Campaign staffer Shadi Alhusary, center, helps Virginia Del. Lee J. Carter (D-Manassas) prepare meals for the homeless during a food drive in June. Alhusary is the field director for Carter’s reelection campaign. He and the campaign’s other paid staffer, Josh Stanfield, told their boss they want to join a union to represent their employment interests. (David Pala/Prince William County Democratic Committee)

The field director for Virginia Del. Lee J. Carter’s reelection effort has experienced poor working conditions in other political campaigns he’s joined, where aides labor up to 80 hours a week for little pay and no health insurance.

“They bring in college kids who want a better world and, then, just grind them to a paste and get rid of them,” Shadi Alhusary, 22, said. “It is rough.”

When Alhusary and Carter’s campaign manager, Josh Stanfield, realized their jobs did not include health insurance, they approached their boss with the idea of joining a union. The move, which Carter supports, is an anomaly in Virginia politics but part of a growing movement for better working conditions inside political campaigns.

Its potential to disrupt that world was highlighted Friday when The Washington Post reported that workers for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are locked in a labor dispute with their boss, saying their salaries of less than $15 per hour make the senator’s repeated calls for living wages sound hollow.

“It’s a matter of walking the walk,” Carter (D-Manassas) said about his own negotiations to forge a labor agreement that would cover paid days off, health insurance and salary increases for his two-person staff.

About Sanders’s situation, he added: “This is why it’s important for every worker to have a union. It creates a structural pressure on the other side to make the campaign live up to its own rhetoric.”


Virginia Del. Lee J. Carter (D-Manassas) (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

Political campaigns have historically been no-go zones for union organizing, leaving sleep-deprived aides to fend for themselves as they work weekends, forgo insurance and struggle to pay bills on low salaries.

But with election cycles getting longer in a 24-hour news world, the demand for basic protections has increased, organizers say. And Democratic candidates, who increasingly embrace policy proposals like a $15-an-hour minimum wage and universal health care, are starting to get on board.

The Sanders campaign has a contract covering about 100 workers with Local 400 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which also represents Carter’s staffers. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is in talks with Local 2320 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. And former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro’s campaign is negotiating with the Campaign Workers Guild, the largest union in the industry, with 600 members who have worked for national, state and local campaigns in nearly 20 states. Five Castro staffers are in the union, and a spokesman said that number will grow in coming weeks.

Meg Reilly, president of the Campaign Workers Guild, said the industry is rife with overworked staffers and, mostly for women, problems with sexual harassment, making union protections all the more important.

“In my first campaign, when I got there, I learned there were zero days off and that the hours were from 10 to 10,” Reilly recalled. “And everyone acted like that was normal.”

Across the industry, she added, “there’s a little bit of a culture of, ‘I had to go through this, so you should, too.’ ”

Under a collective bargaining agreement, campaign workers can generally select a union health-care plan, paid for by the campaign, and agree to terms on salaries, days off and other benefits, including mental-health counseling, organizers said. In some cases, smaller campaigns with fewer resources will agree to stipends for health care and travel expenses.

The first political campaign to unionize appears to have been that of Democrat Randy Bryce in Wisconsin. Bryce, a former union organizer, unsuccessfully sought the congressional seat that was being vacated by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R) in 2018.

In May, Sanders became the first presidential candidate to enter into an agreement with a union. Among other things, that contract provides full health insurance for workers paid less than $36,000 a year, offers aid to campaign workers who are undocumented immigrants and requires that transgender staffers be addressed by their pronouns of choice, said union spokesman Jonathan Williams.

Sanders’s staff is pushing to increase the salaries of field workers to $46,800 per year, from $36,000, and for full health coverage for employees making less than $60,000 a year.

Warren’s campaign staff of about 250 is also seeking paid health care and wants to be reimbursed for miles driven and the use of their smartphones, an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union official said.

The contract for Castro’s staff will include limits on hours worked and compensation for travel, a campaign spokesman said, adding that Castro’s workers already get paid health care.

Other top Democratic presidential contenders — including Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and former vice president Joe Biden — said they also offer health insurance and paid leave but would welcome a labor contract.

“We are confident that the work environment, pay and benefits will meet the standards that a union would normally have to bargain for, but, of course, if staff decided they wanted to unionize, the Vice President would welcome it,” TJ Ducklo, Biden’s spokesman, said in a statement.

Republican Party officials said they don’t know what kind of employee benefits — if any — have been provided by national or local candidates in their party. Union officials said GOP campaign workers have never approached them for help.

Carter, who is finishing his first term, is the only politician with unionized campaign staffers in Virginia, which is generally known as less friendly to labor.

A self-proclaimed socialist, he has pushed to end the state’s nearly 70-year-old “right to work” law, which prohibits forcing anyone to join a union.

“Every worker should have a union, and that doesn’t stop just because they work for me,” Carter said. “These folks are working hard, day in and day out.”

Ian Lovejoy, the Republican who is challenging Carter in November, said he doesn’t see a need to organize campaign workers, who typically function as independent contractors. He said topics like health insurance or paid leave never came up when he hired his two staffers.

“It’s a very free market,” said Lovejoy, who serves on the Manassas City Council. “These people tend to be young and are paid a bit less than you would see elsewhere.”