Bernie Sanders' Staff Union Demands Better Working Conditions

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign staff is apparently engaged in their very own fight for $15, according to the Washington Post. Due to overwork, the staffers, who are one of only a few unionized campaign staffs, say they are making less than the living wage that their campaign is promising to all Americans.

Documents obtained by the Post show ongoing negotiations between the union, represented by United Food & Commercial Workers Local 400, and the campaign management starting in May. The two parties still haven’t reached an agreement about a higher wage for campaign workers. According to the Post, it’s unclear whether Sanders himself is aware of the situation.

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The union said in a statement that it couldn’t comment “on specific, ongoing internal processes between our members and their employer.”

From the Post:

“As union members, the Bernie 2020 campaign staff have access to myriad protections and benefits secured by their one-of-a-kind union contract, including many internal avenues to democratically address any number of ongoing workplace issues, including changes to pay, benefits, and other working conditions,” the statement said.

“We look forward to continuing to work closely with our members and the management of the Bernie 2020 campaign to ensure all workers have dignity and respect in the workplace.”

But according to the Post, the union is in the process of drafting a letter to Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir demanding higher wages.

In the letter, the union writes that campaign staffers “cannot be expected to build the largest grassroots organizing program in American history while making poverty wages. Given our campaign’s commitment to fighting for a living wage of at least $15.00 an hour, we believe it is only fair that the campaign would carry through this commitment to its own field team.”

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The letter alleges that field organizers are working a minimum of 60 hours a week, bringing their actual wages down to an average of $13 an hour. The letter said “many field staffers are barely managing to survive financially, which is severely impacting our team’s productivity and morale. Some field organizers have already left the campaign as a result.”

It’s well known that field organizers on most campaigns are treated like shit. They are usually inexperienced young people who hunker down in a remote location to work nonstop during campaign season under extremely stressful conditions. Many work 6 days a week or more. When Sanders campaign staff unionized, it was in part to provide better conditions for these low-level workers. The staff for the Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro campaigns have followed suit.

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The union contract signed by the campaign on May 2nd established minimum wages that were meant to allow all workers to make at least $15 an hour, including interns. 

From the Post:

Field organizers, who are on the front lines of the campaign’s crucial voter contact efforts, were to be paid not by hours worked but via an annual salary set at $36,000. Regional field directors were to be paid $48,000 annually, and statewide department directors were allocated $90,000 per year.

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Because of their intense schedules, these workers are apparently not making the wages promised.

At a union meeting on May 17, Shakir himself apparently recommended raising field organizer wages to $42,000 and changing guidelines around hours. The union rejected this suggestion, because it would require the higher-paid workers to contribute more money to health care costs.

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On July 11, the campaign workers took collective action on the campaign’s Slack to demand higher wages. Field organizers began messaging Shakir on the platform.

“I am struggling financially to do my job, and in my state, we’ve already had 4 people quit in the past 4 weeks because of financial struggles,” one field organizer wrote in a message to Shakir. Another employee said he and his colleagues “shouldn’t have to get payday loans to sustain themselves.”

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“As you know, real change never takes place from the top on down, it always takes place from the bottom on up,” another employee said, paraphrasing a frequent Sanders line.

Shakir apparently responded to the comments later that day in an email.

“I do believe you are owed an explanation for the situation we find ourselves in,” he wrote in the email obtained by the Post.

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“I have no idea what debates and conversations were had, but candidly, it was a disappointing vote from my perspective,” he wrote, referencing the union’s rejection of his previous proposal for higher wages. “But the campaign leadership respected the union process and the will of the membership.”

The draft of the letter to be sent to Shakir proposes wages of $46,800 for field organizers. It also asks the campaign to cover all health care costs for employees making less than $60,000 a year. Currently, only those making less than $36,000 a year have premiums fully covered by the campaign.

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