Strip-mining the grassroots for GCI and MoveOn--MoveOn must act!
by artichoke88, Tue Sep 12, 2006 at 06:25:06 AM EDT
Last week, Grassroots Campaigns Inc's DCCC canvassers in Madison, Wisconsin protested because they were not earning minimum wage--after a bunch of blogs on the right and the left picked up on the story, the DCCC cancelled its contract with GCI.
But the lack of a living wage is just the beginning of the problems with GCI's operations. As Greg Bloom wrote in his series on MoveOn PAC's Leave No Voter Behind campaign, GCI's model has caused severe damage in the field because of a "crisis of leadership" in its management. A veteran of MoveOn/GCI's Operation Democracy read Greg's post and passed it to me, and together with a number of other veterans--we call ourselves the MOFOs, the MoveOn Field Organizers--I feel that it's imperative to show that the crisis continues. In Martin's post yesterday, a couple of people asked what our motives are: it's to expose the ways that GCI is failing its organizers AND failing to run an effective campaign for MoveOn. At the end of the week, we will post a set of recommendations of actions that MoveOn can take to begin to resolve this crisis. If you find our stories compelling, and you agree this issue must be addressed by MoveOn, please send an email to Eli Pariser (email@example.com) and cc us at ChangeGCI@gmail.com (or contact us there directly, and we will update you with further information about how you can send a message to MoveOn).
My name is Kelly Nagy - I've worked on numerous environmental and social justice campaigns, as well as local community issues and Senate electoral campaigns. I was the National Director of the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) for almost 3 years.
With all this experience, my first interview with Grassroots Campaigns, in May of 2005, went really well - it even seemed to me like I had just been hired. But in total, the interview process with GCI took almost two months.
In the next several phone calls, the tone of the directors who interviewed me changed -- I was being questioned sometimes for an hour or two each week. They were asking open-ended questions about hypothetical management scenarios that seemed pretty odd to me -- and finally three weeks later I lost patience asked them why I was being put through all the questions. They said, 'we still haven't decided if we're going to hire you, because you were affiliated with SEAC.' I had no idea why that would be a problem. He told me that SEAC is critical of Green Corps, and referred to an article in SEAC 's magazine called Threshold, that exposed Green Corps' policies, and he told me 'this is really hurting our consideration of you.' SEAC is critical of Green Corps--SEAC disapproves of their organizing model because it openly neglects issues of race and class among other things--but I didn't see why that should matter in my employment. I said to him that if they were going to pull up an article published by an organization for which I was not even working at the time of its publication, and question whether I'm appropriate for their position, then it's a position I didn't want.
I didn't hear from them for a while -- it was the first week of July when I got the call that I had been waiting for: a job offer. I had to go to Boston within 3 days.
The director would later tell me on many occasions that he made the wrong decision in hiring me. In retrospect, I can't believe I made the decision to take the job in the first place. But all I wanted in life was to make organizing a career -- and I was such a fan of what MoveOn had done, and I was dying to take on Rick Santorum (R-PA), which they said I would get to do--and they were presenting this as a long-term career opportunity at least through November of 2008. Plus, I'd already quit my other job in the middle of June, back when I'd thought I'd been hired.
The training was...well, on one hand it didn't seem like a Green Corps training, because I've met some amazing Green Corps organizers, and this training was disorganized and poorly-planned, with hardly any materials and awful workshops. On the other hand, it had that certain cultish vibe of Green Corps - this sense of total singlemindedness, an elimination of all dissonant thought... For instance, a few of us hires with more experience were assigned to go talk to less-experienced trainees, to ask them how they were feeling about the training - and then I was appalled to find that GCI used the information we found to actually fire people right there! Several others dropped out because they didn't like the tactics that GCI was using.
But the training was very good at getting us all pumped up and ready to do anything, ready to triumph for democracy - and we wanted the challenge, thrived on the challenge. When I left the training, I already suspected that GCI was going to fail me as an organizer - because I felt the distress behind their tactics, and the total lack of interest in us as individuals. But I felt really hopeful about the campaign, because I respected MoveOn's work and their potential.
We were originally supposed to contact, connect, and form the MoveOn members into teams in key districts where congressional Republicans were vulnerable. Many of the volunteers who I initially organized were the ones I formed a personal connection with and we depended on. They all thought it was so important that there were paid MoveOn organizers in their district trying to help them take on their local representative.
But in October 2005, GCI flew us back to Boston for a second round of training, and announced that MoveOn changed plans. We were now targeting media markets instead of particular precincts that were related to specific races...this made sense with respect to our strategy of doing media events - we could now focus our efforts to get more "hits" by local news outlets. But a side affect was that we ended up abandoning or dismantling those teams that were ready to work for the progressive candidates in their district.
Now we were supposed to convince our best team leaders to form "committees" of the team leaders from their entire area. We would basically teach them how to do our jobs - in theory this is great, that's the idea of organizing, to create self-sustainable activists. But we hadn't put nearly enough time in yet - hardly more than 2 months! - and most of my volunteers were really put off. I'd had to convince some of them to be team leaders in the first place, and now here I was pressuring them to sign contracts to be basically full-time field organizers! But I had deadlines to fill, and numbers to make - so these people with whom I'd bonded I had to keep pushing to do more of what they didn't want to do.
According to GCI, if they really didn't want to do it, we didn't need them any more. If they weren't willing to step up, they were useless.
There's something really important to note about this time: we were pressuring our volunteers to "kick it up a notch"at the same time that we were shifting the goal posts! We weren't really targeting Santorum or other specific representatives any more - we were just trying to "get press." None of the volunteers liked the change of targets. They wanted to be concrete. They wanted to focus on their districts. They all quickly saw through the media events thing-- if we were getting MoveOn's name into the newspaper, GCI said our campaign was a success, but the volunteers just didn't buy that for long. They felt like we were just doing PR work for MoveOn and GCI.
And I couldn't convince them otherwise--it was hard to believe otherwise myself. As far as GCI was concerned, the only thing that mattered was the number of news "hits." It didn't matter if the events were covered well by the media, or what the media was saying about it, or what our volunteers thought about it. After every event, we'd spend hours giving a deep report: how many people showed up, how many newsmakers called, how many confirmed they would be there, how many showed, how many articles printed? I understand the concepts of accountability, and monitoring the work. Doing numbers regularly is fine with me--but between all of the spreadsheet work and calls and conference calls, GCI's monitoring obsession cost each organizer two hours of work a day that did not go towards furthering the campaign in any way. They did not hide from us why they really wanted it. They kept telling us, "these numbers are for accountability"--but anyone can fudge the numbers, and all the organizers did, since we all knew that the only thing that meant success to GCI was having these numbers so that they could go sell their model again.
All the time, we'd hear how incredible the Leave No Voter Behind campaign's numbers were, and how much money the DNC canvass made in 2004. Half a million votes, twenty two million dollars - we heard them all the time. I wasn't surprised at all to read that those numbers were as much bullshit as ours.
Our goal as organizers was to build a progressive grassroots network that was going to change the face of liberal politics; MoveOn just wanted its name in the paper (they had this lovely saying that bad press is still good press); GCI's goal was to sell its numbers.
So the MOFOs were coming and quitting very quickly -- of course, the MoveOn members were noticing and they would get discouraged. When the volunteers were left without their recent Field Organizer who just quit or got fired, they were left without the ability to contact anyone else on the campaign (MoveOn's site is useless in this way). What happened to the MoveOn Minute Taker happens all the time -- people put in all this work, and then just get left behind. The whole thing ends up disenfranchising their grassroots.
But all along, I made all GCI's deadlines, and got their damn numbers. In the end, they fired me because I stood up for basic worker rights. GCI was reimbursing us for 12 cents a mile of driving. I took issue with that from the second day I was on the job, when I mentioned it to the GCI director, in a private conversation--I said, '12c a mile is not acceptable, it's not even going to cover gas in many places'. With everything else that kept falling out of our pockets all the time, most organizers just accepted getting screwed--but I wouldn't let this go. The IRS says that we should be reimbursed 40.5 cents a mile. So I kept pushing the point, contacting all of the other Field Organizers - and almost every one of the Field Organizers began to speak up about it. Myself and a few others took it directly to MoveOn, and asked if it was true that they would not reimburse us for gas. At that point, GCI finally changed the policy to 21c a mile.
They fired me two days later.
At this point, I realized that during all those weeks of interviews, when they were asking me all kinds of nagging questions, they were just trying to find out if I would be a team player, who would accept everything without questioning anything -- in GCI's words, 'if I would eat dirt.' If they hadn't fired me, I wonder how long I would have kept eating it.
When they fired me, more than five hundred dollars of my out of pocket expenses did not get reimbursed. I was handed off and lied to and avoided for months. At one point, their finance people said they sent the checks and that I had cashed them -- and as proof, they sent me photocopies of the backs of two old checks that had been cashed months prior. After that point, my calls were never answered again. And since then, everyone I've heard from who quit has said that they didn't see the end of their money.
One of the big questions among all of the MOFOs was about how much MoveOn knew about the outrageous working conditions. Communication with MoveOn was pretty much nonexistent -- we worked entirely through our field coordinators at GCI. There was a web-survey page that supposedly went straight to MoveOn, but at some point that got re-routed to GCI. MoveOn didn't really want to work directly with us -- that's what GCI was for, I guess. But this is very much MoveOn's campaign in any way -- its' history that we were selling, its' members we were burning through, and GCI really wasn't in a position to answer in MoveOn's capacity. Nor did they care to be.
It has been almost a year since I was fired, and I still feel like I never want to organize professionally again. GCI didn't wear me out, I wasn't burned out, I ran a major national organization for years -I can do hard work and manage hundreds of people. I could have kept working. No - I felt violated by this job.
MoveOn had better start caring --not only about what GCI is doing to its volunteers, but also how it is draining a generation of progressive activists. I repeat myself -- MoveOn had better start caring. And if I can help force it to do so, I'll consider that five hundred dollars an investment in the progressive movement.