Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric on the $15 minimum wage – rhetoric echoed by many politicians here in Vermont – just suffered a violent collision with economic reality.

For those who may have missed the story, Sanders pays his field staff minimum salaries of $36,000 a year, which would amount to slightly over $15 an hour for a 40-hour work week. However, political campaigns are 24/7 operations, and staff members are putting in 60 hours a week or more, thus reducing their hourly wage to less than $15 an hour with no overtime. The staff is crying foul.

Sanders is, of course, a leading advocate for a national $15 minimum wage and has made considerable political hay badmouthing employers like Walmart, McDonald’s, and Amazon with soundbites like, “The greed of companies like Walmart at the expense of working people will end.” Well, now Bernie is the one being accused by his own employees of being the greedy skin flint, forcing them to live on “starvation wages,” unable to make ends meet. According to The Hill, at least one individual has filed an unfair labor practices complaint against Sanders’ campaign.

So, what is the Sanders campaign to do?

Campaign manager Faiz Shakir pointed out that, the budget already being set, to raise the salaries for field workers would necessitate firing some of them. Sanders himself announced the solution would be to cut back workers’ hours and cap them at 42 per week.

This is an example of what the Congressional Budget Office warned would happen if a national $15 minimum wage went into effect: as many as 3.7 million low-wage jobs would disappear. Similarly, Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Office concluded that if the policy were adopted statewide, it would result in a net annual long term “disemployment” rate of 2,250 jobs from 2028-2050.

The reality Sanders faces is that a business (and a campaign is in many ways like a business) can’t spend money it doesn’t have, nor it can’t make money appear out of thin air. If you pay some workers more, you have to pay some workers less – or nothing. You can increase the hourly wage by reducing total hours worked, but that’s not an overall financial benefit to the worker. Additionally, it would be detrimental to the main mission of the campaign, which is to win an election. The campaign could spend less on advertising, events, direct mail, etc., but that also would be detrimental to the primary mission of the campaign.

Victory is what donors, the campaign’s customers, are investing in. If you’re not running a high-quality, competitive operation – or, in other words, you are not putting out as good a product as the other candidates in the race — donors will go elsewhere and you’ll have even less money to spend on salaries and benefits. Of course, if the campaign fails then everybody will be out of a job.

Sanders probably feels misused by these ungrateful employees, and it’s hard not to sympathize with him on this score. After all, he is trying his best to do well by them. $36,000 a year for a political field worker isn’t chicken feed. Plus, he’s giving them full health benefits. He encouraged them to unionize. (In fact, the salary and benefits package now under formal complaint was collectively bargained by the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 400. Now the workers forced to live under the union agreement think they got screwed.) And, he is providing them with a valuable work experience/resume builder on an exciting national presidential campaign. In return, these campaign workers publicly humiliated the very entity that is the genesis of all their income. Shrewd.

Many of the excuses Sanders floats are the same as those he scoffed at when it was him leveling the charges of unfair labor practices. His campaign says, “We know our campaign offers wages and benefits competitive with other campaigns, as is shown by the latest fundraising reports.” True. Of course, McDonald’s offers wages and benefits competitive with other fast food restaurants. That didn’t keep Sanders from attacking.

One wonders if Bernie will have more empathy in the future toward businesses who, like he, are doing the best they can for their employees with the resources they have. More importantly, will Bernie’s followers in the Vermont Legislature learn from this debacle and drop thoughts of passing a $15 minimum wage in 2020? Maybe if the $15 minimum wage causes the Sanders campaign to fail the lesson will be learned.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.

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