The Case for Campaign Unionization

Group of workers - cartoon

Campaign unionization is important. Just because you work on a campaign doesn't mean you can't unionize.

It seem obvious that Democrats should be supportive of campaign unionization… right? Not necessarily.

Democrats have long campaigned on being the party of the working people. For decades, we have proudly led the labor movement by fighting for higher minimum wages, pushing for better labor standards, advocating for unions and fighting against right-to-work laws. The creation of the first campaign union this past year and the subsequent unionization of Democratic campaigns nationwide caused discomfort among many Democrats who feared that a campaign with unionized staff would be either less successful or not viable at all.

But keep in mind that campaign unions are very different from any other unions -campaign workers seeking to unionize aren’t asking for big salary bumps and extensive benefits. Instead, we just want to put modest standards and protections in place to ensure that we are not only treated fairly, but are put in the position to succeed. Let’s go through the three basic reasons campaign workers unionize, so that next time someone tells you that it’s “not necessary” or “never going to happen,” you know exactly how to respond.

1) Money

Let’s start with the most controversial reason for unionizing a campaign - money. Gulp. But - isn’t the lifeblood of any campaign an overworked and underpaid staff? Not to mention, every cent spent on a campaign worker’s salary is money taken away from field or communications efforts. And since Republican campaigns certainly aren’t unionizing, aren’t Democrats are putting themselves at a disadvantage by having a unionized campaign?

As a former campaign worker myself, I can certainly understand these concerns. But let’s remember - campaign staffers are not coming together to demand $15/hour and a 40-hour work week. But what we do want is two things: (1) a livable wage, which will still be lower than usual as often campaign workers live in free supporter housing; and (2) solid reimbursement policies to make up for the high out-of-pocket costs, such as gas, event tickets, and campaign food or supply purchases.

Often, if a campaign has already provided fair wages and policies, this will not be a part of the union negotiation. When my campaign unionized, the financial demands we made were very limited, as we were lucky enough to already be receiving fair salaries. What we were missing, however, were reimbursement policies, resulting in many of us putting large chunks of our paychecks back into the campaign and just scraping by. Once reimbursement policies were put in place, a huge amount of financial stress was removed for the staffers. Plus, not only was it financially doable for the campaign, but it also lit a fire under the candidate to spend more time making calls to donors! 

2) Healthcare

The second case for unionizing campaigns is healthcare. Although Democrats across the country campaigned on universal healthcare this election cycle, still almost no Democratic campaigns provide healthcare benefits to their own staff.

I know what you’re thinking - it’s incredibly unreasonable to ask a campaign to provide healthcare to their staffers. But we know that. Which is why unionizing campaigns don’t ask for a full health insurance plan. We are asking for something much more simple - a modest healthcare stipend to those who need it to help us stay healthy both physically and mentally throughout the campaign. Plus, since campaign workers tend to be on the younger side, many are still covered by their parents under Obamacare. A healthcare stipend helps maintain a healthy and cared for workforce.

3) Human Resources

The final case for to unionizing a campaign is to establish certain protections and create a third-party human resources department. Because of the nature of campaigns, there will never be time or money to create an employee handbook or hire someone to work in human resources. As part of union negotiations, staffers get the opportunity to help draft basic guidelines and protections from being overworked, harassed, discriminated against, or wrongfully terminated. Then, if and when something does come up, there are protocols in place for how to handle situations and a third-party (the union) to help resolve and/or adjudicate any disputes.

See!? Unionizing campaigns is both fair and can be done without impeding a campaign’s success; in fact, it can help staffers be even more effective. Just like any other worker, campaign staffers need and deserve a union to create a fair work environment and give them the resources to succeed. So next time someone tells you unionizing your campaign is a non-starter, you’ll know exactly what to say.

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