Worker’s rights have been a key part of Del. Lee Carter’s platform since he first ran for office in 2017. Since then, the freshman delegate has sponsored numerous bills to increase worker protections, including a bill to repeal Virginia’s right-to-work law and bills to strengthen workers’ compensation laws.
Now, Carter, D-50th, has taken it a step further by allowing his campaign staff to unionize.
Carter’s two full-time campaign workers are set to receive healthcare insurance and other benefits as a result of joining the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents 35,000 workers in the mid-Atlantic region including the staff of Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign.
“I think this is a really important turning point in Virginia politics. I’m incredibly proud of my staff for organizing a union, and I think it’s an example that other campaign staffers throughout the commonwealth should follow,” Carter said. “I’m putting my money where my mouth is, and we’re making sure that this change in Virginia really starts at the campaign level.”
Carter’s campaign manager, Josh Stanfield, says he and his co-worker are negotiating benefits like sick leave and vacation time in addition to medical coverage. Stanfield has worked on several Virginia political campaigns, including Democrat Jennifer Lewis’s 2018 campaign for Virginia’s 6th congressional district. Lewis lost the election to Republican U.S. Rep. Ben Cline.
“Being a campaign staffer is a precarious line of work. Some of these campaigns are short-lived, and it’s almost impossible to find a way to get employer-based healthcare,” Stanfield said. “It’s not a normal 9-to-5 job.”
Political campaigns aren’t typically administered by union contracts, but several Democratic presidential candidates – including Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro -- have reached collective bargaining agreements with their campaign staffs in recent months.
Proponents of campaign unionization say exhaustive hours and job instability require more protections for campaign workers. Campaign jobs can be short-lived if campaigns run out of money or if their candidates lose their primaries.
Organized labor groups are among Carter’s largest donors, giving $26,250 to Carter’s re-election campaign in 2019, according to Virginia Public Access Project.
Virginia was ranked the worst state in the nation for workers in 2018 by Oxfam based on the state’s wages, worker protections and ability to organize. Virginia ranked last in all three categories.
Manassas City Councilman Ian Lovejoy, a Republican who’s running to unseat Carter in the November election, also employs two full-time campaign staff but doesn’t provide them with health insurance. Lovejoy says it doesn’t make sense to set up employee healthcare for such a short campaign.
“It’s very short-term employment,” Lovejoy said. “If we bring more people on, there’s just no way to set up an infrastructure in that timeframe.”
Lovejoy says he isn’t against unions or organized labor but is in favor of keeping Virginia’s right-to-work laws in place. Virginia is one of 27 right-to-work states in the nation, meaning workers can’t be compelled to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment.
Detractors of Virginia’s right-to-work laws say they favor big business at the expense of workers and restrict workers ability to unionize.
“The philosophical concept of union, I don’t have a problem with. It’s the notion that individuals who don’t want to be a part of it can be forced to pay for it,” Lovejoy said. “Keeping the right-to-work laws stable certainly has helped the Virginia business climate and will continue to do so, and that’s not something that we should be eroding.”
CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to note that Carter's campaign staff acted independently to unionize, a move Carter supported.
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