Bernie Sanders, the grand moralist of the progressive movement, is being forced to put his money where his mouth is. Unionized campaign organizers are holding the presidential contender to his own standards by demanding a $15 living wage following months of debate, according to new internal communications revealed by The Washington Post.
Field organizers for the campaign claim they’re stuck with “poverty wages” which run antithetical to their populist ideals, leading his workers to plan negotiation meetings, letter-writing campaigns and outright resignations over failures to meet their standards. Staff were expected to work 60 hour weeks with a $36,000 annual income which amounts to an average $13 per hour, public estimates show.
The Post obtained several letters prepared by Sanders staff for Faiz Shakir, their campaign manager. “Many field staffers are barely managing to survive financially, which is severely impacting our team’s productivity and morale,” union members said in a draft letter. “Some field organizers have already left the campaign as a result… Given our campaign’s commitment to fighting for a living wage of at least $15.00 an hour, we believe it is only fair that the campaign would carry through this commitment to its own field team.”
To clarify, this isn’t an open-shut case of hypocritical politicians, nor did the campaign leadership’s counter-arguments exonerate the Sanders team of salary foul play until just recently. While the campaign staff have requested a salary of $46,800 for field organizers and $62,400 for regional field directors, Shakir’s statement indicates decisions to raise wages were actually blocked by the union. He claims that raises in wages would’ve forced employees to pay more in their healthcare costs since premiums covered by the campaign are limited to those making $36,000 or less.
“We know our campaign offers wages and benefits competitive with other campaigns, as is shown by the latest fundraising reports,” Shakir told the Post. “Every member of the campaign, from the candidate on down, joined this movement in order to defeat Donald Trump and transform America. Bernie Sanders is the most pro-worker and pro-labor candidate running for president. We have tremendous staff who are working hard. Bernie and I both strongly believe in the sanctity of the collective bargaining process and we will not deviate from our commitment to it.”
By last Thursday evening, Shakir released another statement to Newsweek showcasing this commitment. In his negotiations with United Food & Commercial Workers Local 400, the union representing the organizers, it was revealed that a deal has been struck. “We look forward to continuing those discussions and obviously are disappointed that some individuals decided to damage the integrity of these efforts before they were concluded,” Shakir said. “As these discussions continue, we are limiting hours so no employee is receiving less than $15 for any hours worked.”
Members of the union also voted to approve the deal, effectively raising the annual salaries of field organizers from $36,000 to $42,000 and retaining these health-care benefits covering 100% of premium costs, according to internal sources speaking under the condition of anonymity. This was later confirmed by Sanders during an interview with CNN saying he was “happy to tell you . . . that offer was just accepted.” There was no mention of whether other staffer benefits, such as paid vacation, sick leave and car travel expenses, were fully retained. No word either on whether employees will be receiving back-pay for the period of time in which wages failed to live up to the ideals of the campaign.
In any case, Sanders is running a campaign which places the morality of workers over the cost of maximized capital. It should be expected of a campaign boasting millions in individual donations, propping up this for-the-people candidate known for three houses and lavish book deals, to naturally come to these decisions on its own. Especially considering as recently as June of this year Sanders travelled to Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting to confront company executives over placing capital over morality.
“Walmart is the largest private employer in America and is owned by the Walton family, the wealthiest family in the United States,” Sanders said. “And yet, despite the incredible wealth of its owner, Walmart pays many of its employees starvation wages — wages that are so low that many of these employees are forced to rely on government programs like food stamps, Medicaid and public housing in order to survive… If you work 40 hours a week, you should not live in poverty.”
Media outlets, from the reactionary right of Fox News to more leftist snobs of Vox, have used this story to paint Sanders as a symbol of hypocrisy and critique his “less wonky, more moralistic” approach to economics as an unrealistic goal. This is a flawed debate. In truth, while this does show the nuance of negotiation, spawning dubious debates over whether some jobs are even worth living wages and whether entities can even afford to uphold such economic rights, the bigger problem is that the Sanders campaign has been caught with their pants down. This was a moral failure, unbecoming of a supposed for-the-people candidate, and it needed to be called out for what it was.
If you’ve struck value, those sustaining it should get their share. It works from the bottom-up, something the Sanders campaign has routinely preached. Given it’s raised over $18 million in the past three months alone, significantly higher than most competitors, we’re hardly talking a small business where common morality and economic reality clash. When you are expecting people to work 60 hours to fight injustice to raise billions, the least you could do is compensate them according to your own principles.