Unionization Fight Looms Over Tom Steyer's 2020 Announcement

Field organizers for NextGen America, a group Steyer founded, are in a fight with managers over the size of their collective bargaining unit.

In a stinging public rebuke, a contingent of field organizers for the progressive youth mobilization group NextGen America called on the group’s management on Monday evening to end a month of “stalling” and agree to the employees’ terms for union recognition.

“While NextGen America’s field staff continue breaking turnout records in the ten states we organize, our management is siding with the GOP’s union-busting tactics,” the staff union said in a statement posted on social media.

Although NextGen America insists it has already recognized the union and is merely haggling over details, the public feud complicates the presidential campaign plans of Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund manager and liberal megadonor who founded and continues to fund NextGen America.

Steyer announced Tuesday he has reconsidered his decision not to seek the Democratic presidential nomination and will join the 2020 primary race. Even though he is not involved in day to day management of NextGen America, the association with a group accused of anti-union tactics distracts from Steyer’s announcement. (Steyer plans to resign his formal leadership posts at NextGen America and Need to Impeach, a separate group he founded promoting the impeachment of President Donald Trump.)

“It’s important as a progressive organization that we are living our values,” said Violet Kilmurray, a regional organizing director based in the Milwaukee area. “It’s important for workers to feel empowered and that we are valued as a team and that our voices are valued too so we are part of making our organization and its culture better.”

Kilmurray and Isabella Dickens-Bowman, a NextGen America organizer based in Manchester, New Hampshire, declined to comment on Steyer’s presidential ambitions. They denied that their decision to go public on Monday evening was timed to maximize pressure for recognition. They claim to have notified management a week ago of their plans to go public on Monday barring a resolution before that.

NextGen youth vote director Ben Wessel released a statement saying that the organization had already recognized the union, but was merely waiting for third-party verification that the union had garnered majority support.

The union told HuffPost it already agreed to let a third party verify majority support on cards completed by employees, though management said it has yet to be presented with a detailed plan for implementing the verification process.

NextGen America spokeswoman Heather Greven confirmed that the dispute is chiefly over which employees are eligible for the union. The organization’s leaders consider many of the higher-level organizers to have enough supervisory capacity that they should be classified as managers and be excluded from the union.

“We fully expect to sign a [collective bargaining agreement]. We’re in a fact-finding process,” Greven said. “Unionization efforts do not happen overnight.”

The conflicting accounts of what has occurred since organizers asked management for voluntary union recognition on June 7 reflect disagreements over the size of a bargaining unit that are common in the early stages of a union recognition process.

What heightens the stakes of the dispute is that it is occurring within the boundaries of a progressive organization that regularly collaborates with labor unions ― to say nothing of one founded by Steyer, who has for years aligned with the Democratic Party’s pro-labor wing.

Within hours of the NextGen America organizers going public, they attracted high-profile shows of support that also reflect criticism of Next Gen America management.

“Democracy starts in the workplace,” Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson tweeted at NextGen America. “Don’t pretend you’re for the people of this planet if you’re not for your own worker’s rights!”

Liberal billionaire Tom Steyer is announcing Tuesday whether he plans to run for president. Could a union dispute at a group he founded get in the way?
Liberal billionaire Tom Steyer is announcing Tuesday whether he plans to run for president. Could a union dispute at a group he founded get in the way?

NextGen America’s field organizers are seeking recognition of their entire 35-person team, which is charged with registering and organizing young voters, particularly college students, in a host of battleground states. The team includes field organizers charged with overseeing smaller areas, regional organizing directors who oversee them and the organizing directors to whom the regional heads report.

Kilmurray and Dickens-Bowman said that the organizers’ reasons for forming a union run the gamut from concerns about their health care coverage to excessively long hours and lack of adequate time off. But one common theme is the belief that things will not improve without the support of a union capable of speaking with one voice on their behalf.

“Since we are spread out across different states and campuses across the country, it can be very difficult when everyone is subject to different expectations,” Dickens-Bowman said. “Personal well-being can fall by the wayside in the interest of getting things done.”

The contingent of employees claims that a strong majority of the field organizing team has completed cards expressing their interest in affiliating with the Campaign Workers Guild, an independent union formed by alumni of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run that is not affiliated with a large national union.

The employees and their union claim that management wants to exclude regional organizing directors and organizing directors from the bargaining unit ― positions they say amount to 80% of current field staff.

Dickens-Bowman and Kilmurray, who is herself a regional organizing director, maintain that while the higher-level positions have the façade of genuine supervisory authority, their actual power is more akin to that of rank-and-file employees.

Greven could not confirm the alleged ratio of employees that management is seeking to exclude from the unit, though she acknowledged that they believe many of the employees seeking to unionize have managerial responsibilities that would make them ineligible to join the union. She also emphasized that when the election season begins to heat up in the coming months, NextGen American plans to hire hundreds of rank-and-file field organizers, which will increase the number of undisputed bargaining unit members.

“Our organization has always fully supported our workers’ rights to organize. We will not tolerate intimidation or any sort of retaliation,” Greven said.

This article has been updated to include Steyer’s campaign announcement.

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