Campaign staffs around U.S. starting to unionize. In Philly, some see it not working

Every time she worked on a campaign, often pulling more than 80 hours a week for little pay, Julia Ackerly told herself she’d never do it again. And as soon as the campaign ended, sure enough, she’d suffer from a sort of willful amnesia. “OK,” she’d ask herself, “what’s the next campaign I’m going to work on?”

The last one was different.

After a three-month local campaign many considered a long shot, Ackerly’s slate of candidates won. But the victory party was bittersweet, tainted by what she called a toxic culture in which her manager had guilted staffers into working long hours, saying that if they didn’t, they must not truly care.

On top of that, Ackerly was broke.

No win bonus, no gas reimbursement, no pay through the end of the month. The checks they got two weeks before Election Day, it turned out, were their last. No one had prepared the team for that.

The experience was a wake-up call for Ackerly, 27, who declined to identify the campaign in question.

It wasn’t just about the money but also the message: that campaign workers weren’t valued; that once they finished the job, they were disposable.

Political veterans may be thinking: Yup. Welcome to the business.

But Ackerly — and a growing chorus of millennial campaign workers — are refusing to accept the status quo.

She is one of 17 campaign staffers running a new nationwide union called the Campaign Workers Guild, which aims to combat what they describe as the exploitative nature of the work. The movement, which went public just ahead of the midterm elections, intersects with the current cultural and economic moment: the way millennials are leading the growth in unionization, the fight for worker rights in the gig economy, and #MeToo.

“We want to set a precedent for what campaign culture can be,” said Ackerly, of West Philadelphia, who has worked on several Democratic campaigns, including District Attorney Larry Krasner’s primary race.

The point, she said, is to build a more sustainable career path for those who go into this industry. Instead of working young campaign staffers to the bone, only to have them burn out in a few years, why not develop practices that will support them and encourage them to stay in the political arena?

The union’s goal is a collective-bargaining agreement that covers all Democratic campaign workers — the party that already leans pro-labor — but right now, the group is proceeding campaign by campaign. So far, three staffs have reached such agreements with their employers, including two Democratic congressional candidates: the eight-member team running the campaign for Randy Bryce, the pro-union challenger to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in Wisconsin’s First District, and the three-member team behind Jess King in Lancaster, who is running in Pennsylvania’s 16th District. More are in the works, according to guild spokeswoman Meg Reilly, though she declined to identify them until the deals are finalized.

“I believe all work has value and all workers have rights,” candidate King said. “So I was excited that we could embody that in our campaign.”

The agreements include a salary floor ($2,500/month for King’s, $3,000/month for Bryce’s), health-care reimbursement, and a sexual harassment policy — particularly important, Ackerly said, in a workplace that often lacks a formal HR policy, where the next gig relies heavily on networking and connections, and where it’s drilled into staffers that they must not do anything to jeopardize the campaign, which can lead to sexual harassment and discrimination going unreported.

Lauren Hitt, who left her post as Mayor Kenney’s communications director to join Bryce’s campaign in January and is now a member of the Guild, said a union contract with salary floors could help diversify campaign staff.

If the industry is peopled only by those without student debt or who can afford low pay, “then we’re really going to have a divide in how campaigns are run,” she said, adding that she might not have considered campaign work right out of school if she had  college loans to repay.

This is also the first year that Hitt, 26, cannot be on her parents’ health insurance. So the health-care reimbursement in the agreement is “a huge relief.”

Democratic political consultant Aren Platt says the philosophical reasons for working on a campaign can create an environment ripe for exploitation.

“When I was doing it, everyone was doing it for the greater good,” Platt said. “It’s very hard to separate out the work that you do from this place of emotion, from trying to change the world.”

If you’re sitting down the hall from the candidate who’s spending all day fund-raising, he said, it can be hard to ask for more money. You know it could be spent on mailers or granola bars for volunteers.

Political consultant Dan Fee says he agrees with the union’s insistence on living wages, but he thinks salary floors could do campaigns more harm than good.

“It’ll chase true grassroots candidates out of the races because they simply can’t raise enough money,” Fee said. “It’ll make the impact of big money even more outsized.”

He also warns against salary ceilings, contending that they could make campaigns less competitive.

But Jessica Cosme, a political consultant and former Democratic staffer, pointed out that the salary floor on Bryce’s campaign is “very obtainable” and pretty much the going rate.

“Money is always important in every race, and every cycle, more is required to compete,” she said. “This wouldn’t have much of an impact.”

The organizing effort has left some local veteran politicians scratching their heads. They point out that campaigns are short-term positions without many of the benefits of more traditional jobs, and that’s explained upfront.

“The hours these people work are crazy, but that’s what the business is,” said former State Sen. Vince Fumo, who was incredulous that such a union would exist. “That’s just what it’s been forever.”

He added, “Unions have their place. I don’t think this is one of them.”

Former Gov. Ed Rendell said it would be difficult to negotiate a contract covering all workers because of the variables involved: the size and length of a campaign, but especially the money behind it, given the unpredictability of fund-raising.

“You’re talking to someone who’s been pro-union all his life,” Rendell said. “But it doesn’t lend itself to commonsense negotiation because the biggest variable is missing: the resources.”

His suggestion to campaign workers who feel they’re being exploited?

“Move carefully at the beginning,” he advised, “and if the conditions are lousy, then don’t sign up.”

Besides, he said, most people don’t get into this for the money.

On that, the Campaign Workers Guild agrees. A living wage is important, Ackerly said, but it’s not the sole issue in the fight.

The union leaders want training and reporting procedures around sexual harassment. They want open dialogue between management and staff. They want that elusive concept, one that might sound a touch too millennial to old-school ears: respect.

That kind of work environment, they say, would only benefit candidates.

“The stakes have never been higher to elect progressive candidates,” Ackerly said. “Now is the time to lay the groundwork. This is our moment.”