Center For American Progress Staffers Threaten To Strike Amid Contract Fight

Employees of the liberal think tank have put all options on the table as they push for higher salaries.

Workers at the Center for American Progress are considering going on strike amid a fight over salaries at the liberal think tank.

The staff union held a vote Tuesday in which its members overwhelmingly rejected CAP management’s latest pay offer. Employees’ latest contract expired at the end of last year but was extended for a month to give both sides more time to bargain.

The vote by staffers on Tuesday allowed that extension to expire ― along with its agreement not to go on strike. Union leaders said the vote gives them the green light to escalate the dispute however they see fit, including carrying out a work stoppage.

“We all are taking it very seriously,” said Marissa Alayna Navarro, the president of CAP Union and a research assistant at the think tank. “We definitely don’t want to have to go on strike, but we issued this vote so that management sees they forced us to look at all our options to get fair wages.”

The salary floor at the Center for American Progress is currently $40,000, the equivalent of around $19 per hour for a 40-hour workweek. Navarro said lower-level staffers are struggling to cover rent and other necessities in pricey Washington, D.C. The union recently conducted a staff survey and found that more than half of union members spend at least 40% their paychecks on housing, she said.

“They forced us to look at all our options to get fair wages.”

- Marissa Alayna Navarro, president of CAP Union

CAP Union is affiliated with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, which represents other think tank employees in the capital. Katie Barrows, NPEU’s president, said the salary minimum at CAP is below other comparable left-leaning research institutions, such as the Economic Policy Institute ($51,700), the Center for Economic and Policy Research ($53,558) and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ($50,000).

Barrows said CAP management has only offered to boost salary minimums to a reasonable level if workers give up much of the across-the-board salary increases that would go to everyone.

“They’re giving us a false choice: you can raise the salary floor, or you can get some annual increases for the whole bargaining unit,” said Barrows. “We want to lift up the floor and have wages that people can support themselves on. Because right now, that’s not the case.”

According to Barrows, 88% of staffers took part in the vote Tuesday, with 99% rejecting the offer from management and authorizing “any action necessary... up to and including work stoppages.”

CAP is an influential think tank among Democratic policymakers, with staffers cranking out research on economic inequality, racial justice and climate change, among other issues. The institute advocates for higher wages and increased worker power through collective bargaining.

CAP's president, Patrick Gaspard, onstage at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Gaspard took the helm of the think tank last year.
CAP's president, Patrick Gaspard, onstage at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Gaspard took the helm of the think tank last year.
Ernesto Distefano via Getty Images

Salary floors are a common battleground in union negotiations, and that’s especially true for white-collar workers in expensive cities. Newly unionized journalists and nonprofit workers have devoted a lot of their leverage to trying to boost starting salaries so that new and junior employees aren’t going into debt while working.

The staff of CAP unionized in 2016 without a fight from management. The union now includes 93 staffers, most of them in research and support roles.

Navarro said a lot of employees on the lower end of the income scale carry student and credit card debt. She said the union has shared its concerns with the think tank’s new president and CEO, Patrick Gaspard, the former U.S. ambassador to South Africa, who took over at CAP last year.

”We want to find a compromise to get to a number where folks will feel comfortable and good working at CAP, and won’t have to worry about how they’re going to pay their bills,” she said.

Correction: This story originally misstated the findings of the CAP staff survey as it relates to housing costs.

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