These workers are turning to collective bargaining for a simple reason. “There’s been a growing sense in Democratic politics over the past decade-plus that a lot of Democratic campaigns talk the talk but don’t walk the walk,” says the strategist Dave Hamrick, who was the campaign manager for Martin O’Malley’s 2016 presidential run. “They espouse a certain set of policies, but their campaigns don’t actually deliver on them.”
Practically every 2020 Democrat wants to boost the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Not all of them apply that same standard to their own subordinates. Salaries for field organizers, for example, are all over the place, based on The Atlantic’s analysis of Federal Election Commission filings. Biden, one of the more donor-rich candidates, is shelling out about $38,700 a year, after taxes and benefits. If that’s the Mount Everest of field-organizer salaries, what organizers for Tulsi Gabbard’s 2020 campaign are earning is at the bottom of the Mariana Trench: $14,664 a year, after taxes and benefits. And many staffers have to foot the bill for work-related expenses. For example, field organizers crisscross interstates to canvass in town after town, but they can be on their own for the hefty gas tabs (and car-maintenance bills) that come with that travel.
For underemployed staffers, the weight of a demanding gig and the stress of covering their bills can take a toll. “There’s this burnout mentality among those running these campaigns,” says Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island and the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes. “You take this 22-, 23-year-old talent and work them into the ground.”
That mentality is all too familiar to Sarah Willenbrink-Sahin, who in 2016 worked as a field organizer canvassing to elect Democrats in Ohio. “The hours were so extreme that I was driving back and forth, and I was like, I hope my marriage makes it,” she told me. “Regularly, in 2016, I was working until 1 or 2 in the morning, with the expectation that I would have to be back in the office by 9 the next day ... When you’re working seven days a week, it can be hard to, frankly, have a life—or even spend a little time with your partner.”
The taxing nature of campaign work can be self-perpetuating: Managers reared on low pay and late-night drudgery expect their underlings to endure the same. And skimpy paychecks are baked into the business model of how campaigns are run: “Campaigns do everything that they can to spend every possible dollar on the actual communicating with voters as opposed to infrastructure costs” such as payroll and staff benefits, Hamrick told me.
But the newest crop of campaign workers, overwhelmingly Millennials, are rejecting the expectation that political work necessarily means little pay and the hazard of burnout. Millennials “are asserting themselves more around saying that they want more balance in their lives,” says Janice Fine, a professor at the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations. “A generation of people working on political campaigns are striving for more balance in their lives.”