Staff seeks to create union at DNC

Rank-and-file staff at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) are pressing to form a union after months of negotiations.

Discussions started late last year after unionization plans were energized by President Biden’s win in the 2020 election and a more progressive mood in Washington took hold, sources told The Hill and confirmed by the DNC.

While some Democrats say past unionization attempts have not got much traction, others say the political climate has shifted enough for the new effort to be successful.

Throughout the week, sources familiar with the ongoing talks told The Hill that the plans have run into opposition from top brass at the DNC, with one source saying efforts are being “slow-walked by the c-suite.” 

“There was a push-pull happening for a long time on this,” said a second source with knowledge of the dynamic. “A lot of people thought the timing was ripe but there are others around here who never believed it could work.”

“I think there’s still a lot of doubt,” the source added. 

Late Tuesday morning, The New York Times reported that 150 staff members would be joining Service Employees International Union Local 500, which represents public sector workers in Washington, D.C., and Maryland.

The Times reported a majority of DNC workers had signed cards to form a union, and that it was supported by DNC executive director Sam Cornale and Mary Beth Cahill, who previously worked as a chief executive of the DNC.

“We are happy to welcome the hardworking and dedicated staff of the Democratic National Committee as the newest members of our family,” SEIU Local 500 President Pia Morrison told The Hill.

“Now we’re ready to finish defining the bargaining unit with DNC management and we’re excited to move toward bargaining a first contract.”

Behind-the-scenes, organizing started in earnest between late 2020 and early this year.

Through a union representative, the organizing committee sent an open letter to Cornale, who was promoted from his prior role as deputy CEO in January. The letter, which was signed by roughly a dozen employees, was circulated to senior leadership.

In the letter, staff made an explicit reference to the DNC’s platform, which establishes the broad values and policy commitments for the party, by directly quoting from the text.

“Democrats will make it easier for workers, public and private, to exercise their right to organize and join unions,” the platform states.

The move was intended to help make the case to senior leadership that they already support unions on paper and should back their own staff’s labor push.

“We had solidarity across departments,” said a third source familiar with the union plans. “We had relationships that were built pre-pandemic. This is not just something that just sprung up out of the workplace.”

Staff drafted the letter about a month and a half after Biden was sworn into office. Biden campaigned as a staunchly union-friendly candidate and has a history of promoting worker rights. As the presumptive Democratic nominee, Biden’s campaign unionized, following the campaign staff of other candidates including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

While discussions have been fluid among DNC staff and leadership since winter, employees have been strategizing over new ways to reach management.

During one private meeting, which was held over Zoom, several staff members changed their background screens to include a purple SEIU logo, according to two sources close to the interactions. 

Some sources who spoke to The Hill before the Times published its piece were pessimistic about management’s posture. 

“The DNC positions itself as the BFF and bestie of unions but I think it’s the same power dynamics of any workplace,” said the third source with knowledge of the discussions.

Adrienne Watson, the DNC’s communications director, emphasized the importance of the negotiations and end goal to the national committee. 

“There are over 200 staff at DNC, so this process takes some time, but SEIU has never claimed that this was anything but a good-faith process on both sides,” Watson said in a statement. 

“They have never claimed that we were slow-walking, or that we had shown any kind of opposition to the unionization efforts. So while we respect the fact that everyone wants this unit defining process to get finished—and we are now very close—neither side has accused the other of foot dragging or opposition in any way.”

“This is a big deal for the party, so we all want to complete this process ASAP and get it right,” she said.

A wide-ranging group of party leaders, local officials, and activists known as delegates have seen staff attempt to unionize in the past with little success. 

One delegate said that the idea has “come up periodically over the years and then it fades out,” but acknowledged “it’s seemed to gain more traction this time around.” 

Some Democrats argue that a key reason to form a union is to promote more longevity among staff and give incentives for them to stay at the national party headquarters, rather than vacate their jobs and look for employment elsewhere when elections wrap up.

The goal is to create a “workplace where people want to come back to cycle after cycle,” the third source said. “In progressive campaigns, the norm is you bring in a lot of folks who work really, really hard and they get burnt out and then they go to the private sector.”

“We want the DNC to be a place where people can spend their careers,” the person familiar added.

While senior leadership appeared to be receptive to that pitch, things got muddy when the issue came up about who is formally considered a manager under a potential contract. There’s currently no clear answer.

Lawyers for both the SEIU and the DNC are now involved in hammering out the issue. 

A spokesperson for the DNC’s staff union bargaining unit also disputed claims that things have gotten tense at times.

“Management and union organizers have worked positively together over the last few months to unionize DNC staff,” said Lucas Acosta, spokesperson for the DNC’s Staff Union Bargaining Unit. 

“Both we, and management, see this as an opportunity not just to support our staff, but also to reaffirm our shared value that when workers are strong, America is strong,” Acosta said. “While unionization efforts historically stem from workplace disputes, in no way is that the case at the DNC.”

While conversations are ongoing and moving slower than some would like, other Democrats have seen encouraging signs from individual DNC committee members’ public posturing around unions within their state parties and aligned outside organizations. 

“We were one of the first state parties in the country to do so, and, as a management team we sought out getting our folks represented,” Washington State Democratic Party Chairwoman Tina Podlodowski told The Hill about forming a union alongside IUPAT Local 116.

“After all, workers and unions are strong partners of the Democratic Party, and we have to ‘walk the talk,’ ” she said. 

This story was updated at 3:28 p.m. 


Tags Bernie Sanders Democratic National Committee DNC Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden SEIU Unions
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