2020 Election
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These Democratic Candidates Are Unionizing Their Staffs, And It Could Change Campaign Work

6 minute read

Democratic presidential candidates fighting for the endorsements of labor unions and the votes of their rank-and-file have found a new tactic to show their commitment: unionizing their own campaigns.

Staffers on four Democratic campaigns have announced they are unionizing — a first in presidential-level politics and what some organizers hope could be the next step in professionalizing campaign work.

“My prediction is that there will never be a presidential campaign, there will never be a Democratic field after this one, where a campaign is not organized,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, one of the four Democratic campaigns with a unionized staff, told TIME. “Having an organized staff is going to be expected. It’s going to be the new standard, and anyone that doesn’t do that is going to stand out, people are going to ask, like, why? Why don’t you do that? It’s almost going to be like, do you have a Twitter page?”

So far, the campaigns are choosing to affiliate with different unions.

Swalwell’s staff unionized with Teamsters Local 238. In May, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro’s campaign also announced it had unionized with the Campaign Workers Guild. And on Wednesday, a majority of workers on Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign reportedly said they want union representation from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2320.

The campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, affiliated with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, is the only one to ratify a contract so far.

Political campaigns are a much different kind of workplace than those typically governed by union contracts. Workers often choose where to work because they strongly believe in their political message or hope for a job in the future. Jobs can be cut prematurely if a campaign runs out of money, loses a key primary or faces an unexpected scandal. For some of the smaller campaigns, the number of workers eligible to join a bargaining unit can be as small as a handful.

But proponents of organizing note that these working conditions also make some protections important. Campaign work is often exhaustive, leaving staffers little time for their personal lives. Some campaigns have also faced problems with sexual harassment, a byproduct of late hours, little oversight and a concern that speaking out might hurt the candidate or the worker’s future job prospects.

To address the problem of overwork, the Sanders’ union contract includes “blackout days” — four days each month that campaign workers covered by the contract are eligible to take when they are not expected to be on call.

“Rather than strictly defining the work day, we sort of inverted that and put a lot of effort into defining time off. And so people would not be disincentivized from taking time off when they need it,” said Jonathan Williams, the communications director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, the union representing the Sanders’ campaign.

TIME was referred to Williams by the Sanders campaign, although unions typically don’t coordinate with management over press inquiries. But, as Williams said, “given that they’re all campaign workers and they’re all sensitive to being on the record as a staff member, I can’t always guarantee that someone will be able to go on the record.”

One challenge campaigns that are unionizing have to work around is a short timeline. Even under the best of circumstances for a campaign — a candidate wins a primary and then a general election — the campaign will eventually end. That’s difficult given that bargaining negotiations can often take months or longer.

In Sanders’ campaign’s case, Williams said, the contract was ratified in a “matter of weeks,” helped in large part, he said, to an amicable employer willing to give employees the time to negotiate and having a neutrality agreement in place with the campaign. (Kevin Farley, a field organizer on Swalwell’s campaign, said they are “very close” to finalizing an agreement.)

Given that it comes down to the workers whether they want to unionize, candidates giving their campaigns their blessing is largely symbolic.

“Campaigns can say they support workers until the cows come home, but it doesn’t really mean anything unless they’re willing to do it in practice,” said Sawyer Hackett, speaking as a spokesperson for Castro’s unionized staff.

But how widespread the practice of unionizing campaigns will become remains to be seen. Asked if he saw it becoming more of a trend, one Democratic operative with campaign experience said, “we’ll have to see how it works.”

“They’re not going to do anything to hurt the candidate. They’re not going to let negotiations and union forming get in the way [of winning],” the operative said.

One campaign aide said he was outright skeptical of campaigns unionizing, adding that if it were to come up in his campaign, he would be against forming a union. He argued that campaign workers already have the freedom to negotiate their salary, and campaigns can already be flexible with time off within reason.

“You know the lifestyle you’re signing up for,” the aide said. “I’m definitely not anti-union, I just don’t think it makes sense in this context.”

As far as the Campaign Workers Guild can tell, 2018 was the first election in which any electoral campaign unionized. Randy Bryce, former Speaker Paul Ryan’s last Democratic challenger, was the first to have a unionized campaign staff in 2018. But this cycle has placed a larger spotlight on unionizing within campaigns as higher-profile campaigns have decided to pursue it.

Meg Reilly, the president of the Campaign Workers Guild, said that some of the issues unique to campaigns the union has had to step in most frequently on include unpaid wages when a campaign ends — whether because a candidate lost or dropped out — and expense reimbursements, such as mileage on personal cars.

“I really do genuinely believe that this is the new standard,” Reilly said. “We have seen that it is not sustainable and it is not healthy to have campaign work be so inaccessible and have so much burnout.”

“Certainly, the high turnover, the burnout, the poor working conditions, and the inaccessibility has a net negative impact on, I guess, campaigns and candidates,” she said. “Candidates will do better when their campaign workers are treated better.”

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Write to Lissandra Villa at lissandra.villa@time.com