Less than two months ahead of the midterm elections, the Ohio Democratic Party finds itself at war with an unlikely adversary: a labor union made up of its own employees.
In bruising negotiations over the past several weeks, party leaders have resisted pay increases and other union demands and hired a management-side law firm to push back. One of the party’s negotiators is even a registered Republican.
For Democrats to be at odds with labor this close to Election Day is awkward enough. That the drama is taking place in Ohio, the rare state where even Republicans chase union votes, makes the conflict potentially devastating to a party that’s always claimed to represent working people’s interests.
Campaign workers, well aware of the leverage that the election deadline gives them, are beginning to whisper about a strike if party leaders don’t come around soon. The parties are scheduled to meet today for another round of negotiations.
“We need a fair contract, and we need it before we’re 40 days, 30 days out from the election,” said Jake McClelland, a member of the union’s negotiating team and a field organizer in Southeast Ohio. “Staring a party in the face [that’s] hired a Republican to bust our union is, I think, a pretty good catalyst for escalation.”
The dispute tests the practicality of allowing unions to organize political campaigns. In July the Ohio Democrats became the first state party to recognize a chapter of the Campaign Workers Guild, which seeks to organize campaign workers nationwide. Since then, Minnesota has followed suit. Earlier this year, labor unions organized nearly two dozen political campaigns, including those of congressional candidates in Washington state and Florida, and of gubernatorial candidates in Iowa and Vermont.
But even in pro-union circles, an uneasiness is setting in about whether unionizing political campaigns — which live and die on tight budgets and grueling hours — will allow Democrats to remain competitive with Republicans.
“Campaign worker jobs and union organizer jobs are people committed to the cause — who are fighting for something bigger than themselves,” said Steve Rosenthal, former political director for the AFL-CIO. “But at the same time, all workers are entitled to decent pay, benefits and rights on the job. I’ve struggled with it for my entire adult life. It’s a thorny issue.”
In a statement, Ohio Democratic Party spokesman David DeWitt disputed the union’s claim that negotiations have failed to produce results.
“We believe their representation is an important step nationally,” DeWitt wrote. “Because this is the first contract of its type in the nation, there are many details to work through. But in only four weeks, negotiations over the contract itself have led to agreement on half the points of negotiation, and we’ve made progress on many others.”
Union representatives they say they remain well short of agreement on the most crucial points, including pay and a process for dispute resolution.
Ohio candidates are at risk of getting roped into the controversy. “The candidates know what the party has done,” McClelland said. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re complicit, and they need to be held accountable for that.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who’s up for reelection and may run for president in 2020, publicly supports mandatory overtime pay for workers who make less than $47,000. But Democratic field organizers in Ohio make about $36,000. In a written statement through his campaign, Brown seemed to side with the campaign workers, though he stopped short of criticizing the party.
“I admire these young staffers for unionizing and speaking up,” Brown said. “I hope the negotiations are resolved soon.”
The Ohio Democratic Party recognized the Campaign Workers Guild voluntarily, eliminating the need for an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, which regulates union activity.
But contract talks hit a wall almost immediately, union members say. At the first bargaining session, they found themselves across the table from Mike Mentel, a former Columbus city council president who now is a partner with the management-side law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister. The firm touts its role in passage of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, a landmark federal law — passed by a Republican Congress over Democratic President Harry Truman’s veto — that revoked various legal protections for unions.
The “Taft” in Taft Stettinius was law partner Robert Taft, son of President William Howard Taft. After leaving the firm, Robert Taft, nicknamed “Mr. Republican,” became the Senate’s preeminent opponent of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the principal author of Taft-Hartley. Taft attorney James Mack Swigert, who worked at the firm past his 100th birthday and died in 2011, is said to have drafted key portions of the legislation, loathed by organized labor to this day.
One of the attorneys assigned to represent the Ohio Democrats, present at nearly every bargaining session, is Conor Meeks, who specializes in “labor relations and union avoidance,” according to his online biography. Meeks is registered as a Republican in Kentucky, state records show.
DeWitt, the party spokesman, said Taft Stettinius was hired because Mentel is a “well-respected, longtime Democrat … in good standing with labor.” Mentel and Meeks did not respond to requests for comment.
Union members see the firm’s involvement, and especially that of Meeks, as nothing short of betrayal.
“As a Democrat, it’s unacceptable for the ODP not to live up to the Democratic values,” said Sarah Willenbrink-Sahin, a regional field director and member of the union’s negotiating team. “It’s disturbing for me personally.”
Sahin said the union sought a monthly income floor of $4,000 for field organizers and $4,500 for regional field directors, as well as better mileage reimbursements. Both demands were rebuffed, she said. Although the party provides gas cards, union representatives say the payment is below the federal per-mile reimbursement rate, which compensates workers for wear and tear on their vehicles.
Ohio field organizers are salaried at $3,000 a month, but the union argues that when you figure in the hours — often 12 or 13 hours daily during peak campaign season — it works out to about $10.50 per hour, less than $3 above minimum wage.
There’s no standard pay rate for campaign workers, and expectations vary. Unionized workers for Wisconsin Democrat Randy Bryce, for example, negotiated the same $3,000-a-month minimum that Ohio workers already make.
But in general, union leaders say that low pay, grueling hours and little accountability from management means “we’re losing talent,” in the words of Laura Reimers, the Campaign Workers Guild president. “We train people, we spit them back out and then have to start all over.”
The union also is seeking a progressive discipline system to prevent union organizers from being fired on a whim, a risk so commonplace that it’s practically baked into campaign culture.
In addition, the union is resisting management’s proposal to establish an arbitration procedure, a common clause written into union contracts to avoid strikes. Union leaders say arbitration won’t work because it can drag out for months, while the life cycle of campaigns is short.
The party isn’t budging.
“It would be a terrible national precedent to agree to eliminating the resolution of grievances via arbitration,” David Pepper, the Ohio Democratic Party chairman, wrote in an email. “This has been a progressive, pro-worker best practice for decades, assuring labor peace and a stable environment for workers over the course of a contract. As we’ve consulted with labor leaders in Ohio, none has supported such a regressive step backward.”
Pepper noted that Democrats fought a bill signed by Gov. John Kasich in 2011 that weakened arbitration for public employee unions.
Sahin said that while a strike would be the last resort, “We’re not going to rule it out.”
“We have made some progress at the table,” she added, “but we remain very far apart on some things that are very close and very important to us.”