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Exploitation in Politics: The Treatment of Political Organizers by the Democratic Party

By Morgan Mitchell

Many people dream of making a difference with their lives. In America, we are told that the best way to make a difference and create change is to enter politics. Politicians build platforms on creating change and promise to do so--but only if they get elected first! That’s where political organizers come in.

Political organizers are usually in their twenties, fresh out of college and eager to pursue their dream of making a difference. They’re the ones knocking on doors, calling voters, registering people to vote, texting voters, and recruiting volunteers to help. This is the dirty work that isn’t normally talked about when discussing the glitz and glamour of working in politics. Yet it is arguably the most crucial work, without political organizers (or campaign workers if they are working for a specific candidate) these candidates and political parties wouldn’t have any momentum.

Unfortunately, political organizers are exploited for their labor, especially by the party that claims to have the working class’ best interest in mind: Democrats.

Political organizers for progressive non-profits and campaign workers for Democratic candidates often work 9am-12am, seven days a week. They are not paid overtime, are very rarely given benefits, rarely make a living wage, are not allowed to take days off, are given weekly or daily quotas that are nearly impossible to meet, and more often than not are fire-at-will employees (meaning they can be fired at any moment with no warning and without explanation).

Andy Thorburn’s campaign for CA39 House of Reps. He lost in the primaries.

Many organizers aren’t even aware that their horrific working conditions are exploitation because campaign managers and non-profit state directors know what language to use to gaslight and blind political organizers to their exploitation.

Common phrases organizers will hear from their bosses are: “Not everyone is cut out for this kind of work,” or “this is what you’re passionate about so it doesn’t feel like work,” or “this is necessary in order for us to win the election,” or “you were warned about this in your interview” or “this is for a good cause,” as if a cause that exploits labor can ever be considered “good.”

Organizers are made to feel special, like superhero martyrs sacrificing themselves for the greater good. When in reality, no one is cut out to be exploited and work over 40 hours a week. Unions fought for 40 hour work weeks because studies show that working over 40 hours has negative effects on both employees and consequently the organization or company they are working for.

Ihaab Syed, Secretary of the Campaign Workers Guild, a union recently formed by former campaign workers that fights for the rights of campaign political organizers, told Street Vibes that campaign workers need to reject the premise that overworking yourself and allowing yourself to be exploited is the path to victory for the causes that you care about. “It’s not fair to ask people to work past their breaking point.”

By saying that people who are passionate about their job shouldn’t feel exploited, organizers’ employers are making them feel separated from the rest of the working class they belong to, above them in a sense. The exploited factory workers aren’t passionate about their work so that’s why it’s wrong to exploit them, right? Not necessarily, one could love their factory job, but still deserve a living wage and overtime.

Syed also noted that if this kind of work is something you are passionate about, you should find a way to make it sustainable so you don’t have to change careers after experiencing burn-out.

Full-time organizers who pursue this as a career are usually salary workers, meaning they aren’t paid hourly and don’t clock in or out. That seems convenient in theory, no matter what--you get paid for 40 hours a week. But exemption laws allow these workers to get exploited and work way over 40 hours and not get paid for it, all legally.

At an event titled “Lunch and Learn” held at the University of Cincinnati’s Women’s Center on September 20th, when asked how to avoid exploitation in a field that regularly exploits workers, Kelly Freeman, Central/Southern Ohio Organizer for NARAL Pro-Ohio, and Stephanie Kollmann Baker, Senior Field Manager at Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region, said that one has to just get lucky with who their boss is and hope they are not allowing their employees to work over eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. That is hardly ever the case.

If employers or the law aren’t going to help fight back against this exploitation, what is? Unionizing. The Campaign Workers Guild is working with campaigns trying to do just that.

Their website says, “We are campaign workers from across the United States who are committed to improving our work conditions, empowering organizers, and promoting healthy career longevity

Ohio Campaign Workers Guild supporters.

The Campaign Workers Guild works to improve pay, create processes to prevent and report sexual harassment, and fight for “the basic labor protections that all workers deserve.”

Their end goal is for political campaign organizers is for their work to be fairly compensated, their experience properly valued, and their rights adequately protected. “Until then, we organize.” The Campaign Workers Guild has unionized over 23 campaigns, including the Ohio Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign, the Campaign for Ohio.

On top of supporting unions like The Campaign Workers Guild, Democrats must also focus on electing more working class people into Congress and working on campaign finance reform. Right now according to data collected by Vox, “workers make up less than three percent of the average state legislature and the average member of Congress spent less than two percent of his or her entire pre-congressional career doing the kinds of jobs most Americans go to every day.”

This means that a vast majority of the candidates exploiting their workers have never been in their shoes and studies show these Democrats won’t vote or draft legislation to help the workers that are the reason they got elected.

Syed said that there is a lot of hypocrisy in political workplaces where they say they fight for 15 dollars an hour and healthcare for all, but then don’t give that to their workers. Syed mentioned that the Ohio Democratic Party hired Republican lawyers that specialize in “union avoidance,” which according to Syed is the polite term for union busting, to represent them at bargaining meetings. Only recently did the Democratic National Committee finally start paying their interns after it was reported that Republicans are more likely to do so. This doesn’t mean that Republicans are the party for the working class, their legislation and voting records say quite the opposite.

Republicans just have donations from special interest groups such as the NRA that give more than enough funds to pay their interns. Fighting for campaign finance reform and publicly funded campaigns will even out the playing field between the two parties and there will be less pressure to work twice the amount of hours as Republicans in order to match their visibility bought with hundreds of advertisements.

Right now, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are enemies to the working class and until campaigns and political nonprofits stop exploiting their workers, Democrats can’t claim to be “progressive” or the party the working class can believe in.

With 2020 elections just around the corner, Syed says campaign workers need allies on the outside who help push for them and support them emotionally and the best way to support campaign workers is to let them know unions exist that can and will represent them, they don’t have to be afraid to stand up for their rights and working conditions they want to see. Remind them It’s illegal to be retaliated against for trying to form a union at your workplace and back them up with whatever they decide to do.

United we bargain, divided we beg.

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