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Bernie Sanders staffers approve first-ever union contract for presidential campaign workers

Inside the details of an unprecedented union contract for campaign staffers.

(Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

The people who power Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) White House bid will enjoy labor rights and quality of life protections unprecedented in the grueling, fast-paced world of presidential campaigns, thanks to a union contract ratified by campaign staff in early May.

Sanders’ campaign will be the first in U.S. presidential election history with a unionized staff, though a handful of down-ballot races in 2018 featured successful union drives through the new Campaign Workers Guild.

The contract secures overtime pay for campaign team members paid by the hour and 20 paid vacation days per year for hourly and salaried staff alike – plus four monthly “blackout days” where staffers can’t be called in to work on their day off. The pact establishes transparency about pay within the campaign and sets a process for appeals should anyone feel they’re being underpaid for the work they’re doing. But the detailed attention to pay equity doesn’t stop with those sunlight provisions.

The contract also sets a cap on managers’ pay. As United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400’s Jonathan Williams explained to ThinkProgress, no executive on the team can be paid more than three times the compensation of the highest paid category of rank-and-file campaign staffers in the bargaining unit. If the campaign wants to bump an executive past that point, they’d have to make commensurate raises in pay for the unionized campaign workers.

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“This is an effort for us to live up to the values of the campaign and address income equality,” Williams said in an interview. “They can’t grant lavish salaries to their top executives, as it were, without first ensuring they’ve raised the compensation for all the unionized workers.”

The pay transparency clause requires management to share outside consultants’ compensation with the union in addition to compensation within management, but large consultant payouts would not necessarily trigger the automatic staff pay hikes built into the manager pay cap, Williams said.

Interns like Reg Ledesma, who served on the union’s bargaining committee, will be paid no less than $20 an hour. In addition, full-time volunteers will get first crack at staff positions when the campaign hires to expand, and all staff will receive “broad coverage for mental health care services,” a union press release characterizing the deal said.

“You feel more at ease knowing you’re backed up by the strength of the union,” Ledesma said in the release.

Unionized staff members pose for a picture at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign. CREDIT: UFCW Local 400
Unionized staff members pose for a picture at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign. CREDIT: UFCW Local 400

That holistic support goes far beyond pay. For instance, the blackout days policy epitomizes the way this contract uniquely confronts the notoriously endless scutwork of professional electoral politics. Days off are rare in the campaign world, and staffers are almost always “on call” even when not actively working. But under this policy, managers are required to accommodate the staffers’ blackout days requests or provide an alternative blackout day within three calendar days of the request — provided the staffer gives 24 hours notice prior to the request.

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Figuring out how to structure a policy to provide truly restorative time off on a flexible basis proved challenging, Williams said, but both sides wanted to balance campaign employees’ enthusiasm for their work with the campaign’s need to have someone on call at all hours – without succumbing to the sleep-when-it’s-over burnout common to campaign staffers.

“You have highly motivated employees who want to see a campaign win and are willing to put in long hours, but we don’t want them to be disincentivized to take time off when they need it,” he said.

Campaign manager Faiz Shakir concurred: “These aren’t machines, these are humans. On the management side it’s important for us to respect that people are going to need time off, an opportunity to recharge, and disconnect for a moment if they can.”

The contract is “an opportunity to find those moments,” Shakir said in an interview. “They’re hard to come by in a campaign. But I think we can find them.”

The May 2 ratification vote among bargaining unit members was not unanimous, Williams said, but the proposed contract was approved with a majority of the 100 currently covered employees. The contract, like all steps of the unionization process, was accomplished in brisk fashion. Williams attributed the efficient bargaining process to the Sanders management team’s own enthusiasm for seeing its workforce organize.

Williams described the Sanders managerial team more as allies than adversaries in the unit-defining process as well.

“Where a hostile employer might only meet with you once a week or once a month… so that negotiations drag on forever, we were meeting multiple days a week for long days, and we were given all the time we needed with the bargaining committee to formulate proposals and solicit feedback from staff and all that. It was productive, thorough, and quick.”

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“They were amicable to [our proposed unit structure]. It wasn’t contentious,” the union staffer said. “It was a model campaign.”

Shakir says the management team was driven by a sense of higher purpose. “It’s an opportunity not just for ourselves but to show and teach others that the process can be peaceful and productive.”

The deal also reflects an ongoing shift within the broader community of progressive institutions, which have traditionally relied on young and ideologically motivated people to accept relatively light entry-level pay and intensive schedules, with the promise of moving to jobs with better pay and greater influence dangled as the payoff for paying one’s dues. Unionization drives at major progressive nonprofits have altered the landscape – and Sanders’ embrace of a unionized campaign staff may raise labor standards for everyone who plies their trade in political campaigns.

“We’re hopeful that the Sanders campaign and so many other new entities that are unionizing will be educational to a new generation,” said Shakir. “Hopefully they’ll think, hey, that’s something we can repeat over and over again.”