biden_firefighters

REINFORCING HIS IMAGE AS LABOR'S CANDIDATE: Joe Biden, being endorsed here a year ago by the International Association of Fire Fighters, further stamped himself as a candidate for working people when his campaign recently reached a contract agreement with Teamsters Local 238 that gives its field organizers full medical coverage, a disciplinary process in which employees can't be fired without just cause, and overtime pay after 40 hours. He is the first presumptive nominee for President from a major party to permit staff to be unionized.

Given that the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has 1.4 million members throughout North America, news that one of its locals in Iowa had gained the right to represent 100 workers normally wouldn't attract much attention. 

But the employees involved were field organizers in Joe Biden's presidential campaign, and the May 1 contract agreement that Local 238 in Cedar Rapids reached with the campaign carried with it what one organizer called "a small bump in salary," full health-care coverage, a workweek reduced from seven to six days with overtime pay for the hours beyond 40 that are routinely worked, and a grievance process that requires just cause for someone to be fired.

A First for a Nominee

The first union activity on behalf of workers in political campaigns began in 2016, with a group representing staffers for Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries. As the Huffington Post, which first reported the contract between the Biden campaign and Teamsters Local 238, noted, during this year's early primaries, the union also represented field organizers for Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar.

But as the union's principal officer, Secretary-Treasurer Jesse Case, pointed out in a May 14 phone interview, "For the first time in history, the campaign staff for a presumptive nominee of a major political party will be covered under a union agreement."

As Mr. Biden might have put it, that made it a "big [bleeping] deal."

The former Vice President has long been popular among unions and their members--four days after he announced his candidacy 13 months ago, he was endorsed by the International Association of Fire Fighters. He has since picked up a number of endorsements from major national unions, from the IBT to public-employee unions including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the American Federation of Teachers.

'A Commitment to Labor' 

Mr. Biden's being the first major-party nominee poised to head into a general-election campaign with a unionized workforce further reinforces his reputation as someone sympathetic to the needs of ordinary people, said Greg Floyd, the president of Teamsters Local 237, which represents a wide variety of New York City employees, from Housing Authority caretakers to attorneys.

"That's quite interesting that he's attaching himself to labor with the most-recognized and powerful union in the world," he said in a May 14 phone interview. "I think it shows a commitment to labor, to the Teamsters, and to working men and women throughout the country."

Local 238 negotiated a $15-an-hour minimum salary for campaign staff, and the Biden campaign said that field organizers' pay would rise by roughly $1,900. It will also provide full medical and vision coverage. 

Mr. Case said that what previously was often a "seven-day, 70- or 80-hour workweek" was now formalized as a six-day, 55-hour workweek in which the first 40 hours would be paid at straight time and any work beyond that would carry time-and-a-half.

"People are classified correctly for the first time: as hourly workers rather than salaried workers," he said.  

Discipline will be dealt with through a grievance-and-arbitration process, with neutral arbitrators handling cases where termination is a possibility. The field organizer said that previously staffers could be fired without due process; he and Mr. Case both noted that the standard will now be "just cause."  

Geographic Edge

Local 238, which has slightly more than 5,000 members, Mr. Case said, was literally well-positioned to attract employee interest, given that the Iowa Caucuses are the first voting contests in the presidential cycle, and so candidates' staffs are often based there for several months before the February event.  

He said that once the union established in late November that a majority of Mr. Biden's organizers were interested in joining the union, "We requested voluntary recognition, and received it from the campaign."

Mr. Case added, "We think it's a game-changer and it will set standards, not only for races for President but for senatorial and congressional elections."

The value of union representation for campaign workers got an inadvertent push from the quick expiration of Michael Bloomberg's campaign less than a week after his lackluster showing in the Super Tuesday primaries March 3. The billionaire former Mayor had enlisted hundreds of volunteers by offering higher salaries than other candidates—$6,000 a month, or $2,000 more than some Biden organizers were getting—and had told those it brought on that they could figure on being employed through the general election.

But after Mr. Bloomberg's only Super Tuesday victory was in American Samoa while he lost to Mr. Biden in 10 other contests, including Texas and California, six days later his field organizers and regional directors were informed by email that their services were no longer needed, although they would be paid through the end of March. It asked them if they wanted to be referred to any of the other Democratic campaigns for possible employment in six battleground states where the ex-Mayor had planned to focus his energies.

'Gifts' Had Fine Print

Several of his staffers told a New York Times reporter that they were not mollified by a portion of the email that stated, "As a token of our appreciation, we are offering you the opportunity to keep your laptop and iPhone." They would, however, the email continued, have to pay gift taxes on those devices, which depending on the models were valued at between $1,400 and $1,700.

Being unionized was hardly the only unique aspect of the campaign these days, said the Biden field organizer, who has been communicating with other staffers and staying in touch with potential voters for the candidate from his home for the past couple of months rather than the traditional campaign trail.

For anyone deployed in the field these days, he said, "There aren't as many lawn signs. And nobody's touching doors."


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