America's Overworked and Underpaid Campaign Staffers Are Unionizing

The Future of Labor
America's Overworked and Underpaid Campaign Staffers Are Unionizing
Illustration:Angelica Alzona (G/O Media)

When “Miguel” came to America a few years ago, Donald Trump’s racist campaign against immigrants was just catching fire. “It affected me,” Miguel, an undocumented immigrant who asked that we not use his real name, told Splinter. “It affected everyone.”

He tried to turn his focus elsewhere, like school. No such luck. “The students were immigrants,” he said, “and I was surrounded by a lot of people who were afraid of what was happening. No one had a voice.” Miguel decided that living in fear was wrong. He went to work in politics. “Even if I don’t have a vote, I can make other people vote,” he told Splinter.

Miguel’s decision was a brave one for obvious reasons: putting oneself in the public eye for any reason as an undocumented worker brings risks. He worked for progressive candidates, door-knocking for politicians who stood up for people like him in big speeches. He didn’t expect that within a few years, on an insurgent statewide campaign—Miguel didn’t want to reveal the name publicly for fear of retribution—his boss would be trying to convince him that the cause was so good he should work for free.

Miguel’s story is not unique. The often-shoddy working conditions of Democratic campaigns are an open secret to anyone involved. On the generous side, it could be argued that poor working conditions stem from passion: everyone involved feels very strongly about the causes, from the rights of undocumented people to healthcare. On the more cynical side, campaign workers get the same sort of mistreatment that overworked and underpaid employees get across the country. It’s also the kind of thing that unions were made for. Historically, though, workers on political campaigns have had no union representation. But that is starting to change.

In May, Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign announced that “a majority of eligible staff” had decided to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, making his staff the first presidential campaign in American history to unionize. Julián Castro’s staffers also announced that they have unionized with the Campaign Workers Guild (CWG), a union formed in 2018 to organize campaign staffers. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign has unionized with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. And there has been a steady trickle of congressional and local campaigns unionizing as well. Soon, it’s possible that not only will a Democrat’s campaign buttons and yard signs have to be connected to a union, but their workers will too.

Campaigns, especially presidential campaigns, are big commitments. Working on a winning presidential campaign can mean putting two years of your life on hold. It’s easier if you’re what David Foster Wallace once referred to as the “High Command,” the top-level staff “who plan and stage events and spin stuff,” like Beto O’Rourke campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon or ex-Sanders consultant Tad Devine. If you’re a field organizer or a paid canvasser, you’re a long way from High Command. The salaries are paltry in comparison.

According to FEC filings, there were 4,200 people working to elect Hillary Clinton by the end of the 2016 election. They included field organizers, advance teams, and finance staff. Whatever strategic failures were made by the Clinton campaign, these people were likely pushing themselves to their collective breaking point. And that’s just the official campaign. By the end of the 2012 race, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just over 19,000 people were officially working in politics.

It’s a feast-or-famine industry, the BLS says, with even-numbered election years (2016, 2018, 2020) making up the fat years and odd numbers making up the lean. There are elections in off-years but they are scant. “Opportunities in this industry may be abundant one year and scarce the next,” warned a report published by the BLS in May 2016.

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.”

When I told CWG secretary Ihaab Syed about my experience on the Obama campaign, she gave a knowing laugh. “Very familiar,” she said.

Syed was drawn to politics through the experience of growing up as an Indian immigrant living in southern Mississippi. “People didn’t know what to make of me,” she said in an interview, “because I didn’t fit the black-white binary. Doing political work was a way for me to feel like, ‘Oh, I’m part of this community. People are going to listen to me.’”

Syed began at 14 (she’s 26 now), and also had a negative experience with the Obama campaign, albeit as a volunteer. But she got started in politics professionally when she was in college in New York. Local candidates in Mississippi needed help, and she ended up working as a campaign manager for five months in a race that happened to coincide with the first time the state’s legislature had swung completely Republican since Reconstruction. With the loss behind her, she returned to New York, figuring the stop in campaign work would be a one-time thing.

But anyone who’s worked campaigns and then stopped can tell you about the itch. There’s an addictive rush to campaign work. Door-knocking is tiring and can be dangerous (I was physically threatened a handful of times going door-to-door in Florida, had dogs sicced on me, and met a lot of racists who took out their hatred toward the Obama family on me), but the chance to actually talk to people about the problems in their lives can be exhilarating. There’s a feeling of constant motion and purpose on a campaign that is hard to replicate outside of that structure. When you can find the right candidate, the siren song can be hard to resist.

That’s how Syed found herself working for Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire in 2016 for 5 months. She realized another truth of campaigning: whatever feelings of intensity are felt on local or statewide campaign are magnified tenfold on the presidential level. “I didn’t realize that with a presidential, every state would be its own beast. It was almost like, mini-campaigns everywhere,” she said.

New Hampshire, which Sanders won, was tough. “There were problems” in New Hampshire, Syed said, “and things got exponentially worse in other states as we had less oversight, less of a ground game, and less HR, if there ever really was HR.” Syed didn’t mention specifics, but it’s clear that she wasn’t alone in her concerns: after the primaries, the Sanders campaign was hit with charges of internal sexism and claims of sexual harassment, prompting Sanders to apologize and pledge to do better in 2020.

Syed said she stretched herself to the point where she was “putting myself in lots of situations where, looking back, I’m like, ‘that was kind of dangerous, but I did it anyway, because of the cause.’” She hit a breaking point.

“You shouldn’t have to sacrifice yourself and your well-being in doing the work you love,” she said. “Labor has gained a stronghold in a lot of industries, but [there’s] one sector where people are still expected to be martyrs for the cause and that’s campaign work, organizing itself, non-profit work. The sort of professions where you try and get people to do the right thing.”

She and other campaign workers got together, discussing their various plights. The CWG was born. “Who better to organize campaign workers,” she asked, “than campaign workers?” Since December 2017, when Randy Bryce’s staff first organized, at least 30 workplaces— including 24 political campaigns and three state party coordinated campaigns—have unionized with the assistance of the CWG, according to the group. Some of these candidates, like Max Rose or Cynthia Nixon, have caught the national eye. Others, like Deb Haaland and Pramila Jayapal, have become key progressive voices in Washington. (“It’s about walking the walk,” Haaland told Splinter.)

Those candidates will run multiple campaigns over the course of the career, and each time they unionize it will become more normalized on the trail.

What does that look like? Syed said that the staff unions are often as fleeting as the campaigns, sprouting up and then dissolving, though the CWG infrastructure remains.

“We organize short-term workplaces and fight for fair working conditions,” Syed wrote in an email. “Often, that means that CWG’s bargaining units are more ephemeral than those you would find in other workplaces. Once those campaigns end, workers can remain members of our union as associate members.”

In a separate email, Syed declined to give too much detail around the contracts that the CWG negotiates.

“Each contract is unique and what our units negotiate around compensation is based on a variety of factors, so we can’t really comment on what is considered ‘standard issue’ for any contract,” Syed wrote. “Also, I just want to flag that sometimes publishing specific details of contracts can have an adverse affect on workers, as future management may use it to undercut workers at the table.” (Many union contracts, including the contract for G/O Media, of which Splinter is a part, are publicly available.)

Splinter was able to obtain a copy of one of the CWG’s signed contracts from 2018. Ross Barkan ran a losing state Senate race in South Brooklyn, but his contract with workers guaranteed full-salaried employees a minimum of $4,000 a month, or $4,120 after a signing raise. Hourly workers would get paid $15, or $15.45 after a signing raise. Vetted supporter housing is another guarantee, meaning it is less likely workers would have to sleep in their cars. There’s a small travel expense, comprehensive harassment policies, and Clause 21, in its entirety, says “No employee shall be required to perform services of a personal nature,” lessening the chance of Klobuchar-esque errand-running.

The hours are still long—9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. But with a concrete vision of the job’s limits, it’s easier to imagine humanity on the campaign trail. Splinter asked for confirmation from the CWG that Barkan’s contract is similar to other campaign contracts but did not receive a reply.

During our conversation, I asked Syed what a unionized presidential campaign would look like. She said that she “trying to do some visioning” on the subject. Shortly after, workers on the Bernie Sanders campaign announced they had unionized with the UFCW. In a sign of what unions can do, the staffers soon demanded better pay and working conditions. (Someone even filed an unfair labor practice complaint, though such complaints can be filed by anyone, even if they’re not connected to the actual dispute.) They reached a deal with the campaign this week which guarantees workers, among other things, a $15 minimum wage, the acknowledgement that a typical workweek lasts five days, and full health coverage for employees making up to $42,000 a year.

“Matt,” whose name is being withheld because he doesn’t want to risk identifying Miguel, joined Miguel on the insurgent statewide campaign after it already began. Matt would be recognizable to anyone who has spent time on the campaign trail: a young veteran, criss-crossing the country, moving from fight to fight. At just 23, he’s already worked on five campaigns, four as a staffer and one as an unpaid intern. “I don’t know if I’d be happy doing anything else,” he told Splinter.

He’s also seen the advantages of a unionized campaign multiple times. Sometimes, campaigns will want to cut losses and ditch their field team altogether in favor of TV and social media. When that happened on a unionized campaign Matt was on, he said he was able to get three weeks severance after he was let go.

The campaign’s staffers had organized with the CWG (a person’s immigration status has no bearings on whether or not they are in the bargaining unit). But from the get-go, Miguel had had trouble getting the money the campaign owed him. As an undocumented worker, there were special considerations with paying Miguel. “This was a situation that was clearly unjust,” Matt said. “He was in a situation where he didn’t have any type of bargaining power.”

Miguel had originally come onto the campaign as a student, working a job that paid $1,000 a month. He said he was expected to come in at 10 and leave around 7, seven days a week, hoping to organize on his college campus. His day varied. Sometimes he’d be standing behind the candidate holding a sign while they gave a speech, sometimes he’d be walking through crowds trying to get petition signatures. Expectations rose and time on campus became limited.

To make matters worse, Miguel said he had no formal contract. The shift in work wasn’t what Miguel had signed on for, but he didn’t mind. “It was the same for me,” he said. “I had this culture as an immigrant—I’m helping, I’m doing whatever I can.”

At a certain point, the dire working conditions became apparent. He noticed that everyone else on the campaign seemed as exhausted as him. “There’s this culture, like, you’re working for a campaign? All right, you’re doing seven days a week, all the hours you can do, as much work as possible. It doesn’t matter, it’s about winning,” he said.

At one point, Miguel had been on the campaign for three months and had only been paid for one. “I didn’t even know who to ask,” he said.

But then, Matt joined the campaign, and, when he heard about Miguel’s situation, urged him to take the issue up with the union.

Miguel’s undocumented status complicated everything, as did management’s apparent view of his efforts. At one point, he said found out that management considered him to be merely a paid intern, not a full-fledged worker. During the negotiations around the scope of the union, management tried to exclude him.

“[One person] just started telling me that I didn’t have anything to do with the union because in my situation, I wouldn’t be able to be part of it, and that it was crazy to think about getting a proper wage because I don’t have a contract,” he said. Another person, in charge of giving him his money, “later told me that joining a union would be pointless, since I wasn’t officially a worker so they wouldn’t be able to fight for me.”

Miguel saw these responses as indicative of the campaign as a whole. He said that elements within the campaign offered him a slightly more prestigious position of field organizer if he sided against the union.

“I was in a position where I could have gotten a better job with a better wage, but I’m gonna screw my friends,” he said. It was stressful. But then management helped clarify the situation: he could take an F.O’s job title, but would need to keep his 70-hour work week and $1,000-a-month salary. Offered a promotion in name only, Miguel sided with the CWG, which made clear to management that any contract signed with the union would also have to apply to Miguel.

“I had this immigration status, so sometimes I felt like maybe what happens to me doesn’t matter, but the union made sure that it did,” he said. “I’m really thankful for them.”

Miguel ended up with a better wage and is currently paying for a semester of college with money earned on the campaign. While he’s not sure if campaign life is a track he’s on permanently, he feels confident looking at union campaign jobs moving into the coming summer. “I know I’ll be protected,” he said.

While Miguel’s situation had a happy ending, for Matt it is a perfect example about why campaigns often end up desperate for talent. “We’re taking young, idealistic people, killing their sense of idealism, we’re burning them out in one or two cycles and then they leave,” he said. “When the next election starts off, we’re starting with a new pool of people who are inexperienced. It shows that we’re not valuing people, we’re not valuing talent, we’re not valuing institutional knowledge…we’re doing a disservice to these candidates and to the movement as a whole.”

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.

David Grossman is a freelance journalist who has written for Popular Mechanics, Rolling Stone, The Verge, The New Republic, and elsewhere. He’s on Twitter at @davidgross_man.

Correction, 1:43 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to clarify that Miguel was made a part of the CWG staff union on the campaign, and to include the most recent tally of CWG unions overall.

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