With an announcement made this week, the campaign staff of Randy Bryce — a union ironworker who is challenging Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan — became the first in the country to form a union.
The contract was organized by the Campaign Workers Guild, a group of former campaign workers from all walks of life who had for years casually discussed the idea of unionizing, but finally got together to make it happen.
Colin O’Neill, an organizer at the CWG, told The Intercept that he had discussed the idea of organizing campaign staff for years with others who regularly worked for political candidates. He cited 80-hour workweeks and other persistently difficult working conditions as the reasons why they want to organize campaign workers.
“The industry is chronically underpaid and campaign workers are pretty overworked, so it was a pretty unhealthy situation for the workers,” he said.
“It was actually really great, it was kind of liberating,” Bryce told The Intercept about what it was like to be on the other side of the table in a union drive. “I spent almost a year as a full-time staff organizer for the Ironworkers.”
When asked if we will soon see the campaign worker union movement spread to other candidates, O’Neill said they are talking to a number of campaigns who have reached out and that in at least one campaign, both the candidate and campaign staff are supportive of the staff forming a union.
Lauren Hitt, a spokesperson for Bryce and a member of the new union, said that while the new contract does offer some paid time off and holidays, the hectic pace of campaigning could still drive staffers to work in cases in which they’re needed. “If Paul Ryan decides to tweet something idiotic about $1.50 on a Saturday, we’re all working,” she said. “Our first job is to get him elected.”
Currently, the CWG is just working with campaigns for candidates for office, but it is also open to expanding its focus. “We’re really open right now — the campaigns that we have a contract with and the ones we’re negotiating with,” O’Neill told us. “We’re very much open to the idea of working with issue campaigns. Really there’s no limit in terms of whether we’re willing to work with smaller or lager campaigns as well.”
O’Neill also confirmed that the campaigns the guild is actively working on organizing are Democratic candidates, but they are also open to working with campaigns from other parties. “It’s time for candidates to really live their values and support the labor rights they fight for,” he concluded.
Nate Rifkin, who served as the union steward for Bryce’s campaign, said in a statement that Bryce is that sort of candidate. “Unions fight for worker rights and dignity. They help facilitate more equal relationships between labor and management. Every worker deserves the right to join a union, and that includes campaign staffers. The workers on our unionized campaign are proud to work for Randy Bryce, a person, and candidate, who practices what he preaches,” he said.
For his part, Bryce is willing to go even further. The lack of recourse for Capitol Hill staff who face sexual harassment or abusive bosses has increasingly become a subject of debate in Washington. When asked how he feels about congressional staff unionizing as well, he was instantly on board. “Absolutely,” he replied. “I can’t imagine that there wouldn’t be [a way to do it legally]. Question is what the actual bargaining unit would be.”
In other words, the question might be whether to organize workers in a single office, or to try to organize all congressional staff across offices who have the same duties, such as legislative correspondents, whose job is to read and reply to constituent mail.
Overall, Bryce said, the reaction he’s been getting has been overwhelmingly positive, but he has seen a comment or two — one in particular from an anti-union activist — that questioned why Bryce should be elected if he’s such a terrible boss that his staff had to unionize. As Bryce paraphrased the criticism, “You wanna get this guy elected, but you’re afraid of him and need to organize?”
The exercise, said Bryce, was useful to help rebut that negative image of organizing. “He just doesn’t get that this was a willing process,” said Bryce.