Employees of two DFL campaigns in Minnesota have unionized, joining a fledgling national effort to bring protections to jobs notorious for grueling hours and brevity.
The Campaign Workers Guild, founded this year by former staff members of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Democratic presidential bid, has so far signed up workers in 12 campaigns. Among them: Adam Jennings’ DFL campaign for Minnesota’s Third Congressional District seat and the gubernatorial campaign of state Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul. It was the first campaign for governor to join.
Meghan Sutter, 26, a field director for the Jennings campaign, hopes the Guild will make it easier to turn such jobs into sustainable careers. “If it’s a career choice instead of just a six-month choice, that would be great,” said Sutter, who is on her fourth campaign. Four members of the Jennings campaign belong to the union.
Aisha Chughtai, 20, an organizer for Murphy’s campaign, said its six union members are guaranteed 40-hour work weeks with at least one day off, extended health care coverage that includes dental and vision, severance pay and a process for harassment complaints.
Full-time organizers negotiated a raise over their $3,400 monthly salaries and will get another boost if Murphy wins the Aug. 14 primary.
Some of those benefits already were in place, Chughtai said, but the unanimous vote to ratify the contract enhanced workers’ sense of security.
She’s especially grateful for a guaranteed day off. “People who are well-rested and well taken care of are better workers and healthier and happier workers,” she said. “As Democrats, we talk about working families and working values, and it’s a great way to show that we are walking the walk.”
Murphy said she understands the importance of unions. She’s a former executive director of the Minnesota Nurses Association and has worked for the organization as a lobbyist and organizer.
“I want our team to burn brightly and that means having standards” in the workplace, Murphy said. It’s time for candidates to recognize that campaign workers are professionals, she said.
Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, said union organizing efforts “are springing up in new kinds of places.”
Uber and Lyft drivers, child-care providers and home health aides are among workers who are trying, he said. “People are getting more creative about trying to find new models and trying to make unions relevant to new groups of workers,” said Sojourner, who served on President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.
Union membership data for 2017 from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed an increase of 262,000 wage and salary workers over 2016. In all, 14.8 million U.S. workers belonged to unions, down from 17.7 million in 1983. Most are in public-sector unions.
Sojourner said that unionizing campaign workers also sends a message to an important part of the Democratic coalition, much like a union “bug” on printed materials does. “They want to signal … the alignment of their campaign with the goals of improving workers’ economic conditions,” he said.
Colin O’Neill, a volunteer field representative for the Campaign Workers Guild, said the independent union hopes to recruit Republicans, but he doesn’t think that “will be a common thing.”
The union’s goal is to go beyond ensuring job protections during campaigns and create longer-term security for professional organizers, O’Neill said. Between campaigns, workers could continue to pay modest dues to the Guild and have access to job postings, training and perhaps health care coverage.
He doesn’t expect union requirements to make campaigns more expensive, requiring candidates to raise more money. “I see endless sums of money pour into big media buys … and dumped into the pockets of consultants,” O’Neill said.
The first collective bargaining agreement was ratified in February by employees of Randy Bryce, a Democrat and Ironworkers Local 8 union member who is running in the Aug. 14 primary to succeed outgoing U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Julia Doubleday, 31, is data director for Laura Moser’s Democratic congressional campaign in Texas and its shop steward. She said Guild membership hasn’t drastically changed the work environment, but added, “We all feel good about [knowing] that we have a seat at the table.”
Brad O’Furey, 30, manager of Democrat Dan Haberman’s congressional campaign in Michigan, has worked on campaigns for a decade and remembers being paid $20,000 a year to work 90 hours a week. Unionizing, he said, is “only natural” for workers who are the lifeblood of a party “that has supported labor unions for a very long time.”
Other unionized campaigns are in Iowa, Illinois, New York, California, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, welcomed the new union.
“The progressive movement needs to live up to its values. We have to treat our organizers with respect and dignity,” Ellison said in a February tweet. It included an open letter outlining the Guild’s mission statement: “Every worker deserves fair wages, a sustainable career with reasonable hours, and respect from management.”