Workers at the largest Democratic campaign committee in the country are set to unionize, which could spur more professionals on the left side of the political industry to join the ranks of organized labor.
With Democratic practitioners increasingly wanting to live their values in the workplace, some firms have adopted co-op business models. In other cases, their employees have voted to unionize.
But the labor movement has also made inroads on campaigns — Teamsters Local 238 represented some field staffers on the Biden campaign last cycle — and increasingly state parties. The move by DNC employees could be the most influential in spurring more unionization given that it’s, by far, the largest bargaining unit with an estimated 120-150 employees.
By comparison, the Communications Workers of America’s Campaign to Organize Digital Employees, known by its acronym CODE-CWA, now represents 75 of Democratic firm Blue State’s campaign strategists, analysts, developers, and other staffers following a unionization vote last fall.
Moreover, the DNC workers’ choice of representation, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), is known as one of the fastest-growing and most aggressive in the labor movement. Each SEIU local has its own empowered leadership, but many adopt similar tactics. SEIU locals recently led a lengthy strike of some 2,000 public service workers in Chicago, organized a walkout of hospital staff in Las Vegas and threatened a strike at 12 nursing homes in Western Pennsylvania.
In 2005, the national organization left the AFL-CIO because it felt the umbrella labor group wasn’t doing enough to stem the attrition of union membership.
The SEIU is also an active contributor to candidates and committees on the left. In the 2020 cycle, it was ranked 17 out of 21,691 for its contributions by OpenSecrets.org. Those donations totaled $27,992,765.
A spokesman for the DNC bargaining unit said the selection of SEIU Local 500, which also represents workers in education, non-profits and in human services in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area, was because it “aligned with our values.”
“The best thing that we can do is set an example,” said Lucas R. Acosta, a spokesman for the DNC union bargaining unit. “The DNC is the largest campaign committee, one of the most recognizable brands in Democratic politics — we know that when American works are strong, America is strong.”
For its part, DNC management said it welcomed the move by the staff.
“This is a great opportunity to continue letting our staff know how incredibly respected they are, and for the DNC to further benefit from the input of our smart and talented workforce — as we partner in our joint mission of winning elections for Democrats,” Adrienne E. Watson, communications director at the DNC, said in a statement to C&E.
The committee also sent out a release Tuesday saying the unionization effort didn’t stem from “workplace disputes,” which often drive collective bargaining efforts.
“That is not the case at the DNC,” the release states. “Staff and management in fact agree that unionizing the workplace is a real-life adoption of Democrats’ shared values and are taking the final steps to voluntarily recognize SEIU Local 500.”
The release came after a report in The Hill on Tuesday said unionization “plans have run into opposition from top brass at the DNC.”
In his interview with C&E, Acosta declined to discuss what issues could be addressed when both sides sit down at the bargaining table. For now, the members of the bargaining unit and management are trying to determine which staff can be defined as part of the membership. But practitioners with knowledge of the DNC’s internal workings told C&E that unpaid overtime and remote work possibilities could be issues that come up.
To the latter point, more political employers are touting flexible work options when posting jobs, including the DLCC which has this line in its ad for a director of online fundraising position: “We believe in work-life balance and understand that every employee has unique circumstances at home. We offer employees significant amounts of time off as well as flexible work options.”
A lack of work-life balance is an issue as old as the campaign industry itself with many young staffers and consultants facing burnout or health risks because of the hours they work.
Acosta, the spokesman for the DNC bargaining unit, said the issue of organizing a union had come up repeatedly during his tenure at the committee, which includes a stint from 2017-2019 before rejoining the comms team in March.
He said the bargaining unit’s first official conversation with SEIU Local 500 took place in January 2021. With the pandemic still impacting staff working out of the DNC’s offices on Capitol Hill, organizers adopted a strategy of connecting with workers via private messaging app Signal, and holding Zoom calls with staff who were isolating rather than holding traditional in-person meetings.
The ongoing pandemic “forced the organizers to shift gears,” said Acosta. “They did it incredibly effectively and an overwhelming majority of eligible staff have signed cards.” According to management, the DNC has roughly 250 staffers.
Management and the bargaining unit said it was too early to tell when they’ll sit down at the bargaining table. That date will be set once they decide on the size and scope of the bargaining unit and then go to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to certify.
SEIU Local 500 declined to comment on whether it was working to organize more units in the political industry, saying only that its leadership was “thrilled” to welcome the DNC staff.
Also celebrating the DNC’s employees signing onto to form a bargaining unit was the Campaign Workers Guild, which has been organizingto representstaffers in the space as well.
“This moment speaks to the power that Campaign Workers Guild members have built over the last five years,” said CWG President Meg Reilly. “Hundreds of workers across elections and agencies of all sizes have come together to demand better working conditions and ensure that this industry is a place where workers’ rights are respected.”