In Response to the Canvassers' Union

One of these days I'm going to write a post that's all my own, and not a "Response," but right now, I need to respond to the Canvassers' Union series, about the Fund for Public Interest Research and its offices in Los Angeles.

Almost every year in the last five or six years, a group of new recruits somewhere in PIRG/Fund/GCI has tried to organize in demand of better working conditions. We recruit an awful lot of bright kids, and many of them can sense right off the bat: this is not a system in which I can have a say at determining how things run. They think they know how things should be run; management, of course, knows better. So when management hears about the unionizing (and we almost always do) we have our ways of isolating these agitators, dispersing the group, even humiliating their leaders.

It's happened throughout PIRG history. It seems to be happening a lot more these days.
This is different.

There's more...

The Canvassers' Union (p5): The Fund Busts the Unions

This series is an expansion of my reporting inIn These Times magazine (August 18th, "Do You Have a Minute For...?") about two offices of the Fund for Public Interest Research that voted to unionize and were subsequently shut down.
As I noted in the first post, the Fund is perhaps the single largest employer of progressive activists in the country - through the entire PIRG/Fund world, thousands of would-be progressive leaders pass every year.

Part Two of the series introduced the Los Angeles door canvassers who "broke the Fund/PIRG model" by staying with their jobs for the long-term.
Part Three traced the path that led them to petition and vote for a union.
Part Four introduced the Los Angeles Telephone Outreach Project employees, who raise the "real money" in the Fund/PIRG model, and who followed the callers' lead toward a union.

This post is about how each of these unions died before being born.

I realize that this issue is not quite at the top of MyDD readers' must-read lists, perhaps because it is about a group of people who are not in the media, not in office or fighting for office, and not online. But think of it this way: if the blogosphere is the intelligentsia of the nascent progressive movement, these fundraisers are its toiling proletariat. Vital, but nearly invisible; in dire need of empowerment. This issue might not be as glamorous as setting the progressive agenda for the next two years, but it shapes the generation of our activists and affects the health of our grassroots for the decades to come...

There's more...

The Canvassers Union (p4): the Calling Room

Last summer, I reported on the saga of two Los Angeles offices of the Fund for Public Interest Research ("the Fund") that voted to unionize and were subsequently shut down -- In These Times magazine published the story (August 18th, "Do You Have a Minute For...?") and I expanded upon it here (P1, P2, P3). Then someotherthingshappened, and the second half of "The Canvassers Union" was delayed.

But, now we're back! I will finish the story this week, with one post a day.

As I noted in the first post of the series, the Fund/PIRG network is perhaps the single largest employer of young progressive activists in the country. The FFPIRG model of activism has recently been the subject of deep criticism, under the charge that it is "strangling progressive politics in America." I realize that this issue is not quite at the top of MyDD readers' must-read lists, perhaps because it is about a group of people who are not in the media, not in office or fighting for office, and not online. But think of it this way: if the blogosphere is the intelligentsia of the nascent progressive movement, these fundraisers are its toiling proletariat. Vital, but nearly invisible; in dire need of empowerment. This issue might not be as glamorous as setting the agenda for the next two years, but it shapes the generation of our activists and affects the health of our grassroots for the decades to come...

 -/-

Los Angeles has been problematic for the Fund for Public Interest Research.

With its wealthy, green communities and temperate climate, Los Angeles attracted a group of Fund canvassers who lasted from summer to winter and back--unlike most other cities in which the Fund runs canvass offices, where staff turnover in the course of year is almost total. These canvassers became friends; they learned their jobs inside and out; they also opted not to take higher positions in the Fund, for which they would have to work 80-hour weeks and ultimately be transferred out of the city. They just wanted to canvass. (See the second post in this series for this story in full.) And soon enough, for the second time in three years, the Fund's L.A. canvassers decided that they wanted to form a union. (See the third post in this series for that story in full.)

For the Fund, this was a problem--and this time, the problem had another problem, a much bigger problem, stacked right on top.

There's more...

In Response to Activism Inc and CanvassingWorks .org

So, a book just came out that trashes the organization for which I worked for eight years. Dana Fisher's Activism Inc argues that the Fund for Public Interest Research--along with the Public Interest Research Groups and Grassroots Campaigns Incorporated--is engaged in a rootless mode of activism that is "strangling progressive politics."

I have some problems with this.

My first problem is that Fisher has made some pretty bold, broad claims--and backed them up with really bad writing. This review by Jim B in Counterpunch is probably the most insightful and generally on-the-mark piece you'll find on the matter, and he says:

"It is an analytically incoherent book... a shallow, muddled, unrewarding account."

But that's just my first problem.  Jim B continues:

For all its weaknesses, Activism, Inc. provides a useful stimulus to debate and reflection... [If] her characterization of the Fund for Public Interest Research's canvass operation is accurate, then the Fund...represents a truly counterproductive force sucking energy out of the progressive movement it purports to strengthen.

This is my second problem. Even though Fisher's arguments are sloppily made, at times vague and at other times shallow, her characterization of the Fund is in fact largely accurate. If anything, it doesn't even fully expose the true problem.

There's more...

Fund/PIRG/GCI: the Incorporation of the Progressive Grassroots

So, the Right has the money, and the Left has the People Power. We all know that's how the game is stacked. And ever since that whole shake-up in the 60s, when both sides got their boats rocked, the Right's been building this big machine and throwing money into it. Turns out they're pretty good at it! And the Left? We've been out knockin' doors, talkin' to the People, givin' them the Power--that's how we do. That's how the story goes.

And that's why this little book released last month is a big deal. In Activism, Inc., Dana Fisher of Columbia University traces the history of the canvass--from a vital grassroots GOTV tool of local politicians, to an innovative tactic for burgeoning advocacy/lobbying groups in the 70s, to the big-box fundraising industry that sprawled out through the 90s and continues to grow today. Fisher's book is billed as the first formal study of the modern fundraising canvass ever published. (She recently published a piece in the American Prospect that more or less summarizes her argument.)

Mike Connery interviewed Fisher over at Future Majority last week about the canvasses described in her book. "This is not what democracy looks like, and it is not what progressive politics should look like either," he wrote in a post accompanying the podcast. But how can door-knocking to drum up People Power look like anything other than democracy?

Well, Fisher's book starts from the fact much of the progressive canvass world has been consolidated under one roof -- acronymically speaking, that would be FFPIRG/GCI -- the Fund for Public Interest Research and its network, including most of the PIRGs, Telefund, and Grassroots Campaigns Inc (GCI), a conglomerate that altogether is the single largest employer of "progressive activists" in the country.* (I wrote about Fund/PIRG/GCI's shared campaign model here in the "Strip-Mining the Grassroots" series.) Fisher then takes the time to do what no one has bothered to do in decades: ask these canvassers about their work. Fisher's conclusion is announced rather boldly right there in the book's subtitle:

How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America

There's more...

Diaries

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