Campaign staff for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) just signed a union contract, the first presidential campaign in US history to do so.
Sanders’s campaign workers have been negotiating with managers since March, when they first announced plans to form a labor union with United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 400.
As part of the deal, Sanders’s campaign staff secured a $15 minimum wage, guaranteed monthly time off and defined pay levels for specific jobs, according to the union. The bargaining unit includes about 100 campaign workers and could reach up to 1,000.
Interns at the senator’s campaign headquarters in Washington, DC, will get paid $20 an hour and have full health insurance benefits.
And here’s the most interesting part: Salaries for managers are capped. No one can earn more than three times the salary of the highest-paid employee in the bargaining unit, which includes interns, canvassers, and field workers.
“It’s extremely unusual to put a pay limit on managers,” Jonathan Williams, a spokesperson for UFCW Local 400, told me. The union represents thousands of supermarket workers in the nation’s capital, but this is the first time it has worked with a political campaign.
Unionizing Sanders’s staff is just as much about political messaging as it is about the actual workers. It’s rare for political campaigns to unionize, though they are notoriously punishing work environments, with long and unpredictable hours. But as the Democratic Party shifts to the left, campaign employees are pushing progressive candidates to adopt the same pro-labor, inclusive policies that they promote.
Sanders faces serious pressure to avoid recreating the aggressive frat-boy culture that marked his 2016 presidential campaign and alienated many women and people of color who worked for him. Several ex-employees said the 2016 campaign routinely paid women less than men and ignored sexual harassment. The labor contract aims to prevent that from happening again, and could set a model for other 2020 campaigns.
The midterms changed everything
Sanders’s campaign staff members aren’t the only 2020 employees to unionize. Rep. Eric Swalwell’s presidential campaign recently did; staff members are currently negotiating their first contract through the Teamsters local 238 union. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who is also running for president, announced Thursday that his staff just unionized too.
So far, that’s it.
That’s probably because unionizing political campaigns is such a new phenomenon. The idea didn’t gain traction until the 2018 midterm elections, when a group of campaign workers launched the Campaign Workers Guild in Washington, DC. The new labor group worked with Democratic campaigns to try to remake the brutal work culture.
“We regularly work more than ten hours a day, seven days a week for low pay, often without health coverage. We usually don’t get sick days, much less a day off — and we’re fed up,” the guild explains on its website.
Campaign organizers often are expected to accept exploitative work conditions as a sign of their commitment to a political movement. That dynamic helps candidates, but not necessarily their staff, which the guild describes this way:
We are expected to sacrifice ourselves for the cause. For many years, the prevailing viewpoint among campaign staff has been that terrible work conditions are the price we must pay for the future we believe in. That future has never materialized for campaign workers. We are demanding it now.
The guild represented staff for Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s (D-WA) reelection in 2018, making it the first unionized campaign for a sitting member of Congress. Staff for Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Rep. Max Rose (D-NY) soon followed. The guild also represented campaign staff in state and local races.
It makes sense for Sanders’s campaign to unionize too. The Vermont senator has branded himself as a working-class champion, railing against Wall Street and outlandish CEO salaries. But Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign had a reputation for being a particularly hostile place to work, and his new campaign seems determined to do things differently.
The labor contract is a pretty good start.
The contract includes detailed anti-discrimination policies
The final contract for the Sanders campaign is not public, but Jonathan Williams, the union spokesperson, shared details with me. It includes a defined process for employees to resolve complaints of sexism and discrimination through the union. Women accused campaign managers of ignoring their complaints in 2016, and this process aims to prevent that from happening. It also includes unspecified remedies to address the problem if the complaint has merit.
The contract also includes specific anti-discrimination protections for transgender and immigrant employees. For example, all campaign offices must provide gender-neutral bathrooms and staff must address employees by their preferred gender pronoun. The contract even has a provision about what to do if an immigration officer shows up at a campaign office.
“They’ll be told they cannot enter without a judicial warrant,” Williams told me.
One of the most challenging aspects of negotiating the contract involves paid time off and scheduling. Hourly workers, including canvassers, get paid overtime, but salaried workers don’t. They are expected to be on call 24/7, making it hard to find time to rest and spend time with their families.
The contract guarantees each employee four “black-out” days per month. On those days, they will not be expected to be on call or asked to work. They also included language to make sure workers get paid breaks, time to eat lunch, and downtime after long shifts.
And the contract creates a campaign-wide policy that prioritizes treating workers with respect. “It sounds obvious, but it’s important for managers to know that they have to treat workers with respect,” Williams said.
He expects they may hear more from other campaigns soon, as pressure builds for Democrats to create inclusive and fair work environments. “We hope to see every presidential campaign meet this standard soon,” Williams said.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s reelection campaign was the first unionized Congressional campaign. Staff on Randy Bryce’s campaign to unseat then Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan were the first to unionize.