WASHINGTON — The House voted on Tuesday to grant its aides the legal protections to form a union, the most significant step in more than a quarter-century to ensure that the chamber’s staff members can bargain over their working conditions without fear of retaliation.
The vote came amid pressure from aides, particularly junior staff members, who have become increasingly open about their frustrations with the low pay, long hours and notoriously difficult work environment on Capitol Hill. It marks the latest move by the Democratic-controlled House to stem the exodus of career staff members leaving for higher pay and more stable jobs in the private sector and elsewhere.
And it comes amid a string of prominent unionization efforts and labor actions across the country, including among political organizations, at a time when Americans are reassessing their relationships with work.
The resolution — which covers both political and apolitical staff in the House — passed 217 to 202. It does not need Senate approval or a presidential signature to take effect, and is expected to be implemented shortly.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California scheduled the unionization vote last week as she announced she was setting a floor for annual wages for staff for the first time, placing the minimum at $45,000, and nudging to $203,700 the cap on what staff members can earn. Last year, Ms. Pelosi announced a $199,300 maximum for aides’ pay, doing away with a rule that had barred them from earning more than the $174,000 salary of most lawmakers.
Republicans refrained from arguing against the measure on the floor on Tuesday, but they have opposed the unionization effort as unwieldy and unpredictable in an institution where all 435 offices operate largely at the discretion of individual lawmakers.
“Unions do a lot of good to ensure hardworking folks across the country can earn a great middle-class living, but they’re simply not feasible for congressional offices,” Representative Rodney Davis, Republican of Illinois, said at a hearing this year.
He added, “Voting to unionize congressional offices and committees would create serious problems and lead to even more dysfunction in Washington.”
Low pay, long hours and overly demanding bosses have long been complaints among staff on Capitol Hill, but the issues have gained more attention in recent months as staff members have used an Instagram account called Dear White Staffers to anonymously highlight poor conditions.
Daniel Schuman, the policy director for the progressive organization Demand Progress, said the vote was an important step to strengthen Congress as an institution, making it more likely that working conditions would improve and talented staff would stay on Capitol Hill.
“It’s a really big deal,” said Mr. Schuman, who has long advocated for congressional aides to have the power to unionize. “This is probably the best effort to strengthen the legislative branch in the past 30 years or more.”
Mr. Schuman argued that congressional Republicans have for years used anti-Washington sentiments to justify keeping salaries low on Capitol Hill, incentivizing staff members to leave for more lucrative jobs in lobbying.
“We’re still underpaying staff significantly,” he said. “It’s going to take years to undo this damage, but we’re on the right path.”
Earlier this year, a group of congressional aides announced that they had formed a union and would push for their bosses to pass the resolution giving House staff the same labor protections that other employees enjoy, including legal protection against retaliation. The effort quickly received backing from Democratic leaders and major labor groups.
Aides involved in the effort, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that they saw it as an opportunity to secure better working conditions and stem the loss of institutional knowledge.
“This moment would never have been possible without the tireless work of our organizing committee and more importantly the courageous workers who spoke out about the shameful work conditions facing congressional staff and joined our organizing drive to win livable wages, dignified work conditions and equity on Capitol Hill,” the Congressional Workers Union said in a statement after the vote.
“This is really not about me, this is not about my colleagues — this is about our staff,” Representative Andy Levin, Democrat of Michigan, said in an interview before the vote.
Mr. Levin said congressional aides had approached him about spearheading the resolution after they had spent time “working in the shadows” on the issue.
“They have worked through an attack on our workplace on Jan. 6 of last year,” Mr. Levin said. “They’ve worked through a pandemic, and like other essential workers all throughout the economy, they have come to realize that they want a collective voice.”