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Bernie 2020 becomes first unionized presidential campaign in history

Biden campaign: ‘If staff decided they wanted to unionize, the vice president would welcome it’

Bernie 2020 says it is the first presidential campaign in history to ratify a union contract. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Bernie 2020 says it is the first presidential campaign in history to ratify a union contract. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Updated, May 9, 2:29 p.m. | Working for a campaign can be grueling, especially because staffers lack the formal human resources structure of a more traditional workplace. But hourly workers for the Bernie 2020 campaign can now count on overtime pay.

That’s because the campaign for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders ratified a collective bargaining agreement last week, the first presidential campaign in history to do so, according to the campaign. 

Workers will be represented by United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 400.

Campaign manager Faiz Shakir said in statement Wednesday that Bernie 2020 had “set the bar higher for the next generations of campaigners.”

“We are proud of our workers and proud to uphold Bernie’s commitment to collective bargaining rights and a strong labor movement,” Shakir said.

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Local 400 has never represented a campaign staff before, and UFCW has never represented such a high-profile campaign.

“I congratulate our members on the Bernie Sanders campaign for making their own revolution,” Local 400 President Mark P. Federici said in a statement.

The protections guaranteed to Sanders staffers in the contract, according to a release by the UFCW Local 400, include:

  • Overtime pay afforded to all hourly employees
  • Health care benefits extended to all field organizers. These workers “will eventually constitute the vast majority of campaign staff,” the release said 
  • A $20 hourly wage and health benefits for all interns working out of the national headquarters
  • A “clear but flexible workweek” for all staffers
  • Dedicated days of the month when an employee is not on-call
  • Dedicated meal breaks and mandatory time off between long shifts
  • A total of 20 paid vacation days
  • Coverage for mental health care services
  • A pay equity review process for employees who feel they are being underpaid “that protects their right to request a review without discrimination, discipline, or being discharged by management,” according to the campaign
  • A clear grievance and arbitration process, anti-discrimination policies to protect immigrant and transgender workers, and labor committees to resolve ongoing disputes with management
  • A cap on management compensation pegged to staffer salaries

In some ways, organizing campaign work is just like organizing any kind of work, Local 400 spokesman Jonathan Williams said.

“Campaign work is a hard job. But it’s by no means the only hard job,” Williams said. 

But because campaigns are so abbreviated, the contract had to come together quickly, which would have been difficult had Sanders been hostile to the push. 

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“It was somewhat different in that campaigns are comparatively so short-lived, we wanted to both bargain a contact throughly, that would reach the best outcome, and we also wanted to do it quickly. Typically, contract bargaining can take months, even years. Especially a first contract,” Williams said.

Precisely because campaigns come together quickly, and only for a few months before an election, staffers have historically been vulnerable to burnout, harassment and abuse, advocates say.

Grassroots organizations have ramped up pressure on campaigns to install protections for workers in recent years, especially the employees of Democratic candidates who court the support of labor unions.

The collective bargaining agreement reached by the Sanders campaign sets a precedent that competing campaigns should match, Williams said. He said he has not been in touch with other national Democratic candidates. 

The Campaign Workers Guild, an independent national union founded by former electoral organizers in 2017 to unionize campaign staffs, appealed to the Sanders campaign for two months for a meeting to negotiate a neutrality agreement.

Ultimately, the campaign turned to UFCW, which boasts 1.3 million members. 

“While we wish our union had been given an opportunity to represent these workers, we fully support Bernie 2020 workers and are excited that campaign workers have succeeded in changing the status quo. On even the largest campaigns, campaign workers at all workplaces will have unions and will band together for their collective empowerment,” the guild said in a March statement.

Sanders’ closest rival in Democratic polls, former Vice President Joe Biden, made early overtures to the labor movement in his first public appearance after his campaign announcement, describing himself as a “union man, period.”

“We are confident that the work environment, pay and benefits will meet the standards that a union would normally have to bargain for, but, of course, if staff decided they wanted to unionize, the vice president would welcome it,” a campaign spokesperson said in a statement to Roll Call.

“Unions built the middle class in this country, and Vice President Biden has been a strong and unapologetic supporter of organized labor and the right to collective bargaining for his entire career. Vice President Biden also understands the amount of work that goes into a successful campaign and has committed campaign leadership to proactively work with staff to provide not only fair pay and benefits, but also a workplace environment free from bullying and harassment.”

Sanders outpaced other 2020 Democratic candidates in donations in the first quarter of 2019, with $18.2 million raised, making him better positioned to hire more staff with a decent wage, raises and health benefits.

Biden launched his campaign late in the quarter, but matched Sanders’ first-day fundraising; the former Delaware senator said he raised $6.3 million to the Vermont senator’s $5.9 million. 

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