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Democratic Campaigns Start Unionizing in #MeToo Era

Move could protect against sexual harassment and lead to better employee benefits

Wisconsin Democrat Randy Bryce, who is challenging Speaker Paul D. Ryan, says letting his campaign workers unionize was “a natural thing to do.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Wisconsin Democrat Randy Bryce, who is challenging Speaker Paul D. Ryan, says letting his campaign workers unionize was “a natural thing to do.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When Randy Bryce’s campaign for Wisconsin’s 1st District was only two staffers deep, one of them told him he was thinking of forming a union.

“There wasn’t really thought involved,” said the Democrat challenging Speaker Paul D. Ryan about allowing his campaign staff to unionize.

Campaign workers who have formed unions hope their organizing can lead to better employee benefits such as higher wages, time off from the grueling campaign grind and better security in cases of sexual harassment.

So far, six congressional campaigns, all for Democratic candidates, have unionized. Besides Bryce, the others are Jess King in Pennsylvania’s 11th District, Brian Flynn in New York’s 19th, Dan Haberman in Michigan’s 11th, Andy Thorburn in California’s 39th and Marie Newman in Illinois’ 3rd.

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For Bryce, a union ironworker, it was the first time people came to him as a boss asking to unionize.

“I’m on the other side of it, and it was such a natural thing to do,” he said. “It makes me even more convinced.”

Outside support

The main force behind unionization has been the Campaign Workers’ Guild, which launched last year. Organizer Ihaab Syed said the group emerged from the multiple conversations among campaign workers about the benefits of unionizing, an idea no one had previously committed to. 

“Pretty much everyone has toyed with the idea of how great it would be to have a union,” she said, but “the pressure of working on an electoral race is so great and the deadlines are so short.”

With the newly formed guild, Syed said the process begins with campaign workers approaching it about their interest in unionizing.

“We start discussing with them what they are looking for and see if they can push for the conditions,” she said. In response, campaigns then go to the campaign management with the call to organize.

In the case of Thorburn, who is running for an open Southern California seat, his campaign voluntarily recognized the union, according to campaign manager Nancy Leeds.

Like Bryce, Thorburn is also a former union organizer who has spoken out about going to jail for organizing for the American Federation of Teachers.

“What we do is a profession like anything else,” Leeds said. “Andy went to jail as an AFT union leader. He knows what it’s all about.”

Some of the requests the Thorburn campaign agreed to included reimbursement for cellphone service, a 1 percent raise and having a codified process for taking time off.

“I want everyone to be taking care of themselves, do their best work anyway,” Leeds said. “A lot of this was good to have in writing.”

Domino effect

Shannon Fitzgerald, communications director for Flynn, who is challenging Republican Rep. John J. Faso in an upstate New York district, said her team was inspired by Bryce’s move.

“We didn’t know that was a thing because only four campaigns had unionized,” she said. “We got collectively excited.”

Eight women make up the Flynn campaign’s paid staff, and Fitzgerald said unionization can be a way to protect staffers in cases of misconduct.

“Everyone benefits from policies in place to help with sexual harassment,” she said.

Such moves come amid high-profile instances of politicians accused of misconduct, including Rep. Ruben Kihuen, who was accused of sexually harassing a campaign staffer in 2016. The Nevada Democrat is retiring after this term

One important aspect of the Bryce campaign’s reporting system for sexual harassment is that the complaints are reported to a third party.

“It’s huge,” said campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt.

Syed said that while many women in the campaign world have faced some sort of harassment, most don’t have a formal protocol to follow. Having the protection of a union makes a difference.

“It’s just having a policy everyone knows or can refer to. It’s just a way to make sure workers don’t feel they’re voiceless,” she said.

While Bryce’s campaign has received praise for being union-friendly, the candidate said the credit goes to his workers for organizing.

“It’s not always the easiest thing to want to do. They could be out of the job,” he said.

Bryce also said he is pleased that so far, all of the campaigns that have unionized have done so voluntarily.

“That tells me there are a lot of good candidates,” he said.

Correction 3:28 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote about Andy Thorburn by his campaign manager Nancy Leeds to Ihaab Syed. 

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