UMN students lead in campaign unionization

Workers on Omar Fateh’s campaign and Rep. Erin Murphy’s campaign are among the first in the nation to unionize.

University student Austin Berger poses for a portrait with Omar Fateh, who is running for the Minnesota House of Representatives on Friday, June 1, 2018 in Dinkytown. Berger and other student staffers created a unionization campaign based on Rep. Erin Murphy's campaign for governor.

Easton Green

University student Austin Berger poses for a portrait with Omar Fateh, who is running for the Minnesota House of Representatives on Friday, June 1, 2018 in Dinkytown. Berger and other student staffers created a unionization campaign based on Rep. Erin Murphy’s campaign for governor.

Helen Sabrowsky

Student staffers for Omar Fateh’s run for the Minnesota House finalized their unionization contract in May in hopes of establishing a balance between their roles in the campaign and the University of Minnesota.  

Using DFL Rep. Erin Murphy’s campaign for governor as a model, four student workers negotiated the contract with the Campaign Workers Guild, making them the first state house team in the country to do so. 

The union under Fateh’s campaign is entirely made up of University students and provides benefits such as an education stipend and time off for exams and papers, said University student Austin Berger, who serves as the union steward for Fateh’s campaign. 

“As student workers, we’re one of the most marginalized demographics in the labor community,” he said. “This unionization solidified respect and dignity for workers.”

Ihaab Syed, secretary of Campaign Workers Guild, helped negotiate Fateh’s contract with his workers. Syed said it’s unique for a campaign to have a bargaining unit entirely made up of students.

“I think in many cases students are classified as interns or fellows and don’t have security that any other worker would have,” Syed said. “They want to stand together and say ‘we’re already being treated like employees, and we want to have a voice.’” 

Isaiah Ogren, a University student and worker on Fateh’s campaign, also stressed the importance of having benefits specific to student needs.  

Many of the protections laid out in Fateh’s union contract aim to help workers find a balance between campaign duties and academics. Student struggles are often exacerbated by campaign work, Orgen said.

“We’re trying create the same protections for campaign workers that pretty much every other sector of the economy enjoys,” he said. “And we think this is particularly important for students because if students don’t have protections, what incentive is there for them to enter and stay in public service?”  

While the choice to unionize was made by the bargaining unit, Fateh and campaign management were supportive of the workers’ decision. 

Dawson Kimyon, campaign manager on Fateh’s campaign, said unionizing improved the relationship between student workers and management.

Fateh, who has a background in labor and once worked for the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, said knowing his workers are protected has made their relationship stronger. 

“It’s a blessing,” he said. “I have a strong team and I’m proud of what they’ve done.”

After providing guidance to Fateh’s campaign staffers, members of Murphy’s gubernatorial campaign aim to spread awareness of unionization as an option for others workers, said Charlie Cox, a University student and steward with the campaign’s union.

Murphy’s campaign unionized last fall, making them the first in Minnesota to do so. The team set a precedent on what they thought the baseline of campaign labor rights should look like, Cox said. Some of the benefits in their contract are $21 hourly pay, health insurance, sexual harassment training and an established work schedule with paid time off.

“We’re out there door-knocking and talking to people on the phones about how unionizing is something we need in Minnesota, so to be able to have that lived experience and coming from a perspective of being a unionized campaign is really helpful, in addition to the tangible benefits it has afforded us.”