All signs point to a messy battle in the 2020 Democratic primaries, pitting establishment types against democratic socialists. Thanks to an effort spearheaded largely by Bernie Sandersâ 2016 campaigners, the staffers for a few 2018 Congressional candidates could be pioneering a new litmus test for determining candidatesâ progressive credentials: Do they recognize their employeesâ union?
Last week, the upstart Campaign Workers Guild (CWG) announced that staff members at three Democratic campaigns around the country have formed unions, each of which was voluntarily recognized. Campaigners for Jess King, running for a House seat representing southeastern Pennsylvania, Randy Bryce, vying to take Paul Ryanâs Congressional seat, and Chris Wilhelm, running for Montgomery County Council, have each successfully negotiated union contracts with their progressiveâand in some cases openly Leftâbosses. The two non-management staffers in Democrat Dan Habermanâs campaign for Michiganâs 11th Congressional District have also taken first steps toward a collective bargaining agreement, with Haberman recently signing a letter of support for the process to move forward.
While these efforts will almost certainly transform working conditions for electoral staffers, the organizing drives might also transform the Democratic Party.
âEvery campaign worker at a certain point has either joked about joining a union or unionizing their workplace,â says Brian Wivell, field director for the Wilhelm campaign, and one half of a newly-minted, two-person CWG local. At a previous campaign he worked on, staffers hung the union logo from the fictional Springfield Nuclear Power Plantâof Simpsons fameâin their office. âAs soon as we heard this was happening, we jumped on it,â he tellsÂ In These Times.
Campaign work often involves long hoursâ80 to 100 per weekâfor little pay, particularly for those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy of electoral politics. Piled-up expensesâfor gas, especiallyâoften donât get reimbursed, and staffers can find themselves staying in precarious housing with supporters of the campaign while out on the road. The frantic, temporary nature of campaigns also means thereâs little recourse for employees who face sexual assault or harassment on the job, a problem compounded by the fact that so much of the economy of campaign work depends on relationships within a relatively small network of staffers, at the state and local levels especially. Aside from improving wages and working conditions across campaigns, one of the biggest impacts of the CWGâs efforts could be establishing an industry-standard policy for dealing with sexual assault and harassment.
Campaign staffers are hoping to address harassment from supervisors and coworkers, as well as volunteers, who they depend on to meet canvassing and phone-banking quotas. As CWG organizer Meg Reilly puts it, âIf your boss is constantly breathing down your neck saying you didnât meet your goals, do you report [a volunteer] for being a creep or get your numbers up so you donât get fired?â
Reilly realizes the optics of CWG emerging from several former Sanders campaign staffers might raise questions about the Senatorâs labor practices. But she says that Bernie was not a bad boss at all. âThe Bernie campaign was just about as good as you could get,â Reilly underscores. âItâs the Cadillac: We got days off and health insurance. Itâs just that on the Bernie campaign we had a lot of pro-labor people, and people who were fairly radical.â
Of sexual harassment and assault, Reilly says, âCampaigns are just rife for it. Youâre spending 80 to 100 hours a week all together, and campaigns are so small. Everyone knows everyone, and thereâs a huge fear of being blacklisted if you do report something. A lot of people who are victims of harassment or assault donât say anything but because theyâre afraid of being blacklisted.â When abuses are reported, she explains, they tend to be handled internally. By contrast, the contracts the Guild has negotiated so far explicitly outline a process for handling such processes through a third party.
âOn campaigns, there is no HR department,â says Lauren Hitt, communications director for the Bryce campaign and a member of the bargaining unit there. (I spoke with her and Bryce jointly by phone.) âProblems are always better solved when you address them before theyâre problems, and have policies laid out and written down. Thatâs a big difference from the way campaigns operate now. There has never been anything like that.â
Reilly says that some CWG contracts included mandatory training on issues of sexual harassment. âA big part of it is just admitting that it happens. A big part of this culture is silence around it,â she argues. âAnd a big part of the training is just admitting that progressive and left campaigns are not immune from this.â
The campaign staffers that have organized so far faced relatively friendly audiences. The first shopâBryceâs campaignâcame about when his digital director, Nate Rifkin, asked him about the idea of starting a staff union as they were driving around talking to voters in Wisconsin. âIt was a no-brainer,â Bryce tellsÂ In These Times. âItâs an extension of why Iâm running in the first place. It comes down to whatâs important to me as a candidate. Itâs not about me. I am where I am today because we have a very talented staff.â Staffers hammered out a contract with management, which includes Bryce and campaign manager David Keith, who both have hiring and firing power. An Ironworker, Bryce got his start in politics through his union, and has campaigned as a working-class opponent to incumbent Paul Ryan.
Reilly, who worked for the Sanders campaign in 2016, ultimately hopes that CWG will adopt a âhiring hallâ model, along the lines of the building trades. As in those industries, campaign work can be sporadic, with staffers facing months-long gaps between election cycles. Membership in the union provides workers with a backstop of support in dry months, and sets industry standards on wages and working conditions.
âEven if campaigns go well, they end, and the staff is looking for another job,â says Hitt. âMost campaign workersâif they do it from campaign to campaignâare looking at at least a month or two when theyâre unemployed.â Several of the staffersÂ In These TimesÂ spoke with noted that such chronic instability means campaign demographics tend to skew toward the people best able to shoulder it: young, white and middle class individuals, often recent college graduates. Hitt, Reilly and others were excited about the potential of unionization to diversify campaigning more generally, making it a more stable prospect for people dealing with student debt or familial responsibilities.
âYou have to be pretty privileged to work for such little pay, and to have a place to crash in campaigns,â Reilly says. âIt all sort of fits together like a puzzle. Even progressive candidates who talk the talk about diversityâeven reparationsâdonât pay attention to the fact that their campaign staff is coming from a pretty homogenous background.â She notes that campaign workers are often expected to have their own cars and phones, on top of sacrificing time that might otherwise be used to care for children or loved ones.
âJust personally, I have epilepsy. So not having healthcare consistently and paying for anti-seizure medications isnât an option for me,â Hitt says, adding that it was only in the past several years that healthcare benefits became widespread for campaign staffers. Stipulations already built into certain CWG contractsâfor benefits and higher wages, for instanceâcould make campaigning more accessible to organizers from diverse backgrounds, potentially expanding the range of communities within candidates can build relationships with.
Wivell tellsÂ In These TimesÂ that he âwould love to see a future where thereâs a Project Labor Agreement between the Democratic Party and campaign workers. There is a reason the building trades follow that path and are able to enforce certain standards for workplace protections.â When unionized crews arenât used in construction projects, itâs not uncommon to see an inflatable rat outside of job sites. Feasibly, the same thing could happen to Democratic campaigns who hire non-union staff.
Staff unionization could also factor into Democratsâ efforts to win endorsements from organized labor. Especially in state and local races, union endorsements can offer critical resources. Often that money goes toward candidates considered to have the surest chance at winning; their willingness to fight for organized labor can sometimes take a backseat. Yet the optics of a union endorsing a candidate that either failed to recognize or even fought a staff union are more stark, and could create an uncomfortable situation for establishment or even progressive Democrats who are more willing to make public overtures to unions than welcome them into their own campaigns. âItâs really hard to take laborâs money and endorsement and not actively support labor when itâs coming to organize,â Harry Baker, Wivellâs data director, tellsÂ In These Times.
As it broadens the range of people who are able to work on campaigns, CWG hopes that collective bargaining agreements will translate into rank-and-file campaign staffs having more say over their campaignsâ strategy. It is well known that electoral work runs on strict hierarchies, but a strong bargaining unit could democratize decisions around things like outreach strategies and messaging.
As in the building trades, CWG envisions that the union could at some point offer not just economic security, but trainingâto keep staffers updated on the latest voter database software, for instance. Like any other profession, political campaigns require specialized skills. The union could help candidates standardize how those skills are developed and ensure that staffers are competent and up-to-date on the latest developments in their field.
âEvery cycle we hear about how field is the most important part of any campaign,â Reilly says. âItâs a really specific skill set, and we think that itâs really been hurting candidatesâDemocratic and othersâto not be systematically investing in it. We can train up these workers who are really excited to work. We think if we treated the workers better and kept them trained, we could win more campaigns.â
Having started around a year ago, CWG now has a 16-member advisory board comprised of both former Sanders and Clinton staffers. Union members pay $30 a month in dues, and campaign workers who arenât actively working on a campaign can affiliate for $10 a month. CWG is eager to support union drives from Republican campaign staffers, although the union hasnât gotten any bites yet. To date, Reilly says, the union is working to win contracts and recognition on everything from local ballot-initiative campaigns to Senate races.
Organizers see the CWG as similar in spirit to the unionization campaigns taking place in some digital newsroomsâbeneficial both as a way to improve wages and working conditions and to build solidarity among white-collar workers for working-class politics in the United States and abroad.
In These TimesÂ asked Hitt and Bryce whether they had heard rumblings from Paul Ryanâs Congressional campaign about any latent unionization efforts. Laughing, Bryce replied that his office had just dropped off 16,000 signatures to his Racine office calling for gun reform: âI kicked myself afterwards for not asking them.â
This article was originally published at In These Times on February 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author:Â Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow atÂ In These TimesÂ covering the politics of climate change, the White House transition and the resistance to Trumpâs agenda.