Bernie Sanders announced layoffs of almost half of his staffers this week as the campaign prepares for the final primaries. The move makes sense. As Sanders himself explained, “We have had a very large staff, which was designed to deal with 50 states in this country; 40 of the states are now behind us.”
For a while the Sanders campaign needed these employees to help meet the goals of the organization. Now it doesn’t. Why should Sanders keep paying for staff he no longer needs? Mitt Romney described this logic well when he said in 2012, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” For some reason Romney’s remarks were received differently than Sanders’.
What if Bernie Sanders had to operate his organization under the rules he’s trying to impose on the nation’s employers? How would he navigate the final months of his campaign if he lacked the freedom to hire and fire employees to fit his organization’s needs?
For starters, it would take months for him to lay off that many employees. Sanders himself has worked hard over the years to stiffen the terms of the WARN Act, which requires 60 days’ notice for any layoffs. Sanders’ campaign meets the requirements of the Act in terms of size and the nature of his employees’ work. Why shouldn’t be have to comply with basic statutes protecting workers from abuse?
If Sanders had to operate under his own rules, his staffers would be protected from his greedy whims by a union. Terms of employment would be dictated by a collective bargaining agreement.
Want to keep or even increase staffers for the coming contests in California while dropping staff in New York? Sorry, no can do. Almost any collective bargaining agreement in a western country will include rules requiring an employer to protect senior employees over junior ones, regardless of business needs. If your most senior workers are in places you no longer need staff, tough luck.
Think you’re going to ask them to move to place where the campaign needs to focus its efforts? Nope. They will be protected from your heartless effort to dislocate them from their community. You’ll keep paying staff you don’t need in a place that no longer matters as long as the contract says, or pay penalties.
As for the employees who were let go, what retraining has the Sanders campaign offered? After all, these jobs are going away for the next three years or so. They need a fair opportunity to prepare for non-political work. See where this is going?
Why, one might ask, should the Sanders campaign be subjected to the same rules as a corporation? After all, Sanders is running a plucky small enterprise taking on the giants of business. His opponents have bottomless resources while he just has his “small donors.”
Let’s take a look at the numbers.
The average American employer (excluding self-employed businesses) earns revenues of about $5m a year. There are about 6m companies in America that carry employees. About 1% of them earn more than $100m in revenue. A fraction of a percent of US companies employ more than a thousand people.
At its peak the Sanders campaign had more than 900 employees. In this year alone, the campaign has revenues well over $100m. When the latest layoffs were announced, Sanders’ campaign still had over $17m in cash on hand, more than every remaining Republican candidate combined. In fact, no candidate has raised more money than Sanders this year.
Considering revenue and the number of employees, the Sanders campaign is among the largest fraction of a percent of American employers. Sanders is a 1%’er, firing employees he doesn’t need without providing the most basic employee protections.
Is it absurd to ask the Sanders campaign to comply with labor laws designed to protect 19th and 20th century industrial workers? Of course it is. But those rules no longer makes sense almost anywhere else in our economy. The Sanders campaign fits the criteria of a big business enterprise far better than most of the businesses subjected to federal rules.
Does this make Sanders a hypocrite? No, but it might provide some insight into the frustrations experienced by millions of American business owners. It is extremely difficult to design from Washington a dense network of infinitely detailed economic regulations without creating absurd outcomes. Federal worker protections are important, but we should be very careful in how we craft them.
More than 40 years ago an earlier model of Bernie Sanders actually won the Democratic nomination. George McGovern, earned the 1972 Democratic nomination, losing the General Election in a historic landslide. After retiring from the Senate McGovern became a small business owner. It was a brief, failed experiment.
Here’s what McGovern said he learned in the transition from regulator to regulated:
“I do know that if I were back in the U.S. Senate or in the White House, I would ask a lot of questions before I voted for any more burdens on the thousands of struggling businesses across the nation.”
The Sanders campaign should have the right to hire and fire as needed to meet its goals. Burying his campaign under a landslide of half-considered regulations and union rules would be absurd. Perhaps if Sanders were forced to answer questions about the way he has treated his employees he might be less comfortable ranting against the men and women who keep our economy on its feet.