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Organize the Campaign Workers

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Blogging has been sparse because I’ve been doing real traveling away from Mexico City for the last week. And I, uh, have an interesting story to tell there. But until I get time for that, this important story on organizing campaign workers came out and I was very happy to be quoted in it.

I know that life for campaign workers can be rotten. In 2008, I briefly worked as a field organizer for Barack Obama’s campaign. I roamed throughout Florida in a gas-guzzling truck that took up most of my meager paycheck. (One especially grim night, it also served as my bed after I was locked out of the house where I was staying and nobody on the campaign would let me crash with them.) I was doing what F.O.s and canvassers do across the country: voter contact, which meant around four hours of door-knocking each day coupled with two hours of phone calls. There was also the incessant need for more voter registrations, an effort which required finding areas with large groups of people and not being kicked out of those areas by security.

With the aggressive hours an F.O. works—around 80 a week—sleep deprivation was also a regular worry. I kept going because I loved Barack Obama. But nobody on the campaign cared much about my deteriorating physical and mental health. I still remember the cognitive dissonance in my boss’s voice when I called her to tell her that I was so tired that I’d driven my truck off the road and into a ditch. It was as if she was aware that she should be concerned but had more important priorities.

When my boss fired me for a host of reasons—failing to hit my numbers, problems I’d had with supporter housing, my decision to start a private blog, and general inefficiency—I blamed myself. I had skipped a semester of college for this job and here I was getting fired a month later. I walked out of a Panera in the hot Florida sun and punched a dent into my truck’s side. It was an idiotic mistake—one that, looking back, was clearly influenced by my stress, lack of sleep, or decent meals. I had a pair of friends with campaign jobs who inspired me to look into the field. They all eventually quit.

When I saw in 2018 that the Campaign Workers Guild had launched, my jaw dropped. Of course! Of course decent hours and not killing yourself should be requirements in a job. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

I’m not the only one. Campaign unions appear to be that rarest thing: a new idea. Neither campaign or labor experts contacted by Splinter had any awareness of the idea going back further than Randy Bryce’s campaign in 2018. Candice Nelson, the academic director of American University’s Campaign Management Institute, said that she didn’t have enough expertise with the topic to comment. Erik Loomis, an associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island and author of A History of America in Ten Strikes, came up similarly short: “I don’t think I know of anything,” he wrote in an email, “and I suspect [it] is new.”

There was once deep fear help by some that limiting campaign hours would mean limiting the amount of work done on a campaign, which would mean reducing the chances of winning.

But there’s also a clear sense of failure in the status quo. The 80 hour work-week didn’t help Democrats hold 900 seats in state legislatures under Obama, it didn’t push Sanders over Clinton, and it didn’t push Clinton over Trump. There’s no telling what a unionized campaign strategy could have done in any of the scenarios, but it’s hard to imagine them turning out worse.

“Working on a campaign is a tremendously stressful job with very long hours,” Loomis, the labor historian, said. “It is a situation ripe for exploitation and many people burn out. Having a process to adjudicate disputes and create boundaries on acceptable behavior and working conditions is very important. If a Democratic presidential candidate can’t accept a union among their own staff, I don’t see how voters concerned with labor issues can believe that candidate will fight for their priorities if said person is elected to office.”

If the unionized 2020 campaigns make headway, Democratic campaigns of the future may be singing a similar tune.

The most notable campaign to agree to a union is Bernie’s, but it’s not going so well.

New details on an anonymous unfair labor practice charge filed against Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) 2020 presidential campaign shine a light on some of the allegations against the campaign.

The charge was filed by a former staffer, a campaign spokeswoman told Bloomberg Law. The staffer alleges that the campaign retaliated against certain workers for engaging in protected labor activity, according to redacted copy of the document.

Campaign leaders “retaliated against me when I organized the bargaining unit and sent an email requesting compliance with the” collective employment contract, the anonymous staffer wrote in the charge. The staffer also said that at least three campaign workers were fired in retaliation for their organizing and union activities, among other allegations.

“The campaign leadership, from Sen. Sanders on down, respects the rights of all of its employees to speak collectively and bargain about their terms and conditions of employment, and it supports the mission of the NLRB to enforce worker and union rights,” a campaign spokeswoman told Bloomberg Law via email. “That is exactly why the Bernie 2020 campaign voluntarily recognized the employees’ chosen union and engaged in good faith bargaining that resulted in an historic collective bargaining agreement.”

“The campaign cannot discuss the specifics of this matter in order to maintain the integrity of the NLRB process,” the spokeswoman said. “We are committed to cooperating with the NLRB and we are confident that they will find the campaign honors all of its employees’ rights to both the letter and spirit of the law. Sen. Sanders and the campaign believe all workers should have a strong voice on the job and the right to due process, including the right to petition to the NLRB.”

The allegations come shortly after a tense period in the relationship between the Sanders campaign and the union representing its staffers was recently made public. The internal disagreements sparked some criticism of the White House candidate—who has made worker rights a central part of his pitch to voters—from conservatives and Republican politicians.

Sanders in an interview with the Des Moines Register last week defended his campaign’s treatment of staffers and said he was “disappointed” that some staff had taken their complaints to the media.

A few additional thoughts here. First, it’s good on Bernie to agree to this. But that doesn’t change the culture of political campaigns. The people who rise in this world are those who actually like those 80 hour weeks. They were treated like shit and now treat others the same. That means that they expect a certain kind of culture that does not go well with a union culture where those workers are empowered–where, to take one example, the kind of things Amy Klobuchar is known to have said and done to her staff aren’t allowed or can be contested.

Second, it’s at least possible that it is required to work those 80 hour weeks during a campaign. But that means you have to have very strict laws concerning workplace behavior. And it is a workplace! It doesn’t matter if the candidate is a conservative, liberal, or leftist, all of these workers are operating in similar conditions and need similar avenues to redress wrongs.

Third, as someone looking at the bigger picture of politics, I am more concerned with nurturing long-term organizing than just plowing through vulnerable young campaign workers and spitting 99% of them out after it is over. There are far too many organizing norms that do this. Political campaigns are one–and are a place where lots of people get their first taste of this world. Many unions are another and that’s unconscionable. It is also why I despise direct funding campaign organizing such as PIRG. Taking idealistic young kids and making them do nothing but raise money for the larger organization with no room for advancement is a horrible way to nurture organizers. I wouldn’t do that and neither should you.

There’s a reason I write and analyze and teach these issues for a living, while also being involved in my own union, than work for them. That’s because I did work for a large union local for a short time, saw how people were treated, and told myself I would never be treated like that. How many other young organizers don’t just leave actual organizing behind but leave all forms of active progressive politics behind? Far too many. It’s avoidable and strong campaign unions that look for a change in the culture is a really good way to start.

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