Hey, Texplainer: Campaign workers for Laura Moser, a Democrat running for Congress in Houston, recently unionized, which guarantees them benefits such as health insurance, paid sick days and paid leave. How come most political campaigns don't already do that for their employees?
Though the workers initiated this, Moser’s support of the move aligned with her campaign’s message. Since announcing her congressional bid, the Democratic activist and journalist has run as a progressive advocating for things like universal Medicare, and improved access to paid family leave when a baby arrives, a child falls ill or an aging parent experiences a medical emergency, according to her campaign website.
“I’m proud of my team for taking this important step to stand in solidarity with one another and with workers all over Texas,” Moser said in a recent news release. “Democrats need to walk the walk when it comes to standing with labor.”
Texas is one of 28 "right-to-work" states in the nation, which means employees aren't required to pay dues or join unions — and those who do join unions and associations must opt in to have membership dues automatically deducted from their paychecks. Approximately 5 percent of working people in the state are unionized, according to Ed Sills a spokesman for the Texas AFL-CIO. Moser’s campaign has said its the first in the state and one of just 10 in the nation to unionize. But this raises the question: Why aren’t Texas candidates already giving these benefits to their employees?
For starters, it’s expensive.
“We often have discussions in the political operative community along the lines of, ‘How can we say that things like affordable health care and so forth are important if we don’t offer that to our people?’ But we do have to consider cost. That’s a reality,” Colin Strother, said a Democratic campaign consultant unaffiliated with either Moser or her runoff opponent, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. “Not every campaign has a $1 million budget. Not every campaign has money for anything other than the basic core functions of the campaign.”
A spokeswoman for the Moser campaign declined to comment on how much her staff’s unionizing will cost.
Another reason why unionized campaigns aren’t the norm? Time off, in most cases, is an “unaffordable luxury,” Stother said.
“The only thing more finite in campaigns than money is time,” he added. “We can’t afford to let people take off weeks, or even days, in a two-month special election or a two-month runoff election. ... It’s just kind of an understood reality that when you get on a campaign, your life is over as you know it and you’re going to work however many days and hours it takes to win.”
Minh Nguyen, a former campaign worker in Texas and current member of the Campaign Workers Guild, an independent national union representing non-management workers on electoral and issue-based campaigns, said he heard about exactly those kind of sacrifices when he signed onto campaign work.
“For a long time, this was kind of seen as the price you pay. We were told you have to sacrifice your health, financial security and time with your family to get to the future that we believe in,” Nguyen said. “But no one benefits when workers are exploited because what ends up happening is that you have workers who get burnt out.”
Luke Macias, a GOP political consultant who counts some of the Texas Legislature’s most conservative lawmakers as clients, said people who tend to get involved in political campaigns understand the sacrifices involved.
“Workers on both side of the aisle don’t get involved to help somebody make a change in order to have a good 401(k) policy,” he said. “That’s just the reality.”
A third hurdle for political campaigns trying to unionize: Campaign workers are, by definition, temporary workers. And despite the long hours many campaign workers put in, some question whether it makes sense for candidates to set up and pay for benefits for workers who might only be on a campaign for a few months or weeks.
That being said, there are some benefits to unionized political campaigns — and not just for the workers. Days after Moser’s campaign announced it was unionizing, the candidate scored an endorsement from the Harris County Labor Assembly, which said in a news release that Moser’s values “represent those of working families: access to quality health care, good paying jobs, dignity in the workplace, and quality public education among others.”
“A union contract is going to attract high-quality workers. If a working person sees that there’s good pay and more benefits for any job, they’re more likely to apply for it,” Sills said. “As a political benefit, if a campaign has a union staff, labor unions will look upon that kindly in their endorsement processes.”
The bottom line: Cost, time restraints and the transient nature of most campaign workers are among the reasons why more political campaigns aren’t unionized. But advocates argue that unionized campaigns reap some benefits, such as keeping employees from getting burnt out. Also, labor unions typically look more kindly upon unionized campaigns in the endorsement process.