by Lakshmi Gandhi
Andrew Cuomo resigned Monday, marking the end of a tumultuous, months-long saga that included multiple women—many of whom are current and former staffers—coming forward to detail their experiences with sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior by the 56th governor of New York. But while the allegations against (and subsequent investigation into) Cuomo received international media attention, many other women and BIPOC political and campaign staffers often struggle to be heard when they experience workplace abuse and harassment.
Many political observers and workers’ rights advocates have been working for years to create a better workplace culture for women and BIPOC workers—especially when it comes to harassment and inappropriate crossing of boundaries. That’s why longtime political workers say that what’s needed to protect vulnerable staffers from workplace harassment and overwork is a profound cultural change in the political workplace, along with robust and explicit workplace protections and reporting processes. Veteran campaign staffer Dallas Thompson co-founded the political human resources firm Bright Compass because she experienced firsthand how challenging it can be for a woman who experiences harassment while working on a campaign.
“I had personally experienced harassment and managed discrimination allegations thought out my career, so I wanted to be a part of changing the way the game was played,” she said in an email.
As with most workplace disparities, the lack of clear reporting policies and human resources departments were shown to harm women and BIPOC staffers and their careers the most, Thompson said.
“Traditionally excluded groups of people, specifically women and BIPOC, experience harm from a lack of protections because informal networks are naturally aligned to provide protection and benefit to dominant groups,” Thompson noted.
Due to low pay and reliance on unpaid internships, campaign staff and the political world at large have mostly been the purview of mostly white men for decades. This statistic remains true even as the Democratic Party and several candidates actively seek to diversify their workforce. That most elected officials in the country are also white and male means women and people of color on staff risk more if they choose to speak out about their experiences.
People typically apply for specific political jobs because they believe in the cause, the candidate, or the elected official. In the political world, lines blur in the stark power imbalance between staffers and political office-holders, candidates, high-level donors, or veteran staffers. That’s why in recent years, many political workers have been calling for the creation of unions and formalized human resources policies that allow workers to file complaints about harassment, exploitation, and discrimination in the workplace to protect the most vulnerable of workers. They say this is particularly important because working in politics, particularly on the local or campaign level, often means laboring for long hours for low wages.
“If you’ve never worked on a campaign before, you should know it’s a pretty wild experience. Too often, campaign workers routinely work under really difficult conditions,” said Taylor Billings, organizing director of the Campaign Workers Guild. “This can include working over 80 hours a week, seven days a week, while also being chronically paid less than minimum wage, especially given how many hours people are working.”
As with most workplace disparities, the lack of clear reporting policies and Human Resources departments were shown to harm women and BIPOC staffers and their careers the most, Thompson said.
“Traditionally excluded groups of people, specifically women and BIPOC, experience harm from a lack of protections because informal networks are naturally aligned to provide protection and benefit to dominant groups,” Thompson said.
Firms like Thompson’s Bright Compass and organized labor organizations like the Campaign Workers Guild, founded in 2017 and the first union for campaign workers in the United States, were created in response to that leadership void. The union resulted from “a culmination of years of really toxic workplace culture in the campaign industry,” Billings said.
“Campaign workers for years and years have been talking about and enduring really toxic and difficult working conditions on the campaign trail,” Billings said. “It’s also kind of pervasive throughout the industry.”
But in a field as hierarchical as politics, actual change requires that candidates and officeholders commit to creating safe work environments from the top down.
“There is a pretty pervasive rule that is talked about in the industry which is, ‘Do nothing to jeopardize the campaign, do anything to win,’” Billings said. “So often campaign workers can feel like they’re faced with a false choice—either report sexual harassment or report abuse of any kind—or keep their mouth set and get their candidate elected into office.”
Billings stresses the very premise of that idiom is false.
“We can have a healthy, safe work environment and get these people into office,” she said.
Safer working conditions and strong anti-harassment policies on campaigns, a place where so many political careers begin, also can create widespread change when it comes to working conditions at political offices well after the election is over.
“The longer that people stay in the field and feel supported and their workplace rights are protected and upheld, then I think you do get this really nice growth in the industry,” Billings said.
But political staffers and campaign workers note that it should not be solely left to younger and lower-paid workers to push for anti-harassment policies and better working conditions.
“I don’t think we can put the burden entirely on young people,” said Divya Sundaram, who has worked on several campaigns since she was in college. “I don’t think that is fair or responsible. I think a lot of work needs to be carried forward in part by people who’ve been doing this for a while.”
Lakshmi Gandhi is a reporter, editor, and social media manager based in New York City. She is currently a freelance journalist who specializes in literature, identity, and pop culture. Her articles have appeared in NBCNews.com, HISTORY, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, The Juggernaut, Metro New York, and other publications. She often reports on the intersections of gender, identity, and pop culture and is exceptionally good at giving book recommendations.
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