The campaign staff of Democrat Randy Bryce, who is challenging House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), announced on Monday that they had unionized and ratified what is by all accounts the first collective bargaining contract negotiated by political campaign workers.
It was fitting that Bryce’s team would be the first to unionize: The man known on Twitter as “IronStache” is a union ironworker who has made support for organized labor a key component of his upstart bid against the second-most powerful Republican in the country.
But the first contract of the new Campaign Workers Guild is more than just a statement of values from a progressive Democratic candidate and his ideologically-minded workers. If the vision of the union’s founders comes to fruition, the union could transform campaign work from an often precarious, high-turnover job into a sustainable career path.
“The more folks we can help stay in the field, the better off the Democratic Party and the progressive movement will be,” said Meg Reilly, vice president of the Campaign Workers Guild.
Reilly, a veteran of multiple Democratic campaigns, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, currently makes a living as a representative for a labor union in Maine. She founded the all volunteer Campaign Workers Guild in October 2017 together with several alumni of Sanders’ and other progressive campaigns who were frustrated by the lack of protections for campaign workers.
It wasn’t that Sanders had mistreated his employees; on the contrary, in her telling, his was a “great campaign” for workers.
But precisely because Reilly “burned out,” even after a stellar run on Sanders’ team, she and peers with similar experiences concluded that campaigns were churning through some of their hardest-working and most experienced operatives.
“Campaign work is characterized by 80 to 100-hour weeks ― making much less than minimum wage, even when candidates pay well like Bernie does ― and immediately burning out,” Reilly recounted. “We don’t get to talk to our family. We get exhausted.”
“That leads to a lot of talented, well-trained organizers leaving the field,” she added.
Sexual harassment is rampant on campaigns for all types of candidates.
Meg Reilly, Campaign Workers Guild
In addition, political campaigns are often characterized by stiff hierarchies and a shortage of seasoned personnel that has made them fertile ground for sexual harassment and other forms of misconduct.
In November, HuffPost reported on two women who experienced sexual harassment while working for the Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaigns, respectively. Both women had trouble getting accountability for their tormentors. The alleged perpetrator on the Clinton staff was fired, only to continue working for the party in another capacity, which disappointed the victim.
“Sexual harassment is rampant on campaigns for all types of candidates,” Reilly said. “It’s something folks feel they have to put up with.”
The Campaign Workers Guild, which is not affiliated with an established national union ― an unusual move for a new local ― approached Bryce’s campaign staff about unionizing after Nate Rifkin, one of the union’s founders, went to work for Bryce as his campaign’s digital director. After winning his colleagues’ support for unionizing, Rifkin, a veteran of both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns, sought and received immediate voluntary recognition of the union from Bryce and campaign manager David Keith in December.
Since the union was dealing with a friendly manager, they were able to hammer out their first collective bargaining contract later that month. (The union announced the contract more than two months later, because they needed time to develop a communications strategy; Bryce campaign communications director Lauren French only joined the team in January.)
The first political campaign union contract looks a lot like collective bargaining agreements in other fields. The contract, which applies to every campaign staffer except for Keith, the campaign manager, provided all eight bargaining unit members with a 1 percent across-the-board pay increase and a new minimum salary of $3,000 a month, as well as a stipend with which to purchase health care coverage, paid sick leave, paid holidays and other days of paid time off. Campaign workers are entitled to due process in the event of discipline or firing, including a warning and the chance to improve before being dismissed. And the campaign must give bargaining unit members 10 days notice before laying them off ― a key concern in campaigns that often end suddenly.
Crucially, the contract also creates a sexual harassment reporting procedure. The campaign must respond to an accusation of sexual harassment with an investigation from the campaign’s outside attorney to be presented within seven days of the complaint. Employees are guaranteed privacy and explicit protection against retaliation for reporting the incident.
And, like in other unions, employees can file grievances against management practices they perceive as unfair or as a violation of the contract.
“We’re all very excited to have the grievance process and the sexual harassment protection process ― not that we think we’re going to need them, but better to bring an umbrella in case it rains,” Rifkin said.
Although most unions collect dues as a percentage of employee pay, the Bryce campaign workers’ union dues are a flat rate of $30 a month. Organizers hope that as the Campaign Workers Guild grows to represent more employees and collect more dues, it can manage a fund that supports campaign workers between election cycles when many experience financial instability. The union might even grow to provide continuous insurance for members that hop from campaign to campaign, much in the way that Bryce’s Iron Workers Union provides him with insurance.
“Ultimately, that would be great for campaign workers to avail themselves of because they are also doing seasonal work,” Rifkin said.
Currently, the entire executive board of the Campaign Workers Guild is made up of volunteers like Reilly. That may change as the union tries to organize more campaigns. The guild claims it has hundreds of supporters and is in the process of organizing the staffs of other Democratic campaigns.
The guild is also open to organizing the workers on Republican campaigns. In what is perhaps a reflection of Democrats’ greater support for unions, however, there has thus far been more demand from Democratic campaign workers for representation, according to Reilly.
“We definitely believe all campaign workers have a right to a union,” Reilly said.