Candidates for 139 of the General Assembly seats to be chosen in three months have the opportunity to join Del. Lee Carter’s (D-Manassas) decision to allow his campaign staff to join a labor union, the United Food and Commercial Workers. Campaigning as a Democratic Socialist in his improbable victory in 2017, Carter, a 32-year-old former Marine, has again adopted a forward-looking position, becoming the first candidate in Virginia history to directly employ union campaign workers.
The relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party is one of those self-evident principles of political life in America. Largely since FDR’s administration, this has held true. However, that relationship has been mostly one-sided, with labor unions providing money, field operatives, phone banking, and other campaign tactical support virtually all to one party. A number of developments and forces have altered this traditional paradigm: an ever-increasing gig economy necessitating freelance and short-term work; year-round political campaigns, especially grassroots ones, for example, involving gun violence, gerrymandering, voting rights, and abortion, among others; and an increasing need for specialist and highly trained personnel in technology, marketing, and digital and online media and fundraising.
Thus, in addition to old-fashioned door-knocking, the 80-hour weeks of campaign workers have morphed into something else. As a broader range of political campaigns have emerged, experienced campaigners are increasingly drawn from one geographical location to another, as they pursue political goals. This confluence of events has generated a nascent demand for the unionization of campaign workers.
The short shelf life of political campaigns, chronic shortages of funds, and the grueling nature of the work have long mitigated against campaign workers forming a union. However, with the increasing needs of campaigns for professional staff, the notion of unionization has become more attractive and, in the case of Democrats, necessary—both practically and politically.
In 2018, Randy Bryce initiated a union agreement for his campaign staff for his Wisconsin race to defeat Paul Ryan’s hand-picked successor. Bryce chose an organization called Campaign Workers Guild (CWG). State legislative campaigns from Texas to New York, California, Pennsylvania, and Illinois are reported. And two state party organizations—Idaho and Vermont—saw their staffs join unions. The Vermont group affiliated with the Steelworkers and the Idaho staff with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Nationally over s few months, the campaigns of Eric Swalwell, Julian Castro, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren have witnessed their campaign staffs unionize. Major poll (Pew, Gallup, MIT) results report that 55-60% of Americans have a favorable opinion of labor unions including 42% of Republicans up from 26% in 2011. While actual membership in traditional blue collar areas continues to decline, some familiar labor unions have geared to organizing workers employed in gig economy jobs. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers initiated WorkersGuild for this purpose. NewsGuild, affiliated with the Communication Workers of America, successfully concluded representation of Buzzfeeed employees headquartered in NYC.
CWG now claims some 600 members. Interestingly, the choice of the term guild may reflect a conscious election to distinguish itself from labor organizations in industrial settings and align with groups such as the Screen Actors Guild, Film Directors Guild, and Newspaper Guild. In short, guilds tend to be non-blue-collar organizations, tending toward arts and media. Its organizers have included veterans of several campaigns. It has argued:
If you cannot pay your workers a living wage, you shouldn’t have any. You should not be a candidate.
The presence of CWG in political campaigns will facilitate recruitment of experienced workers across boundaries and enhance the posture of candidates with traditional labor organizations, solidifying the traditional relationship.
In addition to electoral campaign workers, a handful of corporate entities engaged in polling and consulting have also unionized, indicating the extension of labor organization into related enterprises. While the Commonwealth is characteristically crowned as a leading jurisdiction favorable to new business development in large part due to its strong public policies against labor organizations, development of unionized campaign workers at the state party, congressional, and presidential levels is likely to exert some trickle-down effect on local campaigns.
Electoral victories, in part driven by unionized campaign workers, may justify and pay for themselves in the long run. With three months to go and 139 opportunities for a multiplicity of candidates from both parties, a 2019 Blue Wave in Virginia could be another step toward a more perfect union between labor and political parties. There is no present evidence of nascent union organizing of Republican campaigns or related organizations. However, as the polling data shows, the possibility remains.