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October 2020

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It wasn't inevitable that Elizabeth Warren's presidential campaign staff would approach the IBEW to represent them. On the surface, it didn't seem an obvious match.

At its simplest, they weren't electrical workers. The IBEW builds office buildings, keeps the electricity flowing to them. But most of its members, with a few notable exceptions, don't actually work in them.

But Second District International Representative Ed Starr said that when he met with the Warren workers, he told them the career of a campaign worker is really not so different from the life of a journeyman wireman.

"Every campaign, even the successful ones, like every construction project, ends. A career is built on a series of jobs, a series of employers," he said. "What they want is what IBEW-founder Henry Miller wanted: decent wages, good conditions and respect no matter the job, no matter the employer."

Over the final months of 2019, Starr and International Lead Organizers Steve Smith and Steve Rockafellow organized Warren's campaign into Manchester, N.H., Local 2320, the Pete Buttigieg campaign workers into Middleton, Mass., Local 2321, and the staff for Tom Steyer's run into Worcester, Mass., Local 2325.

At peak, for several weeks in the beginning of 2020, the IBEW represented more than 1,700 Democratic presidential campaign workers.

The speed and popularity of the organizing shouldn't be a surprise. Campaign work — outside of leadership — tends to be a young person's game, and a 2018 Gallup poll showed that 66% of people ages 18 to 34 approve of labor unions, the highest for any age group.

"I'm a jaded old organizer that's mostly been banging my head against a wall called Comcast. It's been years of pain," Smith said. "This is different. It revitalized me as an organizer because we didn't organize them; we shared their goal and we built a partnership. We had one shot this spring. We had to do it right and I think we did."

Before 2020, Starr said, Democratic candidates came to a union hall for a photo because the right to form a union is core to the party's beliefs. But they had no history of unionizing their staffs. That changed when the Sanders campaign voluntarily recognized the United Food and Commercial Workers as its campaign workers' sole representative in 2019. That started a wave of voluntary recognition across the primary field, though only on the Democratic side.

No Republican candidate for any office or state party organization has a unionized campaign staff.

After Sanders, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's staff joined the Teamsters next and then Starr got a call from Warren's staff. They were shopping around, asking questions, searching for a home that was right for them.

"These kids vetted us. They're not kids, but to me and Steve, you know … we are two old white men, and they are extremely college educated. 'I went to Columbia.' 'I went to Yale.' 'I've got a couple of master's degrees and a law degree,'" Starr said. "They had a lot of questions."

And many of those questions were about diversity in the union; about representation of race, gender and the LGBTQ community in the rank-and-file and in leadership. Smith and Starr said the diversity of local and international leader they could connect campaign workers with told its own story about what it means to join the IBEW.

They met with workers across the country: in person with the New Hampshire and Massachusetts staff, by Zoom videoconference with the teams in South Carolina, Iowa and Nevada.

"They are organizers. They did this amongst themselves: Massachusetts staff was talking to Iowa, Nevada to South Carolina. They were already forming their own [volunteer organizing committee] before there was talk of a specific union," Starr said.

They collected a majority of the cards for the five states, about 350 workers, and got voluntary recognition from Warren. Then Starr asked for all employees in all states. The Warren campaign agreed but gave employee lists to the Campaign Workers' Guild, the Teamsters and the IBEW. Whoever pulled 50% plus one would get the golden ring.

"We came out on top by a large margin," Starr said. "Then we had to get smart about the business."

Smith and Starr immersed themselves in the life of a campaign worker: the pay was small but not awful, the benefits were fine, but the working conditions were crushing. Everyone worked 60- to 80-hour weeks. They had vacation days and time off, but there were no guarantees they could use them.

They came up with a draft contract that included a pay boost, parity for similar job titles, and a cap on hours. By the end of September, they had an agreement. It was ratified by the first of October.

"Negotiations may have been lightning fast, but I think that was because they had a clear idea what they wanted," Smith said. "They work long hours, they are incredibly organized and they come back with a position paper in hours that would take people like you and me days."

Then the Pete Buttigieg staff knocked on the door of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Local 405. Business Manager Bill Hanes reached out to Special Assistant to the President for Membership Development Ricky Oakland, who had worked with Hanes on the Council on Industrial Relations.

"I will never forget it. Bill called me and said they came because they heard how good the contract was the workers got from Warren," Oakland said.

Starr and Smith used what they learned in the Warren campaign to move faster, ask better questions and, ultimately, get results.

"We got better benefits, a focus on diversity in hiring and training, housing, the right to strike, a cap on hours, more job classifications, even per diems and travel reimbursement," Smith said. "It was way better than the contract some other unions negotiated."

Then Tom Steyer's campaign staff called. Paul Horner, a field organizer for the Steyer for President campaign, had what he called a "catalyzing moment" that made it clear he needed a collective bargaining agreement. Horner worked for more than a decade in Germany and saw that country's powerful labor unions in action. He reached out to the AFL-CIO, which connected him with Smith and Starr.

"The crazy thing is that we advocate for workers' rights and we are so focused on that we forget to advocate for those things for ourselves," Horner said. "They actually ask you when you start a new campaign if you are capable of joining because you just about killed yourself on the last one."

After voluntary recognition from the campaign, the Steyer staff received a signing bonus and was on its way to an agreement when the primary campaign came to a halt.

Spreading the Word

Soon after South Carolina's and a dominant Super Tuesday, Joe Biden's momentum became unstoppable. Like a job that had nothing left on the punch list, the Warren, Buttigieg and Steyer campaigns shut down and the IBEW campaign workers scattered in the wind and went looking for new work.

But this time, they had a union card and the name and number of an organizer ready to pick up where they left off.

"We had 10 people on the negotiating committee for each candidate. I emailed all 30 of them and they were either working in a state party or they knew a friend who was," Starr said. "If they had a good experience with the IBEW, I thought, they will call us back." And they did.

Amy McGrath for Senate in Kentucky. State Democratic Party permanent staffs all over the country. A Super PAC-run campaign to keep up momentum between the primaries and the convention. The calls kept coming in.

"These folks are free to go wherever. They aren't members of IBEW, but when they got jobs somewhere else, they were reaching back out to us," Oakland said.

"When we had our initial Zoom call with the McGrath folks, it was all familiar faces," Starr said. "One person from the Warren campaign pulled their IBEW membership card out of his wallet on the video. I thought that was neat and it made a real impression on the ones who had never been in a union."

One of them was Horner, who landed on the McGrath campaign. But this time, the people who hadn't organized a union before took the lead.

"My role was to answer the questions. 'Why do we need a union? We are all Democrats. We all want to win,'" he said. "It comes down to this: you do this now rather than when you need a union later."

Because campaigns can be short, organization is key. From next to nothing last year, this year there is a playbook.

"First we start organizing ourselves, get our house all together and get a website up," Starr said. "[International Lead Organizer Craig] Perica can throw up a website in a minute."

Perica said it takes considerably longer than that, but he has built dozens of websites from a flexible platform he put together.

Then they reach out to their original contact. Starr said Fourth District Regional Organizing Coordinator Bert McDermitt was a crucial link between the Warren contacts and both the Virginia Democratic Party and the McGrath campaign. McDermitt even negotiated a neutrality agreement with the Ohio Democratic Party before they hired any workers.

"We teach them the process: this is how it will go based on a roadmap we started with Warren and have refined ever since. Then we facilitate a meeting with the workers virtually, who by now have chosen a bargaining team (at least four elected people), and we send out a survey of wants, needs and priorities and generate a sample contract we have developed," Starr said.

Then the VOC does its work, talking and, ultimately, collecting cards.

"I tell them, you're forming a union, not hiring one," Smith said.

Jana Korn was working with Organizing Together 2020, a Super PAC-funded operation built to keep momentum going in the traditionally dull time between the end of the primaries and the conventions. One of her colleagues, Zoe Grimaldi, was a Warren veteran and Korn had worked for the SEIU for two years organizing health care workers. They both talked to their colleagues about the need for a union.

"Only a few were really familiar with unions, and the main obstacle was this idea that you only fight for a union if it is about wages and benefits," Korn said. "We were paid pretty well, so everything is fine. But everyone deserves a voice, even if you make fine money; just cause is reason enough."

But over time, relationships with management frayed and cards were collected, and then a new challenge arose.

"Campaigns are a weird place to be in. We always have to think of where we go next, and that is very dependent on relationships with people above you. I learned that late because I didn't come from [the campaign world]," Korn said. "It made sense over time, especially as it was close to the end of the campaign, that they were worried about the relationships."

It's a problem familiar to many construction workers. The IBEW has been a check on management power, but both have thrived for more than a century.

As with the Steyer campaign, negotiations did not conclude before the campaign was settled, but Korn said she is certain that the severance pay and extra month of health care were the result of the negotiation. And, Starr said, the process is accelerating, dizzyingly, for organizers used to monthslong or yearslong battles.

Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy's primary campaign for the U.S. Senate was one of the fastest.

"We got the cards in a day and a contract in seven days," Starr said. "We got a majority of cards at the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in less than five minutes. Soon, I think we will bring people on board in a matter of hours."

It isn't just Starr and Smith either, Oakland said. The whole of Membership Development's team is involved.

Sixth District Regional Organizing Coordinator Lynn Arwood cold-called Indiana's state Democratic party completely separately, Oakland said. The party gave her the list and said, "'You sign them up, you can have them.'" She did and now she is working on Wisconsin. Second District International Representative Steve Rockafellow was a critical part of the presidential campaigns, as was Seventh District International Representative Frank Grijalva in Texas and Arizona, Starr said.

From May to September, more than 650 people chose the IBEW, from the Democratic parties of Maine, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Idaho, Nebraska and Arizona to campaign workers in Michigan, North Carolina, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin. They joined the workers on the McGrath and Kennedy campaigns as well as staffers from a handful of U.S. House races.

"They are on fire," Oakland said of the organizing teams. "This would not have been possible without the cooperation of everyone, from local business agents and organizers to the international vice presidents. We built our organizing strategy and team for moments like this and they proved their worth every day."

"I want to thank President Stephenson for allowing this team to exist," said Second District International Vice President Mike Monahan, who helped shepherd the process and shared his staff across the U.S. "It's a high-functioning, productive group of organizers. They quickly earn the respect of the bargaining units because of their work ethic, honesty and communication skills. There's no better in the IBEW, and I would put them up against anyone in organized labor."

Starr says ultimately there could be a national agreement, not far off from the ones that cover the work done by wiremen. There would be local differences, but the key would be that no matter the employer, no matter the job, the terms and conditions of employment would be standardized for all. Reaching that dream is a way off, he admits, and for the moment, he says his schedule isn't that different from the campaign workers he is helping organize.

"Call me. Email me. Text me. We are exhausted but excited. Their enthusiasm is keeping us alive," Starr said.

Looking Past November

Political campaigns have a season, but they never really stop. The presidency is open only every four years, but the House runs every two as does a third of the Senate. And there are off-year elections, ballot measures, state and local elections.

But there is a world even beyond that where people who fight for our values in their politics but don't always see those values reflected in wages, work rules and benefits work, many of them former campaign workers: the thousands of progressive advocacy groups that are political, but not necessarily in politics.

"It's a similar situation: their dedication to a cause leaves them open to being taking advantage of," Smith said. "They are willing to work 80 hours, but they don't want to be taken for fools."

He pointed to the example of organizers in the Ninth District, who brought in the workers at the San Diego Children's Museum and are working with employees at United Way and Goodwill.

"We get these emails where they say, 'We do all that social justice work and it got us thinking about our own inequities,'" said Eight and Ninth District Regional Organizing Coordinator Bob Brock. "They just hadn't thought that the answer would be an electrical workers union. Now they do."

"I think that everyone that went through the process learned a lot about their identities as workers," Korn said. "Young people in general are so disconnected from the labor movement and not taught about it in school. It was powerful. And it will push the labor movement to look like the younger generation."

Does the IBEW sound like the right fit for your campaign or organization? Contact



Campaign staff for Elizabeth Warren's run for the presidency were the first to join the IBEW. Before the primary season ended, the IBEW represented more than 1,700 staffers on three campaigns.



When the staff for Pete Buttigieg's campaign heard about the contract Warren's workers had negotiated, they knocked on the door of Cedar Rapids, Iowa Local 405 to form their own union with the IBEW.


The IBEW has now organized the permanent and 2020 election staffs at more than 15 state Democratic parties, including the staff of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. It has built a bench of party activists who have direct experience of the power of organized labor.