Behind every elected official in Congress, whether beloved or reviled, is an army of staffers and aides who do everything from writing bills to organizing meetings, politicking—and all too frequently, no shortage of objectively degrading tasks. Indeed, Capitol Hill is perpetually swirled by a storm of rumors of sneering Senators and capricious Congresspersons said to abuse their aides. Now, the staffers are striking back by attempting to unionize. In a recent letter to Senate leaders, the Congressional Workers Union called on Senators to pass a resolution recognizing the right of Congressional staffers to unionize. CWU representatives Courtney Rose Laudick and Taylor Marie Doggett sit down with TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez to explain the working conditions faced by staffers on the Hill, and why they see their unionization drive as part of the broader workers’ movement.
Taylor Marie Doggett is the Vice President of Communications for the Congressional Workers Union. Taylor is a staffer in the House of Representatives, the daughter of a former union teacher, and a proud Southerner.
Courtney Rose Laudick is the Vice President of Organizing for the CWU. Courtney formerly worked as a Policy Advisor for Congressman Andy Levin, and co-founded the Congressional Progressive Staff Association in Congress. Currently, Courtney is pursuing a Master of Science in Labor Studies at the University of Massachusetts Labor Center.
Studio Production: David Hebden
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Welcome everyone to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez, I’m the Editor-in-Chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us. Amid the wave of new union organizing efforts that have spread throughout the country over the past two years, driven by workers in different industries across the board, from fast food and service workers to exotic dancers, from tech and nonprofit workers to cannabis workers, an important campaign to unionize staff members working in the offices of congressional representatives on Capitol Hill has been building steam. This movement to unionize congressional staff workers began in the House of Representatives, but with the House now narrowly controlled by Republicans after the midterm elections, and with said Republicans being openly hostile to the very prospect of unionization for workers in general, let alone their own staffers, organizers within the Congressional Workers Union, or CWU, an independent union representing congressional staff of the US Congress, are setting their sights on organizing with their colleagues in the Senate.
As Jim Saxa reported in February for the publication Roll Call, “Labor advocates are pushing the Senate to recognize staff unions in the hopes of kick-starting progress in the chamber now that their house organizing efforts have stalled under Republican control.” The Congressional Workers’ Union sent a letter Thursday to Senate majority leader Charles Schumer, majority whip Richard Durbin, rules and administration chairwoman, Amy Klobuchar, and health, education, labor and pensions chairman, Bernie Sanders demanding a vote by the end of the month on a resolution authorizing Senate offices to unionize. “Many of us write and work tirelessly to advance the very laws that protect and promote every worker’s right to organize,” the group wrote. “We deserve those same rights. The institution of Congress should not be above the very laws it creates.” To talk about all of this and more, I’m honored to be joined today on The Real News by Courtney Rose Laudick and Taylor Marie Doggett of the Congressional Workers Union or CWU. Courtney is the vice president of organizing for the CWU. Courtney formerly worked as a policy advisor for Congressman Andy Levin and co-founded the Congressional Progressive Staff Association in Congress. Currently, Courtney is pursuing a master of science in labor studies at the University of Massachusetts’ Labor Center. Taylor Marie Doggett is the vice president of communications for the Congressional Workers Union. Taylor is a staffer in the House of Representatives, the daughter of a former union teacher and a proud southerner. Courtney, Taylor, thank you both so much for joining us today on The Real News Network.
Taylor Marie Doggett:
It’s a pleasure. Thanks for having us on.
Courtney Rose Laudick:
Thanks so much for having us here.
Well, I’m very excited that we finally got a chance to chat because as I mentioned, this campaign that y’all have been involved with has been going on for the past year and we’ve been keeping a close eye on it, but obviously y’all have crazy schedules, as do we. And I’m really, really glad that we finally got a chance to sit down and talk because I think this is a really important struggle within the broader labor movement that doesn’t necessarily get the same amount of attention that other organizing efforts have gotten. And I think we’ll dig into that a little bit in our conversation today.
But first and foremost, as we always love to do here at The Real News, I want to kind of start by centering people in the daily lives and experiences of the workers that we’re talking about here. So I was wondering if we could start by, if y’all could just say a little more about yourselves and how you got involved in this campaign and tell us a bit about what congressional staffers’ working lives are like. Most of us have never been staffers for congressional representatives, so we probably have no idea what the hell goes on there all day. But tell us a bit about what y’all and your coworkers do, what you go through on a day-to-day basis and how navigating those particular work demands translate to workers’ desire for a union.
Courtney Rose Laudick:
I came to the Hill four years ago, actually grew up in Michigan where my family is from, from a background of rank and file union members. My mom was union chair of her department when she was a high school teacher. My grandfather was in the teachers’, [inaudible 00:05:02], so was certainly raised with a lot of understanding of unions, but myself had never been in one. And so I sort of found my way to the hill. Post college, I kind of had an inspiration to get more involved in public policy and generally the fight for working people. And I think the unique thing is no one in my life had ever been in the Hill, so similarly, I had no clue what working in on the Hill was like or what a congressional staffer did. I wasn’t even aware that there were things called congressional staffers.
No one in my family has worked in the federal government. And so I was also in for a lot to learn when I came here. And I think through that process I sort of learned that it’s a really hard place to come work if you don’t have connections. It’s hard to get a job on the Hill if you don’t have a leg up because usually you’re coming to work in positions that you’re getting paid $30,000 to $36,000 a year and trying to work in Washington, DC and for me, moving myself from the Midwest to DC. And so I learned a lot in that process. And I feel like through my first year was really when I was like, “This just doesn’t feel like we should be accepting these sort of working conditions.” And when I would go to ask for a raise or advocate for myself, you’d hear the same story of a chief of staff sort of saying, “Well, I got paid $30,000 when I worked in DC on the Hill in the 1993. This is just the system in the place that you work. So you kind of have to [inaudible 00:06:47]-“
“I walked to school uphill both ways.”
Courtney Rose Laudick:
The same exact thing. And you’re like, “Well, I don’t know if that makes sense that you’re justifying it now in 2019,” or whatever, 2019 when I was asking for a raise. So I think you kind of come in this bright-eyed and bushy tailed, at least that’s how I felt about what I was going to do on the Hill. And then slowly got really worn down because of the working conditions and the long hours. And I’m sure Taylor has a sort of similar story.
Taylor Marie Doggett:
Yeah. I ended up many folks on the hill totally by chance and by accident. And it was a very fortunate accident. I was hired originally as a district staffer and moved to DC when a position opened up. But I knew nothing about what the day-to-day work of a congressional staffer looked like. I knew nothing about the grueling hours coming. It was a common refrain among my family like, “Oh, you knew what you signed up going there,” and I didn’t. I had absolutely no idea. And what drew me to unionization are the working conditions that I experienced in my first six-plus months of working on the Hill. I worked as one person completing job duties for what would normally be maybe three different staffers. I made $40,000. I was living in DC for the first time on my own. We were still in the midst of the COVID pandemic.
This was in the middle to later half of 2021, dealing with all the dangers of the public health crisis that come with that staffing in person during the Delta variant surge, the Omicron variant surge. And so there’s a lot about that experience that I found really radicalizing and was really jazzed to find this group of people kind of working under the radar, underground to organize and have discussions about what a union would look like in Congress and how we really were primed for unionization with these unspoken horrors that people experienced in Congress and how we could organize folks around the idea of advocating collectively for workplace protections.
And so it sounds like those unspoken horrors, that’s a great way to put it. It’s like there’s some that we’ve talked about already, the long hours, the hectic schedules, the low pay, and this is something that of course affects workers everywhere. I mean, we are in the midst of a cost of living crisis, not just here in the United States, but pretty much across the world. The strikes that are going on in the UK and across Europe are coming from the same place. People can’t afford to live, they can’t afford to pay rent, they can’t pay their energy bills, they can’t buy groceries, so on and so forth.
And wages in this country have remained stagnant for most working people for the better part of the last half century. This time last year, I believe, maybe a little bit earlier, I was down there in DC interviewing non-tenure track faculty at the famous Howard University, one of the most storied institutions of higher education in the country where the faculty who make a lot of that university run could also not afford to live in DC because DC is an incredibly expensive place to live.
And they were just fighting for basic living wage, much like you all. I wanted to just follow up though and ask if there are other sort of unspoken horrors that we haven’t addressed. I mean, I know that we’ve heard horror stories of workplace abuse, of verbal abuse coming from bosses. I guess I just wanted to ask a little bit more about that before we moved on.
Courtney Rose Laudick:
Yeah, I think as far as the unspoken abuse, I think the challenging part is these are members of Congress who are elected to represent people. And so there’s a question here of who is Congress held accountable to in a workplace. And for a long time, Congress was not even applying workplace laws that applied to federal agencies to their own staff until the 1990s, and for 26 years did not apply our legal right to organize and bargain until we demanded it last year. So I think part of it is this sort of culture of you’re supposed to see your job as something greater than just a job. And so you are there and you are getting to work with a member of Congress and it’s an honor. “And so it’s such a privilege in the role that you’re in. You should accept the working conditions and possibly the abuse that happens from senior staff.”
And because there’s not a lot of accountability and for a long time congressional staff were really deterred from speaking out because of blackmail or because it could destroy their career. You kind of just stomached the abuse until you got so burnt out that you left the Hill. And a lot of those staff were going to work for K Street to make hundreds and thousands of dollars. And now there’s an incredible brain drain in Congress where the experts who are there, who understand how to make policy, understand how to do the case work are now leaving. And so I think there’s just a broader system of that culture being bred into this workplace and creating a sort of top-down abusive structure where the incentive is to move up to get into the chief of staff role. So you can either get paid better or to leave, but the people who are doing that essential work are the staff assistants, the legislative correspondence, the case workers, so the workers, let’s say, of the center of Congress.
Taylor Marie Doggett:
And we’ve mentioned just now staff pay, COVID-19 protections, telework issues are something that a lot of staff are interested in organizing around, access and distribution to some of the benefits that are granted and statute to employees but maybe not distributed the same way in each office are other things that folks are interested in bargaining about. And I think one of the unique challenges of this workplace is each office or shop as we like to think of them, is its own little company or its own little fiefdom. And so these roles and responsibilities assigned to workers vary drastically within offices from office to office, shop to shop. And so it’s also about creating some sort of standardization for people to have expectations about their work, their employer, their compensation in a way that currently doesn’t exist.
And y’all already mentioned this sort of willful blindness to the barrier to entry for people who don’t already have connections to people on the Hill, to people whose families can’t financially support them while they’re making $30,000 a year in Washington, DC. This is a problem that we see in higher education at nonprofits, anywhere where interns are relied upon for providing cheap or free labor. Unless you come from a rich family, those aren’t going to be available to you. So you kind of have a built-in class discrimination, which also translates to built-in racial discrimination, yada, yada, yada. And I feel like the public is kind of generally aware of this because of pop culture. And so I just wanted to ask a quick, not to make light of this, but what I’ve heard from other folks is that a lot of people maybe think that our working lives are the West Wing. Everyone means well, everyone’s kind of professional, everyone’s there for the right reasons, but in reality it’s a little more like Veep. So I wanted to ask just quickly if that checks out for you guys.
Taylor Marie Doggett:
I have not watched West Wing yet, but I did start Veep a couple of months ago and it felt all too familiar. It is a workplace marked by chaos, and a lot of people enjoy and thrive on that adrenaline rush, but chaotic it is. And I want to speak to something else that you just mentioned about built-in class and racial discrimination. I think something that we like to argue is that the systematic entrenchment of those who can afford to work on Capitol Hill leads to policy discrimination in terms of who’s at the table helping make the decisions and helping inform and educate the members. So when we’re thinking about, “Is our workplace representative of the nation?” And if it’s not, then we’re not really adequately responding to the issues of the people.
So this is a really great and interesting point that I want, I want us to circle back to in the final round. But I guess before we get there, I wanted to talk a bit about the organizing drive itself. And y’all mentioned that as typically happens in a country that is very hostile to workers organizing right now, we all know the story. The country is sitting at barely above 10% union density, the lowest point that we’ve been at in basically a century. So a lot of that organizing does have to start underground, but then y’all came above ground and have been building the campaign ever since. So I was wondering if you could just lift the hood for us a bit and talk to folks, our viewers and listeners a bit about what that organizing looked like, what sorts of conversations you were getting in with other staffers and how it’s developed over the past year.
Courtney Rose Laudick:
Yeah. I think the really interesting thing about our case is we actually had to, part of the organizing drive was how do we get our bosses, who happen to be members of Congress, to pass a law which allows us to do what we’re trying to do and be protected. That being said, before that law passed, it wasn’t illegal for us to organize, but we didn’t have protections. We could totally be fired for what we were doing. And so that was part of the reason for why the effort was so underground. And I think it started, there’s always been whisperings of unionizing and we’ve heard of previous staff who attempted or started those discussions. So I think it certainly was a certain level of bubbling up. And then I think there was sort of a group of staffers who came together.
We talked to a lot of other unions about this as well. But of course because we didn’t have rights, because we are such unique workers, a lot of established unions were not super interested in taking us on officially. But we had a lot of allies within the labor movement who are helping us along the sidelines on a volunteer basis to help us really launch something. As most folks probably know, you can’t just Google how to start your own union on the internet. A lot of times it’s go call your teamsters. And I think the funny thing is we started this with this whole strategy of how we would get this resolution introduced and maybe we would push forward with voluntary recognition before we have rights in certain offices that wouldn’t fire staff. And I think with any or Organizing drive, you learn that the ground in the landscape changes underneath you.
And congressional staff through the Dear White Staffers account were starting to speak out just on this account through the month of January last year. And that really ignited the press to start looking more into these issues. And at that point we sort of understood we had to seize that moment. And of course then speaker, Nancy Pelosi spoke out in support of unionization and we knew it was our time to just launch publicly and seize the moment of here’s a really prominent leader saying that she’s going to support congressional staff, and if that’s the case, then let’s hold her to it.
And so now at this point, we are 17 offices. We’ve filed four union elections. We have eight certified units. We have yet to lose an election that we’ve filed for. And that also includes one senate office, which is different because Senate staff don’t have the same right. They have to have a resolution pass similar to in the House. So we’re doing a similar strategy of trying to push for that right while also establishing that a lot of Senate staff out here want to organize. And so it’s been taking a step back and actually thinking about what we did is crazy because I think in that moment it was just go, go, go.
We’re just going to push forward with strategy and see where things go. And now that we’ve sort of settled into a routine, I think we have a better understanding of what exactly we do.
Hell, yeah. And I guess, just to pull on that thread a little bit more, as I mentioned in the intro, we all know what happened in the midterms, so the expectation is that things are going to be slowing down in the House. But I just wanted to ask if you could say a little bit more, either of you, about where things currently stand in the Senate for folks who maybe are still trying to pass the nuances of how to make that work.
Courtney Rose Laudick:
Yeah. Last year we passed a resolution that allowed us to have rights as house staff. But because the chambers sometimes function separately when it comes to budgets and how their offices function, Senate staff were not included in that because the Senate needs to pass the resolution to apply to their own staff. It only needs to pass through the Senate chamber and then those staff will have protected rights. Of course, I’m sure many people have heard of the filibuster Senate needs 60 votes, and that’s a challenging thing to get over. Unfortunately, our rights are partisan. Of course, we believe that they shouldn’t be. Both Republican and Democratic staff have supported unions in the past and support working people. And this is literally just applying those same rights to the staff that work for them. And in fact, when this was sort of all set off in 1996, Congress passed the Congressional Accountability Act, which was about applying the same rights that apply to other federal workers to their own staff and making Congress accountable to the same laws they create.
Of course, the only law that they didn’t want to make themselves accountable to was the right to organize and bargain collectively, even though we know that’s an essential right to have in a democracy, it’s about having democracy in your workplace. So it’s certainly funny to see the institution meant to uphold democracy refusing to give their own staff that right. And so that’s something we’re really, really pushing on in the Senate now as we fight to help them, with Senate staff, get the protected right to organize. And I know we are not the only workers across this country who don’t have that protected right, that aren’t covered under labor law. So I think we just see this broader connection of this should be essential right for all workers regardless of where you work.
Hell, yeah. And like I said, we’re going to round out on that point. Given the delicate nature of this organizing, given that workers in these offices, because of these particular rules and lack of rights, are especially vulnerable, I don’t want to ask y’all to kind of give more specifics that may endanger people in their job, but I just wanted to ask in a general sense, are you hearing or seeing interest from folks working in Republican offices as well as Democratic offices? I guess is there more of a bipartisan rank and file desire for a union? Could you comment on that at all?
Taylor Marie Doggett:
We have had interest expressed to us from Republican staff, and we’ve seen interest in the staff and offices across the ideological spectrum in the Democratic Party. So I’d say there’s absolutely widespread interest across parties that we’ve seen. And as Courtney just mentioned, we are a completely nonpartisan organization. We want every worker to have a union, and oftentimes the staffers in Republican offices right to work members that are proponents of crushing union organizing are suffering under some of the same work conditions that staffer in Democratic offices are. So we’re always welcoming more interest from Republican staffers, from staffers from across ideological spectrums. We know that sometimes staffers work in offices where they don’t even necessarily agree with all of their bosses’ policies too, and they may be extremely more union positive than maybe the member that they’re working for. And a big project, a big part of our organizing effort has really been about education and just educating workers what a union is, what being in a union is, what a union can do for them, more broadly, where does CWU fit into the labor movement, the history of labor organizing.
And I think when folks are able to get that kind of education, that isn’t something easy to access, we’re not taught that we have the ability to bargain collectively. It’s really empowering and brings those that may be at first skeptical closer to the table, which is a really exciting opportunity. And we’re just really grateful to be capitalizing on all this energy and momentum at the same time as so many workers across the nation and across the world are in a variety of sectors. And just a huge, huge project of ours to make sure that Congressional Worker Union members see themselves as workers in complete solidarity with a slew of workers across the world.
Well, I feel like in that vein, this struggle is a really important test case for all of us. And I think it speaks to our commitment to the principle that every worker deserves a union. Every worker innately has and should have the right to organize with their fellow workers, advocate for their collective needs, bargain collectively with their employers, so on and so forth. And y’all are in a very tight spot because, I mean, the elephant in the room is that the vast majority of people in this country kind of hate politics and hate politicians. I mean, I say this as someone in the media whose job it is to cover politics. And I hate it half the time. And when I’m interviewing other working people, the general vibe that I get is just like, “We’re with workers, but fuck the people in DC.” Pardon my French.
So that’s kind of the atmosphere that we’re also talking about here. And I worry that folks out there may kind of take that sort of resentment, that very justified resentment that they have towards our political establishment and DC politics at large, and sort of use that as an excuse to not stand in solidarity with y’all and other congressional staff workers. But as we talked about, you still got to pay rent. You’re still working for a wage. You still have to deal with workplace abuse and all the other things that we’ve been talking about here.
So I feel like in one sense, we have here a really important test case for how committed we all actually are to that principle that all workers deserve a union regardless of where they work. But on the other side, Taylor, you mentioned something that I thought was really important, actually both of you did at one point, is that we actually have a democratic investment in the outcome of congressional staffers unionizing, that there is an argument to be made here about building systems of democratic accountability within the offices of our elected representatives to ensure that they are running their operations in a way that is consistent with their stated principles.
But also perhaps, as I was gleaning from what y’all were saying, that even that sort of structure of a worker union within these offices is an important thing to have in order to hold those elected representatives accountable to their constituents and to the promises that they make to those constituents. So I wanted to ask if y’all could just talk about that for a second, and if you could speak directly to folks watching and listening to this who may have those reservations. What would you say to them about the importance of this union drive and what can folks watching and listening out there do to support y’all?
Courtney Rose Laudick:
Yeah. So I’d say there are a lot of people out there who call their congressional office, and I would tell you that it’s a worker on the phone that’s talking to you. If you called your congressional office before and tried to do case work, whether it’s helping get a student loan paid or you aren’t getting your taxes back from the IRS, it is a worker who’s hired to contact the Department of Education or the IRS and help you walk through that. And so we’re the same, we are constituents. We are Americans, we aren’t treated differently or specially. We work in a similar workforce. I think the interesting part is that it’s just been so hidden from the world, and obviously that’s been on purpose because members of Congress don’t necessarily want to reveal what their workplaces are like. And so this effort really is about understanding that this workforce is a part of the broader labor movement and that we’re in solidarity with working people.
And that’s really important because these are congressional staff who help write policy for working people, who help handle casework for the different departments, who understand the inner workings of Congress and different agencies and also see how things aren’t working for working people. And so it’s really important that we see ourselves within that workforce. We see ourselves as the same, not separate or different. And so I think that’s part of what this effort is about. And on the democracy front, and I will say this forever, forever, forever, democracy is not just showing up and voting every two years in your local, federal, or state elections. Democracy is having democracy everywhere, including in your workplace. There’s no reason that our workplaces should be authoritarian. There’s no reason that the bosses should be making all decisions. It makes sense to me that if a worker is working in a role, they know best what they need in their workplace, what they should be paid in order to do their job, and that decision should be something that they’re allowed to be a part of.
And that is exactly what organizing is about, and that is what unions are about. And so when we think about this in an institution that is about democracy, it becomes even more critical because if we are electing these officials to come to Congress and represent us in a democratic way, we hope that the way that they run their offices is the same. And it also sort of holds Congress to that standard of not creating a place that is a hierarchy. And as workers who work in this institution, I think we sort of understand the insides of Congress and I think it’s important that we bring that knowledge to the broader public and also be bringing in that sort of working class perspective when we come to work at this institution.
So that is Courtney Rose Laudick and Taylor Marie Doggett of the Congressional Workers Union, an independent union representing congressional staff of the US Congress. Courtney Laudick is the vice president of organizing for the CWU. Courtney formerly worked as a policy advisor for Congressman Andy Levin and co-founded the Congressional Progressive Staff Association in Congress. Currently, Courtney is pursuing a master of science and labor studies at the University of Massachusetts’ Labor Center. And Taylor Marie Doggett is the vice president of communications for the Congressional Workers Union. Taylor is a staffer in the House of Representatives, the daughter of a former union teacher, and a proud Southerner. Taylor, Courtney, thank you both so much for joining us today on The Real News Network. I really appreciate it.
Taylor Marie Doggett:
Thank you so much.
For everyone watching, this is Maximilian Alvarez. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.
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