The controversy over Bernie Sanders’s low-paid field staffers, explained

In early June, Sen. Bernie Sanders traveled to Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting to confront company executives over their moral culpability for the low incomes of many of the company’s employees.

“Walmart is the largest private employer in America and is owned by the Walton family, the wealthiest family in the United States,” Sanders said. “And yet, despite the incredible wealth of its owner, Walmart pays many of its employees starvation wages — wages that are so low that many of these employees are forced to rely on government programs like food stamps, Medicaid and public housing in order to survive.”

People with families to support generally don’t take low-level jobs on political campaigns, and consequently, it’s unlikely that many Sanders campaign staffers are eligible for social assistance benefits. But as a report this week by Sean Sullivan at the Washington Post revealed, Sanders’s campaign pays many of its staffers — primarily in the traditionally low-paid field department — less than the $15 per hour he (along with most Democrats) has set as a proposed national pay floor.

In the context of a competitive primary for the Democratic presidential nomination and a national debate about raising the minimum wage, the staffers’ complaints are a chance for Sanders’s opponents to score points about both hypocrisy and underlying policy. But beyond the image problem for Sanders that field staff are hoping to exploit in order to get themselves a raise, it’s a case study in the power and the limits of Sanders’s less wonky, more moralistic version of left-wing politics.

Low salaries + long workweeks = low pay

The underlying issue is that while the Sanders campaign’s collective bargaining agreement with its staff union sets hourly pay above $15, there are also salaried workers on the team.

Field staff earn $36,000 a year, which would be above minimum wage on a standard workweek, but Sanders field personnel say they’re actually working about 60 hours a week — for an hourly wage of $13. Long hours are typical of campaign work (you have a limited span of time in which to win the thing, after all), but these particular positions fall into a kind of legal and sociocultural black hole. The norm in America was that low-status workers would be paid an hourly wage and thus be eligible for overtime pay if they worked long hours. Salaried workers wouldn’t necessarily get overtime for pulling long shifts, but salaried work was associated with high-skill, high-status, well-compensated white-collar work.

But capitalism abhors a vacuum, so over time, more and more low-paid workers found themselves in the category of being salaried and ineligible for overtime. The Obama administration tried to tackle this with a Labor Department regulation mandating overtime for anyone earning less than $47,000, but it was challenged in court and the Trump administration elected not to defend the rule, instead writing a new rule that set the threshold at $35,000. At an annual salary just below that threshold, Sanders’s field staff would be collecting lots of overtime and thus earning more than $36,000, but instead, their salary was pegged (perhaps not coincidentally) to be just above the exempt threshold.

This is, of course, just the Sanders campaign operating by the rules as written. It’s fairly normal in political life to have a candidate conduct himself according to the existing rules even if he favors changing the rules.

On campaign finance, for example, Sanders proposes to “replace corporate funding and donations from millionaires and billionaires with public funding of elections that amplifies small-dollar donations,” but in the here and now, he accepts whatever contributions he can get, including the occasional large check from a millionaire. And, of course, in his capacity as a member of the Senate Democratic Caucus, he attended the caucus’s ritzy retreats for big contributors. If he were in charge of the caucus, he might have structured their fundraising operation differently, but he isn’t. If he were in charge of American campaign finance law, he might make everything publicly funded, but he’s not.

By the same token, he’s not in charge of American labor law. If he were, all low wage workers for all campaigns might be better paid. But if he single-handedly raises pay, he could be putting himself at a disadvantage — which is a pretty normal reason not to want to do something.

This is what minimum wage skeptics have been saying

Beyond the question of campaign optics, however, this is exactly the point that opponents of minimum wage increases are always making — if you force employers to pay more, they’re going to respond by cutting back elsewhere.

If Sanders increases the compensation for his field staff, he might end up needing to employ fewer field staffers. Alternatively, he might need to cut back on other areas of expense like travel, staging rallies, or running television ads. It would be misleading to say, as minimum wage opponents sometimes do, that some iron law of supply and demand dictates a cutback on field staff. It does seem plausible that making field more expensive would mean a campaign does less field, but they do have a range of options available to them.

It’s just that if you’re someone who wants Bernie Sanders to be elected president, none of the available options is all that attractive.

What’s missing here, at the end of the day, is the rhetorical role that the Walton family’s vast fortune played in Sanders’s speech at the shareholder meeting. The institutional purpose of the Sanders presidential campaign is to win the election, a purpose that Sanders fans endorse and that leads die-hard socialists like Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara into the unusual position of siding with the bosses against worker militancy. The institutional purpose of Walmart, by contrast, is to make money for its shareholders, which is generally not something that Sanders fans are very interested in.

So if you’re talking about the Waltons, it’s true that, mathematically speaking, you could rearrange the money so the wealthy family that founded the company gets less and the small army of low-wage people who work there get more. But that’s not what a $15-an-hour minimum wage law does.

The moralist’s dilemma

American politics is dominated by people who think about politics professionally, and thus do not think about the world in a particularly normal way.

One of Sanders’s strengths as a politician is that he tends to think in a less literal, more moralistic, less policy-oriented way than the typical member of the Democratic Party establishment. Months ago, he drafted a bill that didn’t make much sense and called it the Stop Bezos Act to dramatize his sense of moral outrage at the fact that America’s richest man employed so many near-impoverished workers. Soon afterward, Amazon announced a hike in low-wage pay and attracted public acclaim from Sanders for their trouble. Obviously bad PR from Sanders alone didn’t change Amazon’s wage policies (if he could do that, Walmart would raise pay too), but it plays a role in the broader gestalt.

But though this kind of moralism can be a good way of connecting with voters and even an effective tool for social change, actual legislation still needs to invoke general principles. As an example of this from another policy domain, Sanders hustled last week to Philadelphia to join community groups in rallying against a private equity company that wanted to close down a hospital and redevelop the site as condos — announcing at the rally that he plans to introduce legislation that would stop this well before his staff had actually crafted any such bill.

On the minimum wage, Democrats’ bill says everyone should be paid at least $15 an hour.

That bill would, yes, apply to companies like Walmart that are closely associated with one particular wealthy family. But it would also apply to political campaigns and nonprofits, some of whose missions are laudable. And it would apply to small businesses whose owners, though probably reasonably affluent on average, are certainly not enormously wealthy.

Progressive wonks take heart from a line of research papers indicating that minimum wage hikes don’t cause job losses. This is not an uncontested point of view by any means, but it’s certainly a credible one. What that literature says, however, is that there aren’t aggregate job losses. And it’s almost certainly true that if Sanders decided to raise pay for his field staff and then make up the budget hole by laying some of them off, those newly unemployed field staffers wouldn’t end up permanently jobless — they’d go find some other work. Historically, though, one reason campaign work has involved such punishing hours and low pay is that it’s something a lot of people want to do. They feel passionately about their candidate, and the job is inherently temporary, so it doesn’t necessarily need to pay a long-term sustainable wage.

Commonsense morality perceives a significant difference between passionate young people working to advance a cause on shoestring budgets and adults trying to support a family on minimum wage jobs working for billionaire-owned retail conglomerates. That’s why the examples Sanders picks for his crusades are big companies with easily identifiable rich owners. But to try to translate that distinction into policy would be the work of fussy, detail-oriented wonks, which is not really Sanders’s thing.