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The percentage of U.S. workers in a union has fallen steadily over the last few decades. So labor leaders are looking beyond factory floors to grow their ranks. Brian Bakst of Minnesota Public Radio reports that one budding sector for organizing is workers who power political campaigns.
BRIAN BAKST, BYLINE: Aisha Chughtai is a field organizer for Erin Murphy, a Democratic candidate for Minnesota governor. That means she recruits, trains and manages volunteers and also contacts party activists.
AISHA CHUGHTAI: And we've got to tell Jess Nieman (ph) that Karen (ph)...
BAKST: It's demanding work that doesn't lend itself to a 9-to-5 shift, but these days, she minds her schedule a bit more closely.
CHUGHTAI: Now I get a day off every single week where I - like, I'm not allowed to be in the office. I'm not supposed to be working, and I don't. It's great.
BAKST: Chughtai is one of six full-time employees on Murphy's campaign who formed a union last month. They're members of The Campaign Workers Guild, which says Murphy's team was the first gubernatorial campaign in the country to unionize. At least eight congressional campaigns have too. Ihaab Syed the union's secretary.
IHAAB SYED: It's been far too long that workers in this industry have been exploited. And now we're finally standing together to put an end to that.
BAKST: Chughtai says she was motivated by worker empowerment, not job dissatisfaction.
CHUGHTAI: I think we should break down the idea that unions are only useful to go after bad bosses.
BAKST: Brief, cordial talks with the campaign manager resulted in a first contract. There's a base wage of $21 per hour. Paid sick time is provided. Vision and dental coverage are now included in health benefits. And harassment guidelines are spelled out. The members pay $30 a month in dues. Erin Murphy is onboard with what her staff did.
ERIN MURPHY: I thought, this is awesome. And I still do.
BAKST: Murphy is a state legislator who used to be a union leader with the Minnesota Nurses Association. She's one of three candidates vying for the nomination of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Yes, labor is in the party's name. She says having a unionized staff shows she's willing to walk the talk on collective bargaining rights. She isn't worried about hamstringing her campaign.
MURPHY: I want people to come to a campaign because they share my values. And I know how hard everybody in this campaign is working. One day of rest is going to make them more productive, healthier, and we're going to be more effective because of that.
BAKST: Steve Hildebrand isn't sold on the idea that unions are a good fit for campaigns.
STEVE HILDEBRAND: A political campaign is different. It's a cause.
BAKST: Hildebrand spent 26 years in the campaign world. He was deputy national campaign manager for Barack Obama's successful 2008 presidential bid. He says he embraces the goal of assuring workplace dignity and proper compensation, but...
HILDEBRAND: Political campaigns are short-term gigs. They're not long-term operations. And so this idea of unionization for an eight-month job, it just doesn't make a lot of sense.
BAKST: Today, Hildebrand runs a cafe in South Dakota and is out of the campaign business. But he realizes the 2020 presidential campaign is the next frontier for union organizers.
HILDEBRAND: Going into the general election, you know, if you have a campaign team that's not putting in 80 hours a week on the Democratic side, you're probably going to lose.
BAKST: Chughtai, the Erin Murphy staff member, says she hopes the White House campaigns invite unionization.
CHUGHTAI: You know, I sure hope that this is a litmus test, right? It should be.
BAKST: Would she take a job for one without a union? Sure, she says, but her first step would be to organize that campaign. For NPR News, I'm Brian Bakst in St. Paul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.