Bernie Sanders Used His Campaign Data To Drive Turnout On Strike Picket Lines

Typically, unions rally for a candidate. But using targeted texts and emails, the Sanders camp rallied for unions.
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Bernie Sanders spoke at a rally for University of California workers in March. This week his presidential campaign urged supporters to join the picket lines.
Genaro Molina via Getty Images

Thousands of workers from the University of California waged a one-day strike Thursday and found some unexpected allies out on their picket lines.

In an unusual move for a presidential candidate, the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sent out targeted text messages and emails to its supporters in California a day ahead of the strike, urging them to join workers as they rallied against the university system in a labor dispute.

“Tens of thousands of workers in the University of California system are standing up this Thursday to stop the outsourcing and privatization of union jobs,” the email said. “We are hoping you can join these workers tomorrow.”

The note included an RSVP link and an address for a local picket.

The move apparently worked, according to John de los Angeles, a spokesperson for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, one of the unions involved in the strike.

“I deployed a press team across the state and was in contact with them,” de los Angeles said. “They were sending me pictures of random supporters out on the line because they had received an email or text from the Bernie campaign. That happened all over the place.”

It’s not uncommon for a presidential candidate to get out on a picket line to show support for workers. Julián Castro, another Democratic presidential hopeful, rallied with the California workers on Thursday. And when grocery store employees went on strike in New England, several candidates either visited pickets or gave speeches to the crowds.

But it’s far more novel to use a campaign’s infrastructure in an effort to help workers in a dispute with their boss. Fervent Sanders supporters point to this type of maneuver when they claim they are trying to build a movement, not just a candidacy.

“The Sanders campaign says 1,000 people responded with interest or committed to go to a picket line.”

It’s not unlike what another Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), did earlier this week, when her campaign sent out email blasts to supporters and raised $160,000 for abortion rights after Alabama passed legislation aimed at effectively barring the practice.

The Sanders camp’s collaboration with California strikers was apparently weeks in the making. The candidate delivered a speech to some of the workers during an earlier one-day strike in March. The campaign told representatives from the union to keep in touch and let them know if they could help further.

The Sanders campaign then recruited 12 college student leaders, who relayed information from union organizers to Sanders supporters on their campuses. They also sent texts to supporters in their database who live near planned picket lines. 

Although it’s impossible to say what impact the outreach had, the Sanders campaign says 1,000 people responded with interest or committed to go to a protest.

The one-day strike took place at 10 college campuses and five hospital centers across the state. The strikers included custodians and food service workers, as well as a range of hospital employees. The workers are represented by AFSCME and the University Professional and Technical Employees-CWA.

AFSCME filed three unfair labor practice charges with the state on Thursday. The union claims the university violated its contract by not bargaining with AFSCME as it seeks to establish a new rehab center with a nonunion firm, Kindred Healthcare. The union also alleges the university is trying to outsource work to another firm, Aya Healthcare, at three medical centers in an effort to pay lower wages.

A university spokesperson told media outlets Thursday that the union’s “real reason for continual strike activity is to gain leverage in negotiations, at which they have failed time and again.”

Sanders has never been shy about criticizing employers embroiled in labor disputes. He recently blasted Delta for its anti-union campaign aimed at scuttling an organizing drive by ramp agents and flight attendants. And at his UCLA speech in March, he took aim at the university system.

“The University of California must not be a corporate-type employer,” Sanders told the crowd. “The University of California must be a model employer.” 

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