Inside Democratic campaigns—Campaign Worker Unions


Recognizing the role of volunteers versus paid staff

Campaigns, especially small campaigns, struggle to recognize the difference and purpose in volunteer staff and paid staff. Some may have no paid staff—and if your campaign is small enough you can’t afford staff, then this segment is the most important for those in your campaign. 

It is important to remember that volunteers are volunteers; they are unpaid workers who are offering their time. Because of this, there are a few things campaigns must remember: do not make demands or denigrate volunteers.

No item rises to my attention faster than when Democratic volunteers tell me they were “treated poorly” by a campaign. This can include items like being chastised for not working hard enough; being provided no benefit, food or rest or praise as part of a campaign, or receiving little to no respect from a campaign.

Campaign volunteers are just that—volunteers—they are people who freely give their time and efforts to a campaign. You can’t ask volunteers to volunteer “harder.” You are making demands of someone who is freely giving time into a campaign, and chastising them or giving volunteers a hard time over the service they provide is a great way to get a reputation as a bad campaign.

Paid staff, on the other hand, are individuals who you expect to work consistently, provide logistical, strategic, or continuing field support. 

There are many reasons to have at least some paid staff—consistency, reliability and accountability are all among the reasons to hire staff. There are two other reasons that don’t get mentioned enough: because we as Democratic members believe that a day’s work deserves a day’s pay, and also because if something goes wrong, the campaign and a paid employee can part ways easier than a campaign and a volunteer.

So why unions?

Let me make it clear, if you are in a federal campaign, unionizing your workers is, in my opinion, smart. And the reasons for this step are made clear by the campaign of Randy Bryce:

Rifken and other Bryce campaign staffers contacted the Campaign Workers Guild, a new national union that organizes non-management campaign staff. “We met with the unit and negotiated our first collectively bargained contract on a political campaign,” recalls Meg Reilly, a national student organizer for the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, who serves as vice president of the guild.

Under the groundbreaking contract, the eight members of the Bryce campaign staff secured a 1 percent pay raise and reimbursements for health-insurance premiums. In addition, the contract provides for a formal grievance process and a third-party reporting system for sexual harassment.

While people focus on better pay and protections, unions also help campaigns and candidates deal with reporting mechanisms for improper behavior on a campaign. Over the past few years, the rise of the #metoo moment has pointed out there are bad actors who can volunteer, serve, or work in any campaign. One of the elements that caused this to fester in political entities is that workers are afraid that if they report to a political head of a campaign, it becomes a political issue and may damage their career. Unionizing workers gives them a non-political outside reporting method that puts power and protection back in the hands of the workers.

Good public relations

Outside of worker benefits, unionizing party entities and campaigns is good for our party—it gives us positive messaging to take to the workers who want to vote for the party, by showing them we don’t just talk about improving the lives of workers, we work diligently to do that when given the opportunity. 

I believe strongly enough in this idea that at the spring 2018 DNC meeting, I proposed a resolution, accepted cosponsors, and moved to encourage our party to acknowledge and welcome state organizations and campaign efforts to unionize.

If you are running a federal campaign, it isn’t just about the benefits for your employees, it is about the benefit for your campaign. 

My campaign is too small to unionize. Or even really pay anyone.

That’s okay.  Talk to your state party or other organization workers, and encourage them to consider unionizing. If your state hires field services through a contractor, see if it is possible for them to unionize through any entity to provide protection to their workers. 

Even more important, though, express support for campaigns that make the effort to take this step. As time goes on, these protections will continue to expand to reliable campaign workers.

If you aren’t paying any staff for many reasons, remember that they are volunteers. Just because they aren’t unionized or receiving pay doesn’t mean they should be treated with anything but respect.

  • Respect volunteers. Praise in public. If you need to correct, do so in private. NEVER chastise or disrespect a volunteer in public if it can be avoided. 
  • Do not place expectations on volunteers. If a volunteer can give you an hour, a half an hour, or 20 hours in a week, thank them for their time and effort. Do not give volunteers difficulty or any grief about why they should show up more. Volunteers are volunteers. Be grateful for their time.
  • Offer more than praise. While volunteers offer their time freely, don’t make the environment they are volunteering into unfriendly. Make sure food and drinks are available in some tasks when needed, and offer public praise when it is deserved.

Final thoughts

Federal campaigns have grown into very large, very expensive events. A great deal of Democratic money goes into them. Quite a bit of that money and resources flies into the hands of consultants, ad agencies, and outside entities. That is a necessary element in these campaigns. Treating our campaign workers well, though, is also a necessary element in walking our talk. 

Campaign unions provide the opportunity to retain campaign knowledge, better referrals of good campaign staff, and a clear means of supporting workers from any number of HR issues.

Next week: Fight! Fight! Fight!


USA News


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