that are still unanswered about how this would even work.
Jared Serbu: The main rationale that’s been offered for why this needs to happen is really around wages. Congressional staff wages are incredibly low for the market that folks are expected to live in there. Are there other ways to solve that problem besides unionization?
Suzanne Bates: Yeah, absolutely. Well, that’s, I think, really the wages were really terrible. The fact that they had to set a floor at $45,000. And that’s gonna raise a lot of people’s salaries, just tells you that it’s kind of considered a stepping stone right to other jobs that pay better. It ends up being a lot of sort of young staffers, but I mean, I think most people think they deserve a fair wage, right. And unions are one way to get there. That’s what the unions want. But again, are they even going to be able to bargain over wages? That’s not even determined at this point. So are there other ways? Yeah, look, they just got a raise without unions, right? They kind of publicly went out there. They have these Instagram accounts that people have created to air some of their grievances. It sounds like some sexual harassment problems are a real issue in Congress. I think we’ve known that for a long time. There probably needs to be a better way to deal with those. But I think when they take these things to the public, especially this press, there’s so much media around them. And they’re, I think, really interested in what’s going on on the Hill. They have a sympathetic audience. And they’ve clearly been able to put pressure on their bosses and they’ve gotten a raise. And I think that that can happen again. Unions are not the only way to do this.