Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has become the first major party presidential campaign to unionize. The campaign announced Friday it had voluntarily recognized a bargaining unit organized with the United Food and Commercial Workers.
The news comes amid a budding movement to organize campaign workers in the notoriously tough working environment that is the campaign trail. The 2018 midterms saw the first congressional campaigns and party committees to have unionized workforces. The group leading the charge to organize political staffers, the Campaign Workers Guild, organized 24 political campaigns since their 2018 launch.
“Sanders is the most pro-union candidate in the field, he’ll be the most pro-union president in the White House, and we’re honored that his campaign will be the first to have a unionized workforce,” said Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager.
Democrat Julián Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development Secretary who is also running for president, promised earlier this year that he would recognize a bargaining unit if his staffers organized. Other Democratic contenders have been mostly silent, with none but Castro saying they would support a union when McClatchy polled candidates and likely candidates in late January.
Veterans of Sanders’ first presidential run in 2016 formed the Campaign Workers Guild in October 2017 with the goal of improving working conditions and forcing progressive candidates to practice the pro-union rhetoric that they preach. The guild ratified its first contract with then-Wisconsin congressional candidate Randy Bryce, who was himself a union ironworker, in February 2018.
Other prominent Democrats whose campaign staffs unionized in 2018 include Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), Vermont gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist, and New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon.
It is not immediately clear why the Sanders campaign’s employees chose to unionize under the UFCW, a massive union that typically represents grocery store and warehouse workers, over the smaller, independent CWG.
The leadership of guild released a statement praising the Sanders campaign’s recognition of the staff union, but it also implied that it had not been included in the effort.
“While the Campaign Workers Guild has concerns and questions about the unionization process engaged in by Bernie 2020 management, their recent announcement shows that we have succeeded in changing the status quo,” CWG’s leaders said. “On even the largest campaigns, campaign workers at all workplaces will have unions and will band together for their collective empowerment. Every day, we will continue to fight for the working conditions we deserve.”
Campaign unions acknowledge that elections require workers to put in long hours. Their contracts have typically not sought to force candidates to abide by a normal 40-hour workweek, but instead secured higher pay, health care and retirement benefits, paid sick leave, paid personal time off and due process when a worker is fired.
The hierarchical leadership and pressure of campaigns can also breed impunity for sexual harassment perpetrated by managers or other members of campaign staff against their fellow employees. Several women who worked on Sanders’ 2016 campaign subsequently complained that the campaign did not adequately respond to the harassment they experienced on the campaign trail.
In an effort to improve, Sanders implemented mandatory harassment training for all campaign workers in his 2018 Senate re-election bid and hired a law firm to serve as an independent body where people can bring their harassment complaints without fear of retaliation.
A labor union can also serve to advocate for employees who have experienced harassment by pushing their case with management.