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The inherent contradictions of unionized political campaigns


Staff member
Mar 19, 2024
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President Joe Biden is the first candidate expected to win their party’s presidential nomination with a unionized staff. Whether this is anything more than a symbolic sop to the labor movement remains to be seen. A political campaign is uniquely ill-suited to operate under the terms of a collective bargaining contract, but the unions are going to try anyway.

Biden’s move is part of a growing trend towards such collective bargaining started by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) during his 2020 White House bid. Sanders’s action was seen at the time by political pundits as a bold political experiment, with many liberals calling it long overdue.

There was a practical reason why political campaigns hadn’t previously been unionized: They are, by definition, temporary. Most successful unions are connected to stable businesses, places where workers expect to continue to be employed for the foreseeable future. Without that stability, workers have little reason to form a union because they’re not likely to be around for long themselves.

A political campaign, by contrast, lasts for about a year and a half and then is dissolved. Maybe some staffers return a few years later when and if the candidate runs again or perhaps the team moves on to a different politician but every campaign is a unique, self-contained enterprise and comes with an expiration date: election day.

A candidate for office has little time to negotiate a serious collective bargaining contract so the process, which in traditional businesses can easily take months, will have to be abbreviated. The union may not have much leverage in the negotiations. It can request limits on work schedules, demand more time off, higher wages, etc., and all of the other things a union wants for its members but a campaign may not be in a position to grant generous terms. Its funds are usually limited and its first duty is to elect its candidate. Campaigns are high-pressure environments that often require sacrifices from staffers.

There is precedent for unions for temporary projects, such as construction work or movie productions. In those cases, the workers are unionized prior to getting the job. The union sets industry-wide standards that it tries to apply to all potential employers. That is likely the long-term goal for the unions involved in campaign organizing: Get enough candidates to agree to unionize so it becomes the norm.

Once that tipping point is reached, the unions will be able to negotiate industry-wide. Reaching that tipping point will not be easy since Republican candidates will oppose unionization outright.

One issue is how far campaign unions would be willing to take a clash with management. Construction unions are not afraid to halt projects that are currently underway. The movie industry is still recovering from an actors’ strike. Would a campaign union go that far? Would they be willing to cause trouble for their candidate?

Even a hint of a story that “Candidate X’s campaign staff is in revolt” will be extremely damaging, especially if the union vote is considered important in the election. Sanders experienced this problem in 2019 when it was reported that his campaign paid some staffers below $15 an hour, the candidate’s proposed federal minimum wage.

“It does bother me that people are going outside of the process and going to the media,” Sanders huffed to the Des Moines Register. Candidates will be pressured towards more pro-unions positions generally if only as a way to avoid bad public relations.

A union that actually did go on strike against the candidate, or just attempted to be disruptive, could kill the campaign outright. Which is precisely why the unions will be unlikely to use such tactics. Workers don’t labor on behalf of a candidate they do not want to succeed. When the stakes are high, campaign workers sometimes sacrifice for their candidate in a way they wouldn’t for a traditional 9-to-5 job.

Another awkward factor will be the presence of campaign volunteers. Campaigns thrive on them and the more charismatic the candidate is the more excited amateurs they draw in to their cause. The existence of volunteers gives the campaign leverage against the union because it provides an alternate source of workers. Volunteers could, in effect, become a source of scab labor. That’s not a problem currently but it could become a source of internal friction if collective bargaining becomes widespread.

For all of these reasons, it is unlikely that unionization will benefit campaign workers that much. Staffers are likely to still be obligated to work long hours in high-pressure situations if they are at all invested in the candidate succeeding. Union leaders will benefit much more because they’ll boost the movement’s numbers and have a new way to pressure the candidates to tow the union line. From the union leaders’ perspective, that’s probably good enough.

The post The inherent contradictions of unionized political campaigns appeared first on Competitive Enterprise Institute.
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