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Sen. Bernie Sanders' Campaign Staff Frustrated By Leak Airing Union Dispute

A cloud of resentment, fear and frustration consumed the Washington presidential campaign headquarters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Friday, as staff members fumed that an internal labor dispute was revealed without the union’s blessing.

“People are confused,” said one member of the Sanders campaign union, who, as with every other person interviewed for this story, requested anonymity to speak freely. “The general question is: What was this meant to achieve?”

A second campaign worker offered a harsher assessment. 

“It is disrespectful to the bargaining unit that put so much work into the process that someone would take their concerns and go to the press with them,” the worker said. 

The Washington Post reported Thursday night that unionized Sanders campaign field organizers are unhappy with the terms of their first-in-the-nation collective bargaining agreement. 

Under the terms of the contract, field organizers, who are typically in their 20s, earn $36,000 a year with free “platinum” health insurance coverage, 20 days of paid time off a year and 30 days’ severance pay in the event of layoffs. The workers claimed, however, that their long work hours, often 60 hours a week, effectively keep their compensation below $15 an hour, according to the Post, which noted the gap between those working conditions and Sanders’ leading role in the movement for a $15 federal minimum wage. 

The article chronicled these workers’ internal efforts to pressure management into improving the contract, including a reported attempt to bombard campaign manager Faiz Shakir with complaints on the workplace chat application, Slack. 

The level of detail in the account makes it clear that the Post wrote the story with the assistance of current or former Sanders campaign staff members with access to that kind of information.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) addresses a rally of union workers fighting the closure of a Philadelphia hospital on Monday. Support for unions is a hallmark of his campaign. (Photo: Jacqueline Larma/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

But the Post’s story also provides evidence that management of the Sanders campaign is bargaining in good faith with the workers’ union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, to amend the contract, which was ratified before the campaign hired any of its field organizers. In mid-May, Shakir proposed raising the organizers’ pay to $42,000 a year and clarifying that the  workweek would typically be six, rather than five, days.

The union rejected the offer because if an employee earns more than $36,000, the contract only requires the campaign to cover 85% of the cost of health care coverage. The union had planned to offer a counterproposal this week that would bump field organizer pay to $46,000 a year and maintain free health care coverage for staffers earning up to $60,000.

The decision by an individual worker or workers to pursue their own strategy in the media is a sore point for many on the staff. UFCW Local 400 confirmed to HuffPost that it did not sanction any discussion of the negotiations with the media. The leakers did not solicit the consent of other members of the bargaining unit either, according to three staff members who spoke to HuffPost.

As a result, the critics of the leak said, unionized employees reacted to the article with a mix of anger and bewilderment, wondering why someone would discuss a matter that is the subject of seemingly amicable negotiations with management without their permission. 

“It shows we’re not on the same page,” the union member said, referring to the decision by colleagues to speak to the Post. “That’s not how you behave on a campaign like this; that’s not even how you address this particular issue.”

The negative attention from the article is particularly concerning to these staffers because it gets to Sanders’ core argument that he is the most qualified to take on corporate power and fight for working-class Americans’ interest.

In the past, Sanders has faced questions about, among other things, his commitment to gun safety regulations and addressing racial injustice. 

But his dedication to eradicating economic inequality and championing organized labor has rarely elicited scrutiny. It was a point of pride for Sanders that his was the first presidential campaign in U.S. history to recognize a staff union, in mid-March. Less than two months later, it became the first presidential campaign to ratify a collective bargaining agreement.

Now the Sanders campaign is eliciting accusations of hypocrisy from Republicans and some Democrats that threaten to undermine Sanders’ candidacy. Ironically, if the incident contributes, even modestly, to the early demise of Sanders’ White House bid, it will have ultimately prevented workers from getting paid at all, employees noted to HuffPost.

“Many of us are wondering whether it was someone who was fired who was disgruntled, or maybe even someone who actively infiltrated the campaign and doesn’t believe in our movement,” said a third staffer. “Whoever did it acted in bad faith to hurt Bernie and all of us.”

At the same time, some staffers are also disappointed in Shakir and UFCW Local 400 for allowing the tensions to come to a head to such a degree that anyone felt the need to escalate. After the union rejected Shakir’s offer in mid-May, Shakir repeatedly told staff that their window had closed for a raise. Frustration from field organizers not in personal contact with Shakir and other Washington-based leaders led to the revolt on the campaign’s general Slack channel, where any current ― and possibly some former ― staffers had access to it.

“People are mad at Faiz, at the UFCW, and at the leaker,” the third staffer said. “The whole situation is awful.”

Both the Sanders campaign and UFCW Local 400 were tight-lipped on Friday, referring HuffPost to diplomatic statements that did not directly address the conflict. 

“We cannot comment on specific, ongoing internal processes between our members and their employer, particularly without the consent of our members,” said UFCW Local 400 spokesman Jonathan Williams.

Sanders himself exercised less caution in a Friday interview with the Des Moines Register that sparked debate on social media. “It does bother me that people are going outside of the process and going to the media. That is really not acceptable. It is really not what labor negotiations are about, and it’s improper.” 

Sanders also promised that field organizers would work fewer hours ― he suggested 42 or 43 ― until an agreement is reached on a pay increase.

For some poll watchers, the incident reflected the inherent contradictions of managing a collective bargaining agreement in the hectic, high-stakes confines of a presidential campaign.

Campaign workers have historically been expected to work long, irregular hours with the knowledge that their mission-oriented effort would be over in no more than two years. Idealism and the shot at securing more prestigious and lucrative positions in the future were typically seen as a consolation for the modest pay and long hours, particularly for young people starting their careers.

“It’s very tough to fit a union into that kind of workplace, a temporary workplace,” said a longtime Democratic strategist who began work in politics as a field organizer in the 1990s and requested anonymity for professional reasons. “It’s not like people are setting up shop for a long career there.”

The UFCW is also accustomed to representing workers in grocery stores, retail establishments and warehouses where a 40-hour workweek is more compatible with the job requirements, the strategist said.

A campaign, the Democrat continued, is “a wholly different animal.”

Currently, only two other presidential candidates have recognized their campaign workers’ unions: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro. 

Warren’s campaign told HuffPost that it has not yet reached a collective bargaining agreement with its employees’ union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2320. A spokesperson said the campaign already pays its field organizers $3,500 a month ― $42,000 a year ― and covers the cost of their health care coverage.

Castro’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ultimately, whether those campaigns encounter similar labor challenges could be out of their control. Acknowledging that powerlessness and being ready for unexpected developments might be the best way for campaigns to prepare, said one progressive strategist and former union organizer.

“It’s not a question of fault. It’s just the nature of the world,” the former union organizer said. “Like most any bargaining unit out there in the world, there are some people who are not happy with the deal and want to see it expanded.”

This article has been updated with more details.

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