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In July, the Ohio Democratic Party became the first state party to recognize the Campaign Workers Guild (CWG), a new union for workers who do the essential, if taxing and unglamorous, work of getting candidates elected to local, state and national office.
The union is the first of its kind, CWG President Laura Reimers told Truthdig in an email, and represents an idea that campaign workers had discussed privately for years. “For decades, campaign workers have been whispering in their offices about organizing and forming a union. For too long, we’ve been underworked, overpaid and undervalued,” she says.
The specific demands vary across campaigns, but, Reimers says, “The types of issues we address are generally the same across contracts: compensation, hours, leave time, insurance, discipline.”
Among the congressional campaigns that have affiliated with the CWG are those of Randy Bryce, running to replace the retiring Rep. Paul Ryan in Wisconsin, and Max Rose, seeking the House seat currently occupied by Republican Dan Donovan in Staten Island, N.Y. Some state campaigns have joined as well.
Campaign workers say they are organizing because they are devoted to what they do but are concerned about the conditions under which they do it. “I love field [organizing] because it bridges the gap between candidate/party and volunteers/voters,” says Sarah Willenbrink-Sahin, a regional field director for the Ohio Democratic Party. “I want to work in [field operations] as a career because I see the positive change that can be made in communities by neighborhood teams and volunteers. Unfortunately, campaign work is absolutely not sustainable—the hours worked and the low pay sees workers burn out very quickly; that’s why I’m so passionate about CWG.”
In a political campaign, field organizing is the process by which staffers educate voters about their candidates. Often it involves door-to-door canvassing, contacting constituents by phone and addressing them at political rallies or other community events.
Campaign workers unaffiliated with the guild agree that the working conditions must be improved.
“It’s absolutely brutal,” says Noah Levinson, a strategist focusing on young candidates. Levinson previously worked on a variety of campaigns, including those of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, as well as on local and state races in New York City and Pittsburgh. “The hours are brutal … the pay is low,” and there is a general sentiment that ‘[t]he only way I know we’re going to win is if we outwork the competition,’ ” Levinson says.
Campaigns get away with overworking employees, he believes, by playing to workers’ sense of loyalty, along with their commitment to their country and political cause. “I think [campaign managers] could always pull this card where it’s like, ‘Are you in it or not? … Are you one of us or not?’ in terms of trying to make this country better.”
Recognition from a prominent state party is a major victory for the nascent union, a sign that even if the long, difficult work hours aren’t going away entirely, at least workers might be better compensated and better treated in the future.
But Ohio Democrats haven’t always been amenable to organizing. After they initially recognized the Union, the Ohio Democratic party hired a prominent anti-union law firm, Taft Stettinius & Hollister to represent them during contract negotiations.
“There is absolutely no way to sugarcoat this: I am incredibly disappointed by the [Ohio Democratic Party],” Willenbrink-Sahin said at the time.
The Ohio Democratic Party found itself in an uncomfortable position with the midterms fast approaching: fighting with a labor union that represents its own workers. After two weeks of intense negotiation, however, an agreement was reached the last week of September and ratified in October.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement applies to more than 80 campaign workers, including field organizers, digital organizers and regional field directors. It also include a 5 percent pay raise, time off from work and stipends for out-of-pocket phone calls and cellphones—some of the many unreimbursed expenses that Willenbrink-Sahin says have become a reality of life in her profession.
In a statement to The Plain Dealer, David Pepper, Ohio Democratic Party chair, said the deal represents the party’s intentions to live “our Democratic values not just in whom we elect, but in how we operate. … With the positive and rapid resolution of this important process, Ohio Democrats are now focusing our complete attention on stopping Mike DeWine, Jim Renacci and the harmful and dangerous policies being introduced by the entire Republican ticket.”
With the latest hard-won victory in Ohio, Reimers, the union has made considerable progress. “In about six months, 22 campaigns have negotiated CBAs [collective bargaining agreements],” she says. “There’s been a surge of campaign workers across the country who are reaching out to organize their campaigns. We’re excited that two statewide coordinated campaigns won recognition just in the first year of organizing.”
Pooling state party money, staff and other resources, these campaigns conduct voter registration, voter outreach, canvassing and other operations for multiple candidates at once. The current Ohio Democratic Party coordinated campaign is working to elect Richard Cordray for governor and Sherrod Brown to the Senate, among other races.
Coordinated campaigns are particularly important because, as Reimers explains, they are “the major organizing apparatus for the Democratic Party during midterms and generals. Hundreds of organizers work on coordinated campaigns every year; they are often workers’ introduction to campaign work, and, of course, impact working conditions across the industry.”
One of the challenges in organizing campaign workers is the transient nature of the industry. Campaigns are inherently time-limited to election cycles, and even within one cycle staffers may work on multiple campaigns leading up to both primary and general elections.
A deal covered under one campaign may not apply to another, and, as Reimers points out, not every campaign has the same needs.
The CWG aims to address this issue by having two levels of membership: working members and associate members. “Working members are currently covered under a contract,” Reimers says. “Associate members are folks who anticipate staying in the industry or are in between campaigns and are not currently covered under a contract.
“We have already had members leave primary campaigns, remain associate members, and lead the effort to organize their next campaign,” she adds. “Associate members have access to exclusive job postings from CWG positions covered under our CBAs.”
Levinson points out that all these campaigns are overseen by the Democratic Party, which could force accountability across different races: “Effectively, even though it’s transient, at the end of the day, their boss is still kind of the party. … If they win their primary, it’s the party’s responsibility.”
Beyond a transient workforce, Levinson cites the issue of money—which Democratic campaigns often lack—as a potential roadblock to unionization.
“I think unionization should be something that is a given right to anyone who’s a worker,” he explains, “but when you’re competing against a [Republican] Party that believes that people are just capital and has the funds to put that in action, it’s hard. It’s going to be really challenging.”
Even so, Levinson believes that unions, or at least collective action and organizing, have a future in the Democratic Party. “As freelancing and independent work like this becomes more common … there needs to be something new. And it might not be unions. It might just be the right to collective bargaining, the right to good working conditions.”
Reimers agrees: “Every time a worker is paid fairly, wins a day off or a fair discipline process, is a victory. This is the first time our industry is seeing a lot of these changes.”Read more