by Phil Wilson

Labor Advice for Bernie

You ever wish you were a fly on a wall? I can think of a few times. When mom debated my punishment for opening the Mattel handheld football game a week before Christmas. Or the discussion outside the squad car after my “donut” incident. And these days pretty much any time my daughter’s door closes.

But I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to be a fly on the wall more than this last week as the Bernie Sanders campaign figured out what to do about its “labor problem.” And by labor problem I’m not talking about how to get more unions to support his presidential campaign bid.

Bernie Sanders got to experience first-hand the joys of dealing with a labor union. We regularly tell clients that you get the union you deserve. Bernie’s situation is exhibit A.

If you haven’t been paying close attention here’s the highlights. In March the Sanders campaign made history by voluntarily recognizing UFCW 400 to represent all campaign staff below the Director level. Not long after that the Sanders campaign entered into a labor contract - standard stuff.

But over the last several months the unionized campaign staff decided the original deal wasn’t good enough. They claimed it paid campaign workers less than $15 per hour, a wage rate that Sanders constantly harangues employers about being the minimum “living wage” for workers. Then last week the Washington Post broke a story quoting leaks from anonymous sources inside the union. That story was a barn-burner. The unionized campaign employees bashed Sanders for hypocrisy around wages and revealed a lot of details about the negotiations.

Another thing we tell clients is that when you find yourself in a hole, step one is stop digging. The Sanders campaign – and the candidate himself – spectacularly violated this rule. They publicly called out the union about going to the media (which is a protected concerted activity, by the way). Then they allegedly dismissed or reassigned campaign staff in retaliation for their actions, according to a charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board.

Yesterday the campaign and the union announced that they reached a deal to settle the public and embarrassing dispute. The final details of the deal aren’t public (yet) but it appears that the ultimate deal is very close to the one proposed by the campaign months ago. Sounds like a lot of knock-down, drag-out labor battles. A lot of drama followed by accepting the deal already on the table.

Everybody is making nice now (I’m sure the unfair labor practice charge is being withdrawn as I write this). Campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, stated the campaign was “proud to have successfully negotiated with the union in good faith” to pay campaign staffers a “living wage.”

More telling was the statement from the union. UFCW 400’s spokesperson boasted, “This is what democracy in the workplace looks like.” Indeed.

Sanders is having enough trouble getting traction in this year’s Democratic primaries. And the way this dispute blew up in the media isn’t a good sign. This was an embarrassing hostage situation with a union that seemed pretty willing to shoot the hostage. That’s not going away with this contract settlement.

This morning the House Committee on Education and Labor is holding a hearing on the PRO Act (aka the son of EFCA). The PRO Act has been promoted by every Democrat presidential candidate – especially Bernie Sanders – as the solution unions need to solve income inequality in the United States. It’s actually just a bailout for unions who fail miserably year after year to grow members the only way you can – by providing value.

Some may argue that this dustup with the Sanders campaign is an example of how unions do provide value to members. After all, these campaign workers are now making a “living wage” while out on the trail. But I see the reality much differently.

This dispute (and all kinds of others that we’ll probably never hear about) illustrate how union leaders inside the Sanders campaign are willing to blow a hole in the bottom of the boat their members are in just to get their way. They don’t think twice about it. They relish it.

In the short run, it feels good to get your way and to get the employer to capitulate. Although in this case, like many, the members don’t gain more than they would have without a battle. But in the long run, this approach kills the golden goose, and it happens over and over again.

The problem with the PRO Act is it just gives union leaders a bunch more weapons to attack employers. But it does nothing to encourage unions to provide more value. So the businesses – and employees - unlucky enough to get stuck with a union could end up like the Sanders campaign: out of business.