Campaign workers demand minimum wage, progressive culture from 2020 Dems

Unionizing. Paying interns $15 an hour. Ensuring time off. Institutionalizing salary transparency.

To staffers on presidential campaigns past, who were long accustomed to brutal hours and low pay, that was the stuff of liberal fantasies.

But this cycle, there is an intensifying conviction among progressive operatives that internal campaign culture should reflect the very values that 2020 Democratic hopefuls passionately tout on the trail.

“Every candidate should practice what they preach,” said Rebecca Katz, a veteran progressive strategist. “If they’re talking about the American Dream, they should provide it for their own staffers as well.”

“It’s hard to be going door-to-door, telling people you should vote for this candidate because they support a $15 minimum wage when you yourself are making less than that,” added Ihaab Syed, secretary of the Campaign Workers Guild, a union for campaign staffers. “It’s hard to go door-to-door, calling for Medicare for All, when you’re not being given health care.”

McClatchy contacted representatives for 12 Democrats who have declared or are considered likely to declare presidential campaigns and asked detailed questions about their approaches to internal campaign culture. The questions ranged from whether they would support a campaign unionization effort to whether they would commit to paying workers a minimum wage.

Only one already-declared presidential contender made a commitment: Julián Castro, the former Obama administration housing secretary and the ex-mayor of San Antonio, would support his staffers if they want to unionize and will pay a $15 minimum wage, a representative for his team told McClatchy.

According to interviews with a dozen Democratic operatives, activists and potential campaign staffers, all candidates should expect to face calls to implement similarly progressive policies — or risk charges of hypocrisy.

“There’s been a real shift in the way workers think about campaigns,” said Claire Sandberg, a veteran of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign. “That is a good and healthy thing that is not only the right thing to do but makes campaigns overall stronger.”

These new expectations — which not every Democrat sees as realistic—have roots in both evolving ideology and matters of practicality. In part, they stem from the Democratic Party’s leftward lurch on economic policy, as campaigns race to embrace issues such as “Medicare for All” and spurn corporate PAC money. In light of rampant sexual harassment brought to light by the #MeToo movement, operatives also now insist that each campaign have an aggressive anti-harassment policy in place.

And in a presidential field that could see more than two dozen candidates, those weighing their personal employment opportunities also feel emboldened to ask for more.

“There are more options, more ways to negotiate,” said Symone Sanders, who served as Bernie Sanders’s national press secretary in 2016 but is uncommitted this cycle. “In 2016, even before Sen. Sanders announced, it was widely viewed that Hillary Clinton was going to be the Democratic nominee. If you needed work over there, your leverage, your negotiating power, was not as vast.”

Added a Democratic operative who is in conversations with several campaigns: “When you’re in a...market where there’s a lot more jobs than there are people to fill it, you have more room to have that conversation. I also think it follows a natural progression of where the progressive movement is going. Folks are catching up to the idea that they have to live their values in the way they campaign.”

The new requests range from sweeping (calls for unionization) to relatively small-bore (letting staffers semi-regularly work from home). Some demands, such as hiring people of color for senior positions and having a robust anti-sexual harassment policy, are widely considered non-negotiable. (The issue of sexual harassment on presidential campaigns was recently thrown into sharp relief, as former Sanders staffers alleged instances of harassment from other colleagues on his 2016 campaign. Sanders met with a group of former staffers to discuss the matter last week.)

The Democratic operative, granted anonymity to avoid alienating future employers, said there is also a great deal of discussion among potential staffers about issues such as pay transparency, guided by the idea that if salaries are made transparent, that helps alleviate pay gap issues between men and women, and between white staffers and people of color.

Some liberal operatives are even weighing quality-of-life matters, unthinkable in many previous cycles, when it was virtually a given that there would be no life outside the campaign.

“In a field where there’s so many people, so many jobs, quality of life is going to be a consideration for some folks,” the Democrat said.

Certainly, even fierce advocates for changes to campaign culture recognize that some expectations are more workable than others.

“Could there be some changes? Absolutely. Could you get to a 40-hour work week? You just wouldn’t get work done,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, a Clinton campaign veteran and political director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance who is a strong proponent of ensuring women and people of color are brought into campaigns at senior levels. “There would just be work left on the table.”

Campaigns are temporary, shoestring operations, she added, that never have enough resources and are often just trying to survive one week at a time. Even if they can make changes such as offering more childcare support — which Morales Rocketto supports — they’ll always struggle to match the benefits of a decades-old corporation, especially when it’s unclear how long an individual campaign will survive. And it’s hardly the case that past campaigns skipped benefits.

In 2016, Clinton’s campaign offered staffers a 401(k) retirement plan and health insurance, emphasized diversity, and included a sexual harassment policy and training. And in Houston, Ted Cruz’s campaign headquarters had a playroom, set up—at the direction of his wife, Goldman Sachs executive Heidi Cruz—for kids who joined their parents at the office on weekends and after school.

But this cycle, a culture shift is undeniably underway. And that’s putting pressure on each of the existing and prospective Democratic campaigns, which are not only locked in a fierce competition for staff, but also face the risk of critics questioning their commitment to progressive principles if they fail to treat their own employees fairly.

“Anyone that has been a field organizer or a regional field director knows the amount of hours each of these races takes,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, the progressive political organization aligned with prominent new Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “If we’re not actively and proactively negotiating with workers to make sure it’s not only the campaign that benefits but also the workers, we’re not progressive.”

That pressure is expected to be especially strong on potential candidates closely linked with the labor movement, including Sens. Sherrod Brown and Sanders, should they run.

The Campaign Workers Guild, which began organizing campaigns last year, said 29 different political entities formed a union in 2018, including coordinated campaigns with the state party (sometimes, as in Ohio, with mixed results).

McClatchy sent questions to representatives of Sanders, Brown and Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, as well as to South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Reps. Beto O’Rourke and John Delaney, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former Vice President Joe Biden and Castro.

Only representatives for Castro, Warren, Booker and Delaney engaged, at a time when the Democratic field is still fluid. Representatives for Harris, who announced her presidential bid on Monday, did not respond, though activists including Morales Rocketto took to Twitter to laud the diversity of her newly announced senior staff.

“We will completely support the staff organizing a union,” said Jennifer Fiore, senior adviser on the Castro campaign. She added that the campaign plans to pay everyone a minimum of $15 an hour, including interns.

Representatives for several potential candidates talked in broader strokes about championing progressive values.

“We’re still working out the policies and procedures as it relates to our exploratory committee,” said Kristen Orthman, a spokeswoman for Warren. “But Elizabeth is committed to building a diverse and inclusive organization that lives the values we fight for every day.”

A senior Booker adviser noted that the senator pays his interns on Capitol Hill and maintains diversity in his Senate office.

“Sen. Booker has long been a leader on prioritizing staff diversity, fair pay, and setting employee policies that align with the values he stands for,” the adviser said. “This commitment is important to him now, and will always be important to him in the future.”

And Michael Starr Hopkins, national press secretary for Delaney’s already-launched campaign, said, “We are proud that our staff reflects the diverse nature of this great country and will continue to ensure that as the campaign grows, we maintain a welcoming environment.”

Ultimately, say progressive operatives watching the campaigns take shape, the candidates and their senior staffs will be held accountable for the culture on their teams.

“Folks can talk about unionizing, but I also think just talking about unionizing isn’t the answer,” Symone Sanders said. “We need to talk about campaign managers, candidates, being responsible for the culture they are creating on the campaign trail, in offices, in headquarters. The buck stops with the candidate. Your name is on that ticket, on that door. It’s your name on campaign paperwork.”