Say you work on a political campaign.
Say a colleague on that campaign is harassing you, making your daily work environment untenable. Do you file a complaint? Do you even know where to begin? On this campaign, as on most campaigns, there is no human resources department. Now say the colleague harassing you is your boss. Do you feel comfortable going over his head, knowing that you’d break rank in the campaign’s strict hierarchy? Say the colleague is actually the campaign manager. Do you go to another subordinate? To the candidate? Do you fear, even before figuring out how to file a complaint, that stepping forward might harm your career, might label you a “problematic” staffer? Do you worry that, if word ever got out, the complaint might harm the candidate, the cause that drew you to the campaign in the first place? And, in the end, do you tell yourself that it’s better to say nothing, because in political campaigns, you learn early on that, if staffers have one golden rule, it is to never, ever become the story — to keep your head down and just do the work?
Veteran operatives know that, far too often, these questions and fears can easily discourage staffers from reporting sexual harassment and misconduct. The singular culture of campaigns — the long hours, the close relationships, the power dynamics, the fear of being blackballed — has made electoral politics a particularly urgent and complex battleground in the #MeToo movement.
Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, one group of Democrats is proposing a new solution: unionize.
The Campaign Workers Guild, a progressive group that has helped staffers unionize on 12 campaigns and at one consulting firm, has positioned collective bargaining agreements as a roadmap for operatives trying to better navigate issues of workplace misconduct, establishing detailed provisions around the reporting process and a timeline for reviewing complaints.
The first step? “Just admitting that this does happen,” said Meg Reilly, a former Bernie Sanders campaign staffer who now serves as the vice president of CWG, the new guild. “Progressive campaigns are so, so convinced that they’re immune from any type of sexual harassment or racial discrimination, because we all know phrases like ‘male privilege’ or ‘prison industrial complex,’” Reilly said, describing a view on the left she summarized as, “‘We’re so woke.’”
“Don't think that just because you're working for a Bernie-like candidate that those same power dynamics don't exist. Sometimes the power dynamics are even stronger because of this idea that it can't happen here — and if you report it, you're threatening the candidate's chances.”
Robyn Swirling, a Democratic campaign operative who founded Works in Progress, a startup dedicated to ending sexual and gender-based harassment within progressive-based organizations, worked with CWG on language that could “lower the barriers to reporting.”
“Most people feel, and not wrongly,” Swirling said, “that the campaign they're working on would really rather not have these issues surface, and have everyone stay quiet and everyone keep their heads down and do the work. Because the work is why we're there — and that makes things really, really hard, when you have experienced something, to speak up about it.”
Since its launch last summer, CWG has unionized 11 campaigns across races for county council, attorney general, governor, and Congress, ratifying expansive collective bargaining agreements that cover wages, work hours, benefits, and housing, in addition to harassment and workplace conduct. (CWG officials say they’re in the process of negotiating contracts with around 25 other campaigns and “campaign-adjacent organizations,” such as consulting firms.)
“A sexual harassment policy is something everybody’s wanted,” said Reilly. “It just hasn't been done before in the campaign world.”
The contract language on harassment — present in all of the agreements CWG has helped negotiate — specifies where to file a complaint, identifying multiple people on each campaign, including a CWG union representative and a “mutually agreed upon neutral third party.”
The language also stipulates that a complaint may be filed by the alleged victim of misconduct, or a witness to that misconduct. Once a complaint has been made, a multistep timeline steers the process that follows: First, CWG is notified of the complaint immediately. The neutral third party then has seven calendar days to issue a report with findings and recommended actions. At that point, both parties have the chance to “appeal” the report. And throughout the process, the CWG language states, the complainant will not be forced to work directly with the accused.
CWG officials admit they’ve struggled with the idea that the “neutral” third party might end up prioritizing the campaign over the complainant. That role has varied across contracts, Reilly said. In some cases, it’s the campaign’s main consultant. In others, it’s the lawyer or treasurer. (On most races, Reilly said, operatives don’t have the budget to hire an outside lawyer.)
The CWG contracts also ask campaigns to hold lengthy interactive harassment trainings, hosted in person or through a live video service such as Google Hangouts.
Since last fall, when revelations about disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein set off a sweeping movement around workplace misconduct, harassment, and abuses of power, the political world has contended with its own revelations. Women in politics have come forward against powerful lawmakers. Operatives have shared stories about toxic work environments and abusive bosses. And at least some of the party committees in Washington — the entities that oversee political campaigns across the country — have taken new steps to combat harassment.
At the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the arm of the party tasked with supporting House races, operatives asked campaigns to sign an agreement that, alongside other provisions, would require “a strong written sexual harassment policy” and “extensive online sexual harassment training,” provided by the DCCC through an outside vendor.
The Democratic National Committee has mandated sexual harassment training for all employees and has encouraged staffers at state parties to take the same training. (A DNC spokesperson said they don’t have the authority legally to mandate training for state parties.)
Officials at the party’s other major committees, the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said they’ve strongly encouraged their campaigns to establish clear policies on harassment.
The DCCC’s Republican counterpart, the National Republican Campaign Committee, has also pushed campaigns to adopt strong harassment policies, providing operatives with a handbook that outlines anti-harassment guidelines and complaint procedures, a spokesperson said.
Officials at the three other GOP party committees did not respond to requests for comment.
As Swirling sees it, the steps by Democratic entities are a fine start, but not sufficient. “If you’re not getting specific about what’s required, then you run the risk of people doing this to check a box,” and of policies, she said, “that really just cover the campaign’s ass or the DCCC’s ass.”
“What do we do if somebody comes up and says, ‘Somebody on our finance committee grabbed me at a fundraiser?’ Who feels more expendable to that campaign? A 22-year-old, on their first campaign, just trying to staff [the candidate at a fundraiser] — or somebody who's a big enough donor that they're on the finance committee?” Swirling said. “You can't just crib standard anti-harassment policy language from some other organization. We need to think through really specific scenarios that make campaigns different from other workplaces.”
Campaign culture is, as Reilly put, “a petri dish.”