Reading about the new Campaign Workers Guild (CWG) the other day piqued my interest. This is not the first time that organizing campaign staff was contemplated over the years. In fact, just last year the Vermont Democratic Party staff joined the United Steelworkers (USW) to represent them. When I was working as a Union Official, we perceived a conflict of interest when it came to organizing campaign staff, because our main goal as a union was to get the politician in office to ultimately pass laws that would support the union, and decided to not pursue organizing them.
Many campaign staff workers do work for unions. For example, when Kwame Kilpatrick first decided to run for Mayor of Detroit, the District 2 USW union endorsed him, and I assigned three of my organizers to work on his campaign full-time while being paid by the union. However, many of the lower-level campaign workers were non-paid volunteers, and the lower-level paid campaign workers who could be unionized received very low pay, turnover levels were high, and the groups were relatively small (except, of course, in presidential campaigns, which generally have thousands of low-level workers). These facts still hold true today. For example, the first bargaining agreement the CWG union reached with Wisconsin congressional candidate Randy Bryce covers only eight workers. There are only a few units that have organized with the CWG, and all have been achieved through direct recognition.
The more cynical reason that we chose to not organize campaign staff was that any organized group would cause a political nightmare when grievances and unfair labor practice complaints were filed (and the well-publicized incident of Hillary Clinton shielding Burns Strider shows that these issues exist in even the most highly-scrutinized politicians' campaigns. As many first-time political campaigns operate on a shoestring budget, these types of actions could be the difference between winning or losing the campaign. And God forbid there was a strike! How could we possibly maintain our credibility as being "for the people" when we supported candidates who were being struck?
Some left-wing organizations are pushing for budget busting items, such as overtime, healthcare (which in Bryce's contract is covered as healthcare reimbursement), vacation pay, and refusal to perform hazardous work like pinning flyers to bulletin boards, licking stamps, or ringing the doorbells of strangers. At first blush, these items may seem reasonable, until you understand the economics of most political campaigns where the low-level campaign workers are driven by dedication and a belief in what the candidate stands for. This is honestly more of an intern position than a full-time job. In fact, I have held hundreds of AFL/CIO-sponsored "union summer programs" where college students worked for my department for a few hundred dollars per week and housing (two to a room). Even more cynically, we would use contract language at our unionized organizations to bring members out of their jobs as "casual organizers" who worked night and day on political organizing campaigns for their base pay, no overtime, and (many times) outside of their home state. For us, it was all about the economics, and to the organizers, it was all about the possible advancement to a union position (which almost never happened).
Out of curiosity, I began to investigate the CWG to see what union support they had, and who was on their organizational chart. I think what surprised me the most was the lack of any detailed information about the organization on the Internet. I had to spend some time investigating who they were. Their website, at time of publishing, says nothing about who runs the CWG; it simply lists the usual talking points about their mission and a general description of the union. After searching through various news articles and social media postings and accounts, this I what I was able to find:
I have never heard of any of these so-called "leaders", so I performed more research. My research did not show many career accolades for any of them:
As far as I can tell, Laura Reimers (23) has worked on around nine Illinois state political campaigns, including "Rock the Vote", the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, and Center for American Progress over the past few years.
Colin O'Neill (28) has worked on several Maine Democratic Party campaigns and a few Main state political campaigns, and volunteered with the "Obama for America" campaign in 2008.
As for the "co-founders", Emma LaBounty was a field organizer for Bernie Sanders' 2016 Presidential run. It also appears from viewing her Twitter feed that she was involved with the Graduate Student Union (GSU, an affiliate of the AFT) union campaign at the University of Chicago, which Bernie Sanders supported in 2017. The vote count was 1103 Yes and 479 No votes.
Meg Reilly (24) was also a field organizer for Bernie Sanders in 2016, but at this moment, she appears on the Maine State Employees Association – SEIU Local 1989 website as a Field Representative. This is confusing and surprising to me, because the CWG states that they are an independent union and have no national union affiliations, although they also state that they are a 100% volunteer-driven union.
I am sure that the SEIU is not allowing one of their employees to fly around the country to organize workers unless there is a quid pro quo arrangement either now, or in the future. This seems like a back-door approach to organize these workers and/or to indoctrinate them into the union mindset for future use. Even if Reilly is working as the Vice President of the CWG on a volunteer basis as they claim, the SEIU is paying her a salary, and she still is responsible to complete her duties to the SEIU. The question is, which is more important to the SEIU: her duties as a paid organizer, or her "volunteer" duties with the CWG?
In addition to the few "leaders" of the CWG that I could find on the Internet, there are also references made to an advisory board made up of 16 individuals; however, I can find no references that actually identify who these individuals are, or what organizations they are affiliated with.
It is vital for unions to indoctrinate young people into the mindset that unionization is the only venue for working class people to achieve justice. There are many examples of this determination on the part of the unions:
- The World Trade Organization (WTO) protests were one such example. From my time as a union official, I remember the 1999 WTO protest in Seattle, WA (or, as we called it, "The Battle in Seattle"), during which we met with over a thousand college students to recruit them into the union movement.
- Over the years, Unions have organized and participated in pro-Immigration protests. In 2010, during "May Day Marches" that took place in 21 states and 47 cities across the country, unions took the opportunity to recruit support for organizing campaigns across the country. The SEIU went so far as to set up stations for this purpose.
- The "Occupy Wall Street" (OWS) protest in 2011 that spread across the country was another example of the unions seizing an opportunity to align themselves with an energetic social movement. The OWS movement grew after the unions' endorsement; unions stepped in to provide the social movement with structure and direction, which in turn garnered union support from across the country.
Unfortunately, there is also a risk to unions aligning with social movements. One example is the OWS support of the Longshoremen union, which was experiencing conflict with the grain exporter EGT. The OWS marched on, and in some instances, closed, some of the nation's largest ports in order to support the Longshoremen, even though the union's leader did not want the OWS actions to take place and publicly called on them to halt any actions targeting the ports.
At my firm, we have had direct experience with the OWS organization in Rochester, NY. A client of ours was going through a brutal organizing drive with the SEIU. At every turn, we found OWS volunteers working hand-in-hand with the union to disrupt our client's business operations.
When I first began researching this article last week, the CGW had organized seven campaigns according to their website. As of publishing, they have added two more:
- Rand Bryce for Congress (WI-01)
- Jess King for Congress (PA-16)
- Chris Wilhelm for Montgomery County Council (Maryland)
- Andy Thorburn for Congress (CA-39)
- Bryan Flynn for Congress (NY-19)
- Dan Haberman for Congress (MI-11)
- Renoto Mariotti for Attorney General (Illinois)
- Marie Newman for Congress (IL-03)
- Erin Murphy for Governor (Minnesota)
Just as the unions attempted and failed to leash the OWS supporters, I foresee the same thing happening with the CWG push to organize political candidates, as it could easily turn into a nightmare for them. These idealistic, driven campaign workers could really back the politicians into a corner. If they deny the CWG organizing attempts, the union could raise a public backlash against the politicians, thus causing a campaign loss, which would contradict Big Labor's goal of electing union-supporting candidates to office.
The CWG know this; they have stated that their intentions are to be voluntarily recognized vs. taking organizing drives to the NLRB. They also know that they politicians they are targeting must publicly praise their efforts as the "working class" and unionization are part of the platform they are running for office on.
Another interesting speculation is whether union self-interest will win out. Big Labor will look at the tens of millions of dollars that they spend to support these political campaigns, and the thousands of man-hours they are donating towards the elections. Then they see an upstart union collecting dues and not sharing any direct dues payments or affiliate revenue.
While I admire the energy the CWG are displaying, I believe that it will not be long before the large national unions' leadership will have this small startup union in their crosshairs and will put a stop to it. That is, of course, unless there is more to the story than the little information that can currently be found on the Internet (i.e., that this is not similar to the collusion between the Fight for $15 movement and the SEIU).