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The pros and cons of a campaign workers union

Monday, Mar 5, 2018

* My Crain’s Chicago Business column

According to, a total of $6.5 billion was spent nationwide on the 2016 campaign by presidential and congressional candidates.

Closer to home, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform says $134 million was spent on state legislative races in Illinois during the 2016 cycle and an additional $11 million or so on the special election for Illinois comptroller.

A huge chunk of that money is spent on advertising, which is incredibly expensive.

A smaller portion goes to campaign staff. Most of those workers are grossly underpaid, vastly overworked—regularly logging 80-hour weeks and even more—and too often treated like rented mules. Toward the end of campaigns, some candidates even decide to put all the cash they have left into advertising instead of paying their workers. As former campaign spokesman Lance Trover recently wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, with tongue only partially in cheek, life for campaign workers “is nothing short of a living hell.”

Enter the Campaign Workers Guild, a newly formed union that has so far negotiated contracts with a couple of Democratic congressional campaigns, one in Wisconsin and one in Pennsylvania. The union was in Springfield on Feb. 27 to talk to a handful of campaign staffers about the benefits of union membership.

We’ve talked about this topic before, but the rest of the column is something I haven’t written about until now, so click here and read the whole thing before commenting, please. Thanks.

Also, I noticed something the other day as I was preparing to write this column. I’d earlier posted two videos of the campaign union’s press conference and one of them got 362 views, which is pretty successful for such a long video of a mere press conference with three reporters. I didn’t think it would get anywhere near 100.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - Pot calling kettle - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 10:27 am:

    It will be interesting to see how many candidates are willing to “walk the talk.” A fair wage? Reasonable hours? A safe work environment?

    And, if they argue that each campaign is a lone entity, have they expressed support for unionizing workers at fast food franchises?

    Let’s drop the hypocrisy and see who actually supports the rights of workers.

  2. - Maybe - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 10:29 am:

    Well said. Perhaps …being sarcastic…this would give them (politicians) a view of the other side…Perhaps learning how to treat peeps in a responsible manner or even as a fair share dues payor would or could be the new standard…Accountability across the board… Actually…. now.. I tbink its a great idea..

  3. - anon2 - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 10:31 am:

    == Maybe it’s just time to start treating people better.==

    We can’t count on most employers to do that voluntarily. It’s not until workers have a voice that working conditions significantly improve.

  4. - 47th Ward - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 10:33 am:

    I remember when you got paid in cash, which was a killer at tax time, and when health insurance was something only rich campaigns provided. We’ve come a long way baby.

    But treating people well is more than decent wages, hours and insurance. Campaigns don’t need unions to treat people better, they can and should be doing that already.

  5. - PJ - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 10:34 am:

    A guild card is the way to do it. You can’t individually unionize every campaign, there’s too many. But you can get all the talent (and there’s not a huge pool) to get a guild card so that prospective employers know that hiring those people comes with the expectation they’ll negotiate reasonable working conditions.

  6. - PJ - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 10:35 am:

    ==Campaigns don’t need unions to treat people better, they can and should be doing that already==

    Sure. But just like in every other abusive work situation in history, it’s not going to happen until it’s forced to happen.

  7. - blue dog dem - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 10:38 am:

    “Fair wage”. I wonder how much that is, if you had to hand out material or talk on the phone saying how Bruce Rauner has done a good job and deserves a second term. Is there enough money in the world?

  8. - 47th Ward - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 10:40 am:

    PJ, that’s not true. I’ve worked on dozens of campaigns and have never felt mistreated. In my experience, campaigns that treat staff poorly are the exception and they are rare cases.

    For a union to be successful it has to offer something of value to campaigns. I don’t see what that is yet.

  9. - Texas Red - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 10:44 am:

    like in any other job search, you have to interview the company or in this case the campaign just as much as they interview you.

  10. - Pot calling kettle - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 10:48 am:

    ==For a union to be successful it has to offer something of value to campaigns. I don’t see what that is yet.==

    One possibility would be to organize like the Building Trades with training and apprenticeships.

  11. - Blue dog dem - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 10:50 am:

    I would like to see a campaign limit on staff. A small one.

  12. - Bothanspied - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 10:51 am:

    I wonder if there will be forced union dues /snark

  13. - Anonymous - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 10:54 am:

    contrarian view: most (volunteers) know, or should know, the hell that is campaign work. It is not forced labor - they can quit. That goes for paid staff as well. On the other hand, if a candidate doesn’t do everything possible to show thanks, gratitude and understanding, they are idiots.

  14. - SaulGoodman - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 10:56 am:

    **For a union to be successful it has to offer something of value to campaigns. I don’t see what that is yet.**

    That’s… not how unions work. A union’s job is not to provide value to the employer. It is to protect workers.

  15. - Demoralized - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 11:03 am:

    ==I would like to see a campaign limit on staff.==

    Why do you care how many staff a campaign has?

  16. - PJ - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 11:06 am:

    ==I’ve worked on dozens of campaigns and have never felt mistreated.==

    That’s good, and I’m not saying that sarcastically. But you’re lucky. I think most campaign vets on here would not recount the stories of living in supporter housing, working 90 hours a week for $10/hour with fondness.

  17. - City Zen - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 11:09 am:

    ==It is not forced labor - they can quit.==

    You could apply this reasoning to any other job.

  18. - Been There - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 11:09 am:

    One issue that could be a problem is how the work rules are written as to who does what. Most union contracts have rules on who can preform certain duties. Obviously campaigns rely on volunteers also and the unionized workers contract might spell out only those covered by the contract can preform those duties.

  19. - A Jack - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 11:09 am:

    I can see possibly a campaign workers union being a benefit for the workers if it increases the likelihood of fair pay.

    I never knew campaign workers were paid. That might entice me to look at campaign work to supplement my retirement income after I retire. Good exercise, pay, possibly union benefits, it certainly beats being a Walmart greeter.

  20. - Reaganing - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 11:09 am:

    Anyone spending 80 hours a week in a campaign office is doing it wrong. I’m tired of the antiquated thinking that you have to hunker down in these offices. To do what? If your volunteers and interns are gone why be there? People are overweening themselves for no reason. You’re an at will employee. Underpaid, maybe but it’s essentially an entry level position. I’m hearing of people making mid to upper 30s. That’s in line. If you’re an at will employee and don’t like it, quit. I think there is a lot of dated thinking on campaigns but unionizing is not the fix.

  21. - SueFromSandwich - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 11:12 am:

    Unions should refuse to give campaign money to candidates who don’t use union staff. That would either force the democrat party to unionize or learn to live on only trail lawyer money.

  22. - Pot calling kettle - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 11:22 am:

    ==most (volunteers) know, or should know, the hell that is campaign work. It is not forced labor - they can quit.==

    Seriously? That is the argument the right uses to disparage regulations covering worker safety, the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, any unionization, etc. It’s BS.

  23. - Honeybear - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 11:22 am:

    I am proud that they are
    Seizing the means of production.

  24. - Rich Miller - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 11:32 am:

    ===You could apply this reasoning to any other job. ===

    And to Janus.

  25. - Amalia - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 11:44 am:

    Maybe a good idea. But it’s not just staff at the end of the campaign and pay issues. I have encountered lots of vendors and consultants who get stiffed. People talk. Then there is the “we’ll get you another gig to get paid” when they haven’t paid you for the current circumstances. Ending a campaign without debt is a good idea.

  26. - Miss Marie - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 12:27 pm:

    It’s pretty easy to pick out what commenters have never worked a campaign before or have only worked on the easy ones before. It’s almost amusing.

    ==Anyone spending 80 hours a week in a campaign office is doing it wrong. I’m tired of the antiquated thinking that you have to hunker down in these offices.==
    ====It is not forced labor - they can quit.==

    Lol have you never worked a close race before??? There is always something more to do on campaigns and there are not enough hours in a day. There’s data to enter, lists to run, volunteers to call…

    And, yeah, campaign workers can quit, and then what? Unless you’re related to someone, you have a really hard time getting your foot in the door in politics or government. The last campaign I worked on, I would wake up every morning with dread, and tell myself that I only needed to stick it out a little longer and it would be worth it once I got a real job.

    One last point–about “interviewing the employer.” I have worked for some of the best candidates out there who cared about my wellbeing. But that doesn’t matter if the machine hires the campaign manager or field director, because that individual cares about results, not your wellbeing. And yes, the candidate should know what goes on in their own campaign, but most times they don’t. The manager or director know how to fill you with guilt if you want to distract the candidate, or scare you about being black listed.

  27. - Anonymous - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 2:44 pm:

    Why stop with campaign staff. They could amend current law to allow legislative staff to unionize!

  28. - Responsa - Monday, Mar 5, 18 @ 3:36 pm:

    If somebody had told me about this campaign worker unionization effort over coffee– and if I had not just seen this piece posted on Capfax linking a Crain’s article with Rich’s byline– I’d honestly have thought it was The Onion.

  29. - Blue dog dem - Tuesday, Mar 6, 18 @ 6:52 am:

    How about all campaign material printed by union.printers as well as all campaign goodies manufactured in the USA.

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