How campaign workers fought to achieve the first-ever collective bargaining agreement with the MN DFL


Behind the scenes of Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL)’s Nov. 6 historic general election wins, campaign workers claimed a lesser-known victory, won after a fraught struggle against  – ironically – the DFL.

Minnesota campaign workers negotiated the first-ever collective bargaining agreement. Their efforts in securing this agreement from the MN DFL were aided by Campaign Workers Guild, an independent national union formed by former Bernie Sanders campaign workers. The two-year accord gives campaign workers a three percent pay raise and, for the first time in any state, time and a half pay for overtime, along with other benefits.

Things, however, weren’t always so rosy-cheeked.

The DFL prides itself on its progressivism, as a proponent of organized labor, women and people of color. But its leadership casts doubt on the authenticity of these self-professed values. Their bargaining team of five, picked by DFL leadership, was majority white and male – four of which are white, and three male; while the worker team was racially diverse, elected by their fellow employees. It would seem, perhaps unsurprisingly, that even the DFL could not keep from reproducing white patriarchy within their organizational structures.

As the party develops its 2020 electoral plans, the Minnesota DFL stands to learn from the internal struggle that brought about the agreement. This moment truly serves as a cautionary tale for the DFL, that there will need to be greater appeal and inclusion for the full embrace of marginalized voters and campaign workers.

The workers’ chief negotiator Carlos Garcia-Velasco had this to say, “Actually, this story is an amazing narrative [for the DFL] to say [to itself]: ‘Wow, you know what, this is actually what we needed. We needed someone … to give us a wake-up call. We’re not going to hold on so tightly to this power. We’re going to build and share this power together.’”

Early talks, subsequent negotiations
Ken Martin, Minnesota DFL Chairman and Democratic National Committee Vice Chair, told us that while the party’s office staff had been previously represented by the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), this was the first time its campaign workers unionized. Because the work is seasonal and temporary, Martin explained,“It’s been hard for folks, even people like myself and others, to figure out how to actually operationalize it, right?”

“We want to make sure [workers] have the benefits and are protected and have a union,” said Martin. “But because they’re … temporary [workers], how do you do that in a way that’s both beneficial to workers but also beneficial to the union and others?”

Martin said the DFL already “paid above-industry standards in terms of wages and benefits, full healthcare for all employees and their families with no premiums or out of pocket costs.” DFL employees, he continued, received “one day off a week which, for the industry of campaign workers is unheard of,” in addition to a $50 cell phone reimbursement, a maximum 46 hour workweek and a $15 hourly wage.

Clearly the campaign workers did not feel this was enough and took collective action themselves to press for change, as is always the case between labor and management.  

In March 2018, then-gubernatorial candidate Erin Murphy, a state representative and former union organizer, announced that her workers had joined the Campaign Workers Guild and she recognized the union. After she and running mate Erin Maye-Quade won the DFL endorsement at its June 2 convention, many Campaign Workers Guild-represented workers joined the campaign. The DFL’s coordinated campaign prioritizes work solely in support of party-endorsed candidates who paid the party a minimum of $50,000, according to Isuru Herath, the former DFL Regional Organizing Director and worker bargaining team member.

Kim Huls, a worker team member from rural Cambridge who started with the Murphy campaign after the convention, said the DFL seemingly stalled recognizing the Campaign Workers Guild. “We weren’t automatically rolled into that,” she said. “We had to re-organize, essentially.”

She thinks Martin honored “bits and pieces” of the previous contract between Campaign Workers Guild and the Murphy campaign but never formally executed one with the Guild. While with the Murphy campaign, Huls negotiated individually for a better pay package than her co-workers, the majority of which were people of color. “I’m a white lady in the suburbs,” she said. “I’m sure that had something to do with it.”

Herath also said that “instead of recognizing their union’s … previous contract, Ken [Martin] and Corey [Day, then MN DFL executive director] just held it off.”  They didn’t return to it until after Tim Walz defeated Murphy in the Aug. 14 primary, when the party endorsement passed on to him. The issue became moot.

The tipping point
Carlos Garcia-Velasco, who had joined the Saint Paul-area campaign in July, saw that after a few weeks, quotas for voter contacts, voter registrations, vote by mail applications and other duties had increased almost twofold from when he was originally hired.

After contacting workers statewide and in Ohio – who were also organizing with Campaign Workers Guild – Garcia-Velasco and his co-workers found common themes. There was continued worker turnover, vague job descriptions, changing supervision, stress from overwork and unreachable targets. Ohio’s Democratic Party even hired a union-busting law firm that has done anti-union work since 1947. Despite this, those workers eventually reached an agreement.

Rosa Sarmiento (due to her DACA status, her name was changed), a Saint Paul-area Latinx campaign worker concurred; she said expectations were unrealistic. For example, the DFL wanted 300 voter contacts and 150 phone calls weekly – physically impossible tasks.

When she and others pushed to have the quotas reduced, Sarmiento said her requests were brushed aside by DFL management. Quotas were eventually lowered, though only after mounting pressure by workers. There was also an effort to produce multilingual materials, but it was futile.

Garcia-Velasco said workers in rural regions were expected to knock on 50 doors a day in areas covering as much as 80 miles. Herath noted that a galvanizing issue for St. Paul workers was that management scheduled 60 to 70 hours a week for workers – with no overtime pay.

Most of the Twin Cities areas workers were Black, Latinx and other people of color, directed by a mostly white DFL management. The racial hierarchy revealed the lack of progress the DFL has made in countering ongoing disparities it says it wants to eliminate in education, housing, healthcare, etc. “A really core component [of the DFL] is the tokenization of Black and Brown folks,” explained Herath, a man of Sri Lankan heritage who has worked on DFL and other campaigns since 2004.

The DFL “preys on young folks who want to climb up the … ‘corporate ladder’… [with the ideals] of being a steward of your community, for bettering the society,” Herath lamented. “It’s such a racialized, racist experience to work in that organization.”

“The irony is that to me it feels like migrant work,” Garcia-Velasco told us about the DFL’s unilateral push for more production and its patriarchal attitude towards campaign workers. “‘Get on your hands and knees and pick for the season. Pick our votes, boy, and we’ll call you if we need you [next season].’”

The workers then reached out to the independent Campaign Workers Guild, formed by former Bernie Sanders campaigners around late 2016 and early 2017. Meanwhile in New York, Campaign Workers Guild Vice President Meg Reilly announced that it was before the Aug. 14 primary that the DFL workers had had enough and signed union cards to qualify for the Campaign Workers Guild recognition and assistance.

“It was a really strong bargaining team [with] so many different perspectives at the table,” Reilly said. “They were really focused on diversity and dismantling the white supremacist way of doing things … at the table.”

“The different types of people that we were made us very competent,” said Abdulrahman Wako, a Somali-born worker in the Saint Paul office. Wako had both worker and management perspectives, having worked at UPS – whose workers are represented by the Teamsters. “We were able to see different points of view,” he continued, saying that Huls, for example, brought both a rural and a mother’s perspective “that was needed on the team.”

“[W]e had a plan to really control the space and to disrupt white cultural norms,” Garcia-Velasco added. For example, after the DFL’s  Martin made his opening remarks at the first bargaining session, Garcia-Velasco abruptly stood up and offered Martin a tobacco bundle to acknowledge that they all were standing on Lakota and Dakota land and that “we mean business.”

Days before the primary and online streaming on Facebook Live, the bargaining team and other workers stormed the DFL office on St. Paul’s Westside unannounced. They handed their demand letter for union recognition to Martin. According to Huls – who had her three-year-old in tow – she thought at the time “whoa, this seems a little ridiculous. ‘How about we just tell him. He’s a DFLer. He should support unions.’”

According to Herath, after some back and forth with Martin about consulting DFL lawyers, he did began recognizing the union.

“He was very cool about it,” Sarmiento remembered. Martin touted his long history with organized labor. “Everybody thought ‘oh this is going to be easy, he’s with us,’” she continued. “He seemed like he was all about it.”

“He came running out of the building after recognizing our union to try to convince us to go with somebody else,” Huls said of Martin’s reaction to the workers aligning with the Campaign Workers Guild. “He was that adamant about it.”

According to Garcia-Velasco and others, Martin suggested the workers go with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) or the Teamsters rather than the smaller Campaign Workers Guild. Martin’s logic, he told them, was that these unions were bigger and better resourced to assist the employees who were bargaining. According to Herath, Martin also said previous labor contracts left the DFL in debt, and Martin felt that bigger unions would never do the same.

But the team knew better. “They wanted us to work with a union that was more endeared to the DFL,” said Wako. The workers felt this was a clear conflict of interest. Herath said the DFL sought out candidate endorsements from unions like SEIU and the Teamsters, and that they then leveraged those endorsements into campaign cash and were supplied volunteers by those unions. The workers stuck with Campaign Workers Guild.

Negotiations began Sept. 12. “Maybe [Martin] thought if he could get us a contract, then it would be a good political tool to use,” Huls said. “So he portrayed that he was genuinely interested in getting a contract. But it [all] broke down within the first session.”

“Their first thing was they didn’t want us to have eight on our bargaining team,” Garcia-Velasco recalled. The worker team countered that for a unit of 80 or so workers that’s what they needed. “Well, we have five and you have five,” is how Martin responded, Garcia-Velasco said. Eventually, Martin accepted the workers’ numbers.  

Garcia-Velasco said Martin also wanted a confidentiality agreement. Huls said, “He [Martin] felt it was okay to talk to your members,” but not to the public. “I can’t negotiate with the public. I’m negotiating with you,” was Martin’s mantra she remembered. Martin also cited confidentiality reasons for not discussing negotiation conflicts or details with the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

Martin felt that the confidentiality agreement would allow all at the table to freely speak their minds, but the worker team rejected the agreement. Garcia-Velasco explained, “We as organizers know and understand, that our narrative is our most powerful bargaining … tool.”

This continued for three sessions. Garcia-Velasco said that Martin was willing to have the negotiation teams sit and stare at each other for the whole sessions. The workers eventually filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint (ULP) with the National Labor Relations Board.

Soon after strategizing with Campaign Workers Guild and its Ohio cohort, the Minnesota team recruited friends and family for a “phone blast,” to barrage members of the DFL’s bargaining team from morning until night, demanding that the DFL negotiate a fair and fast contract.

Two days before the Wednesday bargaining session, the calls flooded in. By that day’s session, the confidentiality demand was off the table.

Things got a little smoother after that, with the opposing teams hammering out issues like the three percent pay increase and time and a half overtime agreements, a 46-hour work week, vacation and sick time, and other benefits – all effective until the Sept. 12 bargaining start date.  

But the workers were holding out for the Campaign Workers Guild contract, which covers future workers but expires after the 2020 elections. Martin was adamant on only covering just the current workers until the end of Nov. 2018 and any future workers until Nov. 2019.

Garcia-Velasco and others said Martin’s reasoning was that any future negotiating team may not ally itself with the Campaign Workers Guild. Herath also felt that Martin didn’t want a Campaign Workers Guild contract that bogged him down or any other person elected in the future as party chair. Herath thinks that Martin would concede on a union, only if it was one that could be controlled.

At the last session, a few weeks before the Nov. 6 general election, the union team offered numerous concessions for the longer contract. Martin rejected each one and eventually had a  “temper tantrum,” according to Huls. Sarmiento and Garcia-Velasco concurred. “He completely lost his shit and started yelling at us and stormed out of the room, saying he was going to call a press conference and he was going to bash us at it,” blaming the workers if the DFL lost the election, Huls recalled.

But the clock was ticking. The campaign intensified. Negotiations went late into the night, with strategies and tactics being discussed. Martin dragged his feet. The teams agreed to the negotiated contract and it was approved by the membership.

What lies ahead
Campaign Workers Guild’s Meg Reilly called it “incredible” that workers won overtime pay in their contracts. “It’s mind blowing how exciting that is.” She continued, “I’m really glad we got to a contract. It was definitely a tough fight. But, as always, it’s worth it in the end.”

The DFL’s Ken Martin agreed. “I think we’re really pleased,” he said. “It’s historic … and it’s the best contract that’s been negotiated with the [Campaign Workers Guild].”

Kim Huls, however, was less sanguine. “It was eye-opening to see this happening within the [DFL],” Huls said referring to Martin’s “iron fist” way of handling the party and labor negotiations. “It was really sad. I’m very disappointed in this party … I’ll never work for this party, again.”

“The entire DFL, especially now, said Isuru Herath, is created “around the cult of personality,” around Martin. It’s essentially a dictatorship, Herath believes. “There’s no democratic element to this,” he continued, saying the DFL constitution gave the chair carte blanche.  

Rosa Sarmiento cannot vote, but she understands its power – not only for the candidate, the candidate’s party, but also for her community. “I didn’t choose the political life, the political life kind of chose me,” she told us. Sarmiento looks forward to doing what she can to uplift other immigrants, electorally or otherwise.

“Being on the other side of that table … it was like a David and Goliath situation,” recalled Abdulrahman Wako, who is interested in becoming a political organizer. It was “psychologically transformative … seeing that you … can challenge the keepers of that system and actually get something better out of it.”

“It ingrained in me …  that you should never accept things for how they are. If you don’t like it, you have the options and the choice to make it better,” said Wako.