WASHINGTON – After a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol on January 6, Herline Mathieu knew things had to change.
As president of Congressional Black Associates, a group of organizations on Capitol Hill that represent the aides who serve members of the House and Senate, she heard from numerous colleagues who refused to return to the complex after the violence and racism of the Uprising.
“I’ve spoken to at least 60 members who were only really concerned about their safety,” said Ms. Mathieu, a legal advisor.
One employee said bluntly: “I don’t know if I can work here.”
So Ms. Mathieu started organizing, a relatively rare endeavor for Congress staff that is exempt from most labor laws, including labor protection and anti-discrimination laws.
It wasn’t long before Ms. Mathieu brought together 10 different staff associations representing more than 1,000 congress staff, mostly colored people, in order to provide a safer environment, better working conditions and better access to advice and other services after the uprising. They are also calling for changes to the Capitol Police Department, which they claim abandoned on Jan. 6, and a say in the composition of an independent 9/11-style commission that has been proposed to support the attack examine.
“It is important that we come together to show that we are here,” said Ms. Mathieu, who works for Representative Emanuel Cleaver II, Democrat of Missouri. She stressed that she was acting on behalf of the staff association and not the congressman. “Frankly, this is the closest we come to a union,” she said.
Ms. Mathieu’s commitment had made it clear that there was a problem to be solved. When she reached out to the South Asian-American Staff Association of Congress it was found that they had similar problems with aides unwilling to return to work. She sent an email to the Jewish Staffers Association of Congress. They also had security concerns. She registered with the Women’s Congressional Staff Association. They too wanted a different environment for the members of the Capitol.
However, it was not immediately clear what could be achieved by a group of employees who are most often encouraged to stay behind the scenes and take care of their powerful bosses. Legislature has almost complete control over the work environment on Capitol Hill for the more than 15,000 employees who work there.
“I said, ‘OK, you can’t legislate, but you can still do something,” said Ms. Mathieu.
She recently hosted a virtual meeting with more than 400 congressional staff and senior congressional leaders, including California spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi. Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and majority leader; and Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California and chair of the administrative committee that oversees the House’s operations. They were joined by Capitol security officials.
“Our members were encouraged that Spokesman Pelosi, Chairman Schumer, Chairman Lofgren, those important leaders on Capitol Hill, were ready to meet with us and voice our members’ concerns,” said Dayanara Ramirez, President of the Lesbian Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Congressional Staff Association, Representative Communications Director Mark Takano, Democrat of California.
The organizations had a long list of requests. They want executives to shorten waiting times for mental health resources and approve emergency funding for lawmakers to support the mental and physical health of their employees, including with more paid time off and counseling.
You want the Capitol Regulatory Authority to involve a member of Congress. And they want the 9/11 commission to investigate the differential treatment Black Lives Matter protesters have received from law enforcement, compared to the relatively low-key tactics used against the pro-Trump mob.
“Many of my members marched in the protests against police brutality last summer,” said Ms. Mathieu. “We were overwhelmed with the security.”
However, in their quest for a safer environment, the aides also urge that Capitol Police not resort to racial profiles or crack down on minority groups in response to the recent spike of violence.
“We saw South Asians rise disproportionately after September 11th,” said Nishith Pandya, president of the South Asian-American Staff Association of Congress and legislative director for Rep. Bobby L. Rush, Democrat of Illinois. “It’s very clear who the perpetrators of this attack were, and it’s no one who looks like the people here. However, we all have to worry about racial profiling as this country has previously responded to such attacks. “
Since the attack on the Capitol, congressional assistants have reported insomnia and feeling anxious, claustrophobic, angry and depressed. Legislators have requested additional resources to meet workers’ mental needs in response to increasing demand.
Ms. Pelosi is committed to spending what is necessary to keep the Capitol safe.
“It will cost more money,” she said at a recent press conference, “to protect the Capitol so that people can come here, children can come and see our democracy in action, and you can all share what is happening here. ” Sure, we want members to feel safe that they are safe when they are here. “
Organizing after January 6th is not the first time that some staff associations have come together. In November, a task force of the Black Associates of Congress and the Caucus of the Black Legislative Staff of the Senate produced a political report on racial justice and reform. Some of the groups had previously teamed up to work on a campaign to increase diversity among Capitol Hill employees.
According to a 2019 survey of approximately 10,000 domestic workers – about half of whom responded – nearly 70 percent of employees are white, compared with nearly 15 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic, and nearly 7 percent Asian.
Kameelah Pointer, President of the Senate’s Black Legislative Staff Caucus and advisor to Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, said the 9/11 style commission should include a racially diverse team. Ms. Pointer said this is vital to “analyzing how race matters” in failure to adequately prepare for the Capitol rampage led by supporters of President Donald J. Trump and whites included supremacist and extremist groups.
The organizations say they will be closely monitoring the commission and asking for further meetings with the leadership.
“This will not be the last time we will work together to address the aftermath of the January 6 attack,” said Ms Ramirez.