David Richardson, the self-styled progressive Democrat seeking to replace Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Congress, says he stands shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity with his campaign staff after they became the first political campaign in Florida to unionize last week.
But there are fewer campaign workers standing with Richardson today. That's because he laid off eight paid campaign employees at the end of a contentious months-long unionization effort.
"David wanted to be able to fire anyone at will and that wasn’t acceptable to us," said Isaiah Ghafoor, who worked as a field organizer for Richardson from March until he was one of eight Richardson staffers laid off two weeks ago. "Two days after a heated bargaining session, seven field organizers were laid off and the finance manager."
Though the unionization effort was ultimately successful, the timing of the layoffs and the Richardson's campaign's argument to staffers that existing Florida labor laws were sufficient enough to protect staffers' rights contrasts with public statements by his campaign that he will "oppose efforts that are anti-union or that weaken the ability to organize and bargain collectively" if elected to Congress.
When asked for comment before publication, Richardson's campaign referred to a recent fundraising email touting the unionization effort.
After the story published, Richardson campaign consultant Eric Johnson said the campaign made a decision to spend money on television advertising instead of field organizers, a shift that caused the layoffs.
"There was zero connection to unionizing and going from a paid field campaign to a paid media campaign," Johnson said in a text message.
The Richardson unionization effort, led by the Campaign Workers Guild, is part of a national campaign to unionize Democratic campaign staffers, in which candidates for elected office tend to support and are endorsed by organized labor. Laura Reimers, president for the union, said Richardson voluntarily recognized the union in March, and negotiations began.
"We, as campaign staff, believe that campaigns cannot fully fight for workers’ rights while they’re exploiting their own campaign staff," the union's website reads. "Pro-labor candidates must hire unionized organizers; if they don’t, they’re not pro-labor. Working from one election cycle to the next should not mean working from paycheck to paycheck. It shouldn’t mean having to put up with unsafe housing and abusive bosses. And it should never mean staying silent about sexual harassment or racism out of fear of being blacklisted."
As negotiations progressed, Ghafoor said Richardson hired a labor attorney, who argued that existing Florida law would be enough to protect the campaign workers, an argument the workers bargaining for a contract found laughable.
"David wanted to be able to fire anyone at anytime for any reason and sometimes the attorney was contentious to me, it like we were Harvard Law students," Ghafoor said.
He added that the negotiations were ultimately beneficial for everyone involved, even the laid off workers, because those who left received three weeks of severance pay while those who remain have better housing guarantees, healthcare and their relocation costs covered.
But the timing and nature of the layoffs were disruptive to the young staffers, some of whom uprooted their lives to move to Miami because they believed in Richardson's message. Ghafoor said he moved from Atlanta in March and is staying in South Florida to find a job after being laid off, while another newly hired campaign staffer was forced to turn around and head home to South Dakota after the layoffs were announced.
The layoffs, which affected over half of Richardson's paid campaign staff, could also effect his ability to challenge his opponents in the Democratic primary: former University of Miami President Donna Shalala, former Knight Foundation director Matt Haggman, Miami Beach commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and former University of Miami academic advisor Michael Hepburn.
"In my opinion I think field teams are 100 percent necessary to win an election, hands down," Ghafoor said. "I think that the type of field program that we had was state of the art and I believe that [the campaign] felt that the field team wasn’t necessary right now and we needed to do something different, which is why we need to unionize. We’re human beings too and we’re here to help you because we believe in you. We’re the ones knocking on the doors, we're the ones helping you get that four to six percentage points to get the margin of victory."
Despite gutting his field staff during union negotiations, Richardson argued in a recent fundraising email that Shalala is the union-busting Democrat in the race because she presided over the University of Miami when janitors engaged in a nine-week hunger strike for higher wages, which led a university chaplain to call her the "enemy of the working poor."
"Between the time negotiations began and ended Donna Shalala entered the race and others dropped out," Johnson said. "The race no longer was going to be able to be won as a paid field campaign and resources had to be moved to television to combat her corporate money. That is a sad reality and David was heartbroken he could not keep all his field workers."
The debate around unionizing political campaigns is a new one in Democratic circles. Traditionally, campaign work was seen as short-term employment and campaigns needed to be as nimble as possible to operate in an environment of limited human and financial resources. About 20 Democratic campaigns have organized around the country since December 2017, and Richardson's campaign is the first to unionize in Florida.
"In 2016, presidential and congressional campaigns spent a combined $6.5 billion," Reimers said in an email. "An endless sea of money is dumped into advertisements and consulting firms while the workers who are entrusted with the candidate's campaign are too often underpaid, overworked, and undervalued. We expect to be treated with the same human decency that candidates are advocating for their constituents."
Reimers declined to comment on the negotiating or organizing efforts with the Richardson campaign.
"As a rule, contract negotiations are contentious," Reimers said. "We have our proposals; management has theirs, and we meet somewhere in the middle. Ultimately, despite clashing on some issues, we were able to reach a fair agreement that includes healthcare, housing, and severance and relocation costs for workers affected by this layoff."
While Ghafoor is choosing to remain in South Florida, he isn't sure whether he'll vote for his former boss in the August primary.
"It hurts when someone you’re believing in tells me 'Hey you’re done, you’re fired.' If we hadn’t been negotiating we would have all been screwed."