The Canvassers' Union (pt3): The Long Road to Union

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 - in the entire PIRG/Fund world, thousands of would-be progressive leaders pass through every year. There is a new book that argues that this mode of activism is "strangling progressive politics in America." Think of it this way: if the blogosphere is the nascent progressive movement's intelligentsia, these canvassers are its toiling, near-invisible laborers - this might not be as glamorous as the ouster of a wayward Democratic Party leader, but it is just as central to our cause...

The Fund for Public Interest Research launched its first nationwide street canvass in the summer of 2001. It was a campaign for Greenpeace.

"The Los Angeles Greenpeace fundraising office was among the highest grossing and most efficient ... offices in the country. [Its directors] had received high-ranking reviews and praise by both superiors and staff." But in January of 2002, that office was closed down.

There's more...

The Canvassers' Union (pt2): How Los Angeles Broke the PIRG/Fund Model

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. The topic is perhaps a little earthy for these blogs, which focus largely on issues of electoral strategy and national news; but as I noted in this series' first post, the Fund is perhaps the single largest employer of progressive activists in the country - in the entire PIRG/Fund world, thousands of would-be progressive leaders pass through every year. A new book is being published that argues this mode of activism is "strangling progressive politics in America." Think of it this way: if the blogosphere is the nascent progressive movement's intelligentsia, these canvassers are its toiling, near-invisible laborers - this might not be as glamorous as the ouster of a wayward Democratic Party leader, but it is just as central to our cause...

Let's start with the weather.

Famously temperate, Los Angeles enjoys the kind of brisk winters through which a committed progressive person could spend each night knocking on doors, asking to speak with residents about a subject of pressing public interest. In the rest of the country, most canvass offices will ramp down or close entirely during the winter months. But in L.A., an office might retain its most committed canvassers year-round, as they nightly comb the wide, wealthy liberal, subtropical city.

This could help explain why, in the past four years, the Fund has shut down three of its L.A. offices.

It certainly helps explain how Christian Miller, one of the primary stewards in the 2005 L.A. door canvassers' union drive, could have kept at canvassing for a full four years.

There's more...

The Canvasser's Union (part 1)

My article inIn These Times magazine is published online today- it's about two Los Angeles offices of the Fund for Public Interest Research that voted to unionize over a year ago. You can read their stories directly at their web site. I'm thrilled with how the ITT piece has turned out; I also want to expand upon many of the issues in there. So I'm going to blog for a while about this issue of activist unionization, a subject that has come up a few times in the comments of my last two series, "Strip-Mining the Grassroots" and "Grassroots Campaigns Inc's Great War of 2004."

From "Do You Have a Minute for ... ?," August 18th, In These Times
:

There's a word that gets tossed around in canvassing offices to describe people like Christian Miller: "scrappy." That's not because of his skinny frame and sparse, wiry chin-scrabble. Rather, in an industry where the average career lasts two weeks, Miller, 28, canvassed door-to-door throughout Los Angeles for four years.

In the last 30 years, canvassers like Miller have become the most common--if unsung--figures in political activism, going door-to-door or standing on busy street corners to talk to people about various public interest issues. It took Miller a minute to tick through the long list of campaigns for which he'd raised money: solar energy bills, forest protection, Sierra Club, Human Rights Campaign. All were operated by the same company: the Fund for Public Interest Research (commonly known as "the Fund"), a national nonprofit founded by the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) in 1982. Since then, canvassers for the now-ubiquitous state PIRGs have raised over $350 million and gathered more than 20 million signatures for causes ranging from environmental protection to gay rights. The Fund holds a near-monopoly on the canvass industry, running 30 to 60 offices each summer, with thousands of canvassers working on dozens of campaigns.


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Towards a Progressive Model (pt1): GCI/PIRG/Fund, meet the Internet!

This is a new series that will focus on resolutions to the "crisis of leadership" that failed MoveOn PAC's 2004 Leave No Voter Behind campaign, and continues to fail its 2006 Operation Democracy campaign. As explored in the post-mortem "Grassroots Campaigns Inc's Great War of 2004," the crisis is located in MoveOn's subcontractor, GCI, which uses a campaign model based on the Fund/Public Interest Research Groups. This model is unaccountable to its participants and unresponsive to conditions on the ground; consequentially, its grassroots energies are burned through and, at the same time, it fails in its own objectives of political action. It bears repeating that we don't need to reinvent the wheel in order to run better campaigns -- the fixes to the model can be significant without being structurally radical. This post will propose one such change. To do so, I want to take another quick jump back into 2004 (after this, I promise to put the nasty business behind).

During the national training for Leave No Voter Behind, we heard many allusions to the spectacular Dean campaign of a year before. Grassroots Campaigns Inc's MoveOn Field Organizers (FOs) were supposedly carrying on in the spirit of that web phenomenon, as we would be using the 'cutting-edge web technology' of the MoveOn PAC WAC (Web Action Center) to create our massive grassroots army.

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Grassroots Campaigns, Inc's Great War of 2004 (p4): Masters and Slaves

So we've been talking about MoveOn PAC's 2004 GOTV campaign, Leave No Voter Behind. About how the company that MoveOn subcontracted, Grassroots Campaigns, Inc (GCI), was significantly delayed in getting its campaign off the ground, and about how its `cutting edge' internet-based computer system (the Web Action Center) collapsed barely a week in. About how, in order to make up for these setbacks, GCI forced its organizers to redouble their recruitment, at the expense of training their volunteers--which effectively `broke' its own campaign model, but succeeded in getting GCI re-hired by MoveOn for 2006. All along, I've been saying that this conversation is building to a constructive point - but before that can happen, it's important that I fully illustrate the rather bold claim made in the first post: that the result was, for many involved, `a soul-crushing experience.'

I want to make sure that when you read that 'half of the organizer staff didn't make it to Election Day,' you see more than a number. But so far, this analysis has been mostly macro -- largely because I didn't want our discussion to get bogged down in tedium and quibble. After all, campaigns are `hard work,' inevitably there are going to be some feelings hurt along the way, and as Zack Exley pointed out in the comments:

the problems you're describing are systemic to all politics...and really to the question of organization in general.

Indeed - but if we can identify a pattern to the problems, then we can think about a solution. So let's get micro. Here are four stories that are representative of the dozens of people I've interviewed - they are mostly about the relationships between the Field Organizers (FOs), who worked directly with the volunteers, and their supervising Lead Organizers (LOs). I've changed some details to keep things anonymous, but there is no invention here.

There's more...

Diaries

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