Progressive campaigns are putting their pro-labor platforms into reality in the 2020 election cycle as a handful of campaigns, including the campaigns of presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are unionizing with a promise of better pay and insurance for campaign workers.
That trend landed in Alaska on Labor Day when U.S. Senate candidate Al Gross, a nonpartisan who’s pursuing the Democratic nomination for the position, announced that his campaign would also be unionizing. In a video announcement released Monday, Gross says his campaign will be the first unionized campaign in Alaska when it unionizes with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.
“As we grow our economy into the future, Alaska must treat its workers with fairness and respect all along the way,” he said.
Gross, a doctor and fisherman from Petersburg, is the first serious challenger facing Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan in 2020.
Unionized campaigns are becoming more popular this year as Democratic and progressive candidates court unions at a time when Republicans and conservatives are attempting to undermine or dismantle unions. Several presidential campaigns have begun exploring unionizing, while Sanders’ campaign is the only to have ratified its labor agreement.
Organized labor in Alaska has long been a powerful player in politics, bringing big money and organization to bear on elections both through direct support of candidates and through independent expenditure groups. The involvement of unions—as we saw in the 2014 gubernatorial election—or the distancing of unions—as we saw during much of the 2018 gubernatorial election—can play a large role in an election.
Gross’ announcement is a sign of clear support for unions at a time where organized labor is politically galvanized in the face of conservative attacks. Conservative efforts from the national level with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME to last week’s announcement by the Dunleavy administration to get directly involved with the unionization of state employees has been particularly motivating for unions as they’ve pledged a legal battle over the out-of-contract changes.
Unions have said conservative attacks have done the opposite of the intended effect as union membership—and union coffers—have grown in recent years.
“Union membership is at a 50-year high. I think the Janus decision and what Dunleavy is doing here is having the opposite effect of what they intended,” Alaska State Employees Association Executive Director Jake Metcalfe told The Midnight Sun last week. “They’re driving people to become members because they see what Dunleavy’s done, which is to violate the contract and people’s constitutional right to association and ability to organize. They see this is just an ideology to take power away from people, and they don’t like it. He is the best organizer we’ve had.”
On the national level
Practically, unionizing campaigns has come with its challenges. According to a report by Time, it can be difficult to hammer out an agreement on the limited timeline of a political campaign. Sanders’ campaign was reportedly ratified in a “matter of weeks” while other presidential campaigns have yet to finalize their union agreements.
Pundits have also wondered if the cost of unionizing—paying employees better—would ultimately undercut the campaign’s finances.
“The irony will not be lost on Republicans, if payroll costs ultimately impede the campaigns of the two candidates most dedicated to workers’ rights and protections,” wrote David S. Bernstein in a column titled “Can Socialist Bernie Sanders Run a Unionized Campaign on a Budget?” “Or, perhaps those very campaigns will prove that well-treated workers produce the best results for an organization. That’s certainly what they’re hoping, even if it makes for difficult choices at budget meetings—and maybe even an occasional dark desire to be more like those ruthless capitalists.”
Still, unions can bring much-needed protections for campaign workers who are often expected to work long days with few breaks and without fair compensation. Sanders’ union contract, for example, gives employees four “blackout days” a month where employees are not expected to be on call.
Details of the Gross campaign’s plan to unionize were not publicized as part of the announcement.