The professional staff of the Idaho Democratic Party -- Aryan Parthor, Executive Director Elle Casner, Shelby Scott and Tom Hamilton-- are now members of Boise, Idaho, Local 291. They are joined by President Jeremy Redman (left) and Business Manager Mark Zaleski (right.)

For decades the Democratic party has relied on organized labor for support at the ballot. Now the staff of the Idaho Democratic party has voted to join Boise Local 291 for support on the job. 

“We saw a lack of consistency and care for workers in political and nonprofit organizations: workers having no benefits, no living wage, working as contractors,” said new member and party Communications Director Shelby Scott. “We wanted the party to walk the talk and set an example.”

The four permanent staff members of the Party signed cards in September and the Party Chairman, Bert Marley, signed a voluntary letter of recognition. First contract negotiations are set to begin soon.

In addition to Scott, new members include Operations Director Aryan Parthor, Data Director Tom Hamilton, the incoming political director and Executive Director Elle Casner who will not be part of the bargaining unit but will join the IBEW.

At least one other state Democratic party staff has organized. The four employees of the Vermont Democratic party joined a Steelworkers local in September.

Scott said Hamilton had been kicking around the idea of joining a union for years. Then, in June, at the state AFL-CIO meeting, they started asking union representatives questions about how their unions work and what union would be a good fit. They were encouraged by what they heard and decided now was the time.

“We said ‘Alright. Let’s move on this,’” Scott said.

They set a meeting with Aaron White, the president of the state AFL, who walked them through the process, gave them cards to sign and suggested Local 291.

“They were just incredibly stoked,” Scott said.

For Business Manager Mark Zaleski, the unit is small, but the message it sends is huge. Until four years ago, Local 291 was a traditional, 600-member inside construction local. But a series of successful organizing drives in new classifications has nearly doubled the membership. Most of that growth came from organizing 500 DirecTV call center workers and installers, but they also have a few dozen professional workers, 60 installers for AT&T and nearly 100 outside linemen.

“This is small in size but large in impact, this is an enormous opportunity for them and the IBEW,” Zaleski said. “It is also a statement to everyone in Idaho about who Local 291 is and that there are opportunities to organize your workplace and join a union, even in a right to work state. ”

Democrats, Zaleski said, rely on labor for funds, foot soldiers, showing up in the legislature, and knocking on doors. Voluntarily supporting the staff joining Local 291 is a way of putting their money where their mouth is.

“They know how we support them. They wanted to be a part of us,” Zaleski said. “I can tell you, every other union in the state is now asking me ‘Why didn’t they ask us?’”

It helped, he said, that Marley is a former member of the Idaho Education Association, but committee approval was unanimous.

“There are shared goals. The staff was clear that they didn’t want to break the party but they don’t want to be at-will either,” he said. “Negotiations won’t be over tomorrow because people are so spread out, but I think we will come to a contract that serves everyone.”

Party Data Director Hamilton said none of the staff feel underpaid or poorly treated. What drove them, he said, was the feeling of instability that comes from working without a contract in a cyclical business that relies on donations.

“Part of the rationale is that nonprofits don’t treat people well. They are trying to change the world and their workers don’t get paid what they are worth because they want to help,” Hamilton said. “We want to professionalize the nonprofit workspace.”

They want policies formalized and investment in professional development.

“Our next step is making this a success,” he said. “We know that when an industry organizes, conditions improve, that it is better working in a union. And we want people across the country to come, to reach out to us, employee to employee, and find out how we did it so they can do it too.”