Working on a Campaign Is Grueling. A New Union Wants to Make It Better.

(Published November 6, 2018, on talkpoverty.org)

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Volunteer Albert Lopez, 18, sets out signs in Texas. (Credit: Chip Somodevilla)

During the 2018 midterm cycle, which comes to a close today, the Campaign
Workers Guild has unionized the political staffers of candidates across the country.

It recently organized Break the Majority, the coordinated campaign of the Democratic Party in North Carolina, marking its first victory in the south.

Campaigns are often grueling affairs for staffers. There is a glorification of self-sacrifice for the greater good enforced by a hierarchical structure that is not conducive to addressing workers’ demands. Salaried pay often dips below minimum wage if calculated on an hourly basis. The CWG’s unionization efforts aim to tip the scales back toward workers’ rights.

“For many years campaign workers were treated as little more than volunteers who
could be given a mere stipend rather than professionals who deserve fair pay and
fair conditions,” said Ihaab Syed, CWG secretary.

The Campaign Workers Guild was publicly launched in February by current and
former campaign workers, and currently has 28 bargaining units in 18 states across
the country.

North Carolina is a particularly notable victory because it is both a swing state and
a “right to work state,” which means workers do not have to pay dues for the
benefits they receive from being in a unionized workplace.

Unionization rates in those states are significantly lower than they are elsewhere.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, non-unionized workers make 20
percent less than unionized workers on a weekly basis.

CWG’s first victory was the unionization of the Randy Bryce’s congressional
campaign, the union ironworker running to take Speaker Paul Ryan’s House seat in
Wisconsin. It has also unionized the state coordinated campaigns in Ohio and
Minnesota.

Many of the staffers in North Carolina were familiar with CWG’s organizers from
their time on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and reached out to
begin their unionization effort. “CWG was very open about the process of a union
campaign and broke it down into a timeline,” said Grayson Barnette, a field
organizer and a member of CWG’s bargaining team in North Carolina

All CWG bargaining units have been recognized voluntarily without the need for a
formal union election. For Break the Majority, it was only six weeks between the
initial unionization meeting and voluntary recognition.

However, most private-sector unions are recognized through the National Labor
Relations Board elections process, which makes it more difficult, because those
campaigns are often met with significant opposition by employers. Nearly 90
percent of employers force workers to attend anti-union events, while more than
half effectively threaten plant closings. 35 percent of election requests are
withdrawn prior to a vote even being held.

Overall, unfair labor practices are alleged in 46 percent of unionizing campaigns, with the NLRB agreeing that at least one charge had merit in half of those cases. The unionizing effort in the Tarheel State was sparked by a resolution passed by the North Carolina Democratic Party’s executive council that unionization would be encouraged in the 2020 campaign. In other campaigns, though, there has been some pushback.

“They say ‘This is impossible. This is how campaigns work. I paid my dues in
these miserable conditions,’” said Syed.

Contracts won by CWG have resulted in several positive changes. In addition to
compensation increases, workers have won sick, bereavement, and parental leave.
There are 60 members in the North Carolina unit of CWG who will receive pay and
health care through the end of November, as well as a 30-minute paid break for
lunch during the campaign.

One of the most significant victories for CWG has been addressing sexual
harassment. “As we’ve been seeing in the news, sexual harassment is rampant in
our society overall and political workplaces and campaigns are no exception,” said
Syed.

CWG contracts have led to training on what can be done to prevent harassment and
the rights of workers. Furthermore, there has been an implementation of a process
whereby complaints can be submitted and investigated.

“Just a process in place is huge for campaigns that aren’t equipped to handle it
otherwise,” said Syed.

A long-term issue CWG seeks to work on is how to make health care available
year-round and find ways to continue to make campaign work sustainable. For
now, though, the change in conditions is worth savoring.

“It’s more for us about having a voice. It was about bringing our concerns to the
table and being heard out,” said Barnette.