Fund for Public Interest Research class action lawsuit

My name is Christian Miller. I was a canvasser in the Los Angeles Fund for Public Interest Research office from 2002 through 2006.  I raised money for Sierra Club, Human Rights Campaign, Greenpeace, Save the Children, and numerous PIRG groups.  More than two years ago, our office voted to unionize; one year ago this week, the Fund finally shut us down.  This sequence of events was profiled in In These Times magazine, and in Greg Bloom's "Canvassers Union" series here on DailyKos and MyDD.

I'm writing today because I, along with several former LA canvassers, and ex-employees of the Fund from across the country, have filed a class action lawsuit against the Fund.

After Greg's reporting, there was a tremendous surge of interest among former Fund employees in trying to do something the systemic labor abuse within the Fund -- but, since the client organizations that use the Fund would rather ignore the conditions that persist among their own fundraisers, pressing charges seemed to be the only available option to finally hold the Fund accountable.  

We have many problems with the Fund's management structure and employment policies, but in one area they are clearly violating the law: hour by hour, Fund employees (especially field managers) frequently work for what amounts to less than minimum wage. Often, those hours are spent doing work that is not an essential part of their job description - work that is supposedly "voluntary," but which the employees are made to feel is mandatory.

Our case contests the Fund's (il)legal classification of its canvassers as "outside sales." As a long-time canvasser who loved to speak with people about important issues even if only to make them think about these things for a few moments, I find this classification sadly ironic.  It allows the Fund to pay its canvassers only based on what they take in at the door. But the Fund also demands that its canvassers come early for trainings, stay late for administration, stay later for "social events," and even come in on weekends to "volunteer" by passing out petition postcards. (Supposedly, those postcards are going to be used to lobby for social change, but effectively they are just an underhanded way to grow Telefund's phone lists.) So many unpaid work hours not only is a drag that burns out more people than it should; it also creates an environment in which the canvassers are treated as if they are owned by the organization and must simply subsist while sacrificing themselves for it.

We believe that a canvass model can survive--and in fact, would make for better canvassing--if canvassers were paid appropriately for the hours in which they worked.

Any canvasser or Field Manager who worked for the Fund between December 2003 and now is eligible to join this lawsuit. If you worked in New York as far back as 2000, you are eligible. The lawyers are currently collecting all the information they can, so if you are eligible (or even if you are not, but would like to help the case out in some way) please contact them:

The law suit's web site: http://www.thefundovertimelawsuit.com/

Their phone number: (415)434-9800

They will just ask you some purely technical questions about the nature of the job- i.e. what hours you worked, what your duties were, who supervised you, whom you supervised, etc -- nothing uncomfortable, or self-incriminating. It should take twenty minutes or so. Call up and ask for Andrew Lee, and he'll answer any of your questions and let you know how you can help.

Just as important- if you know other people who worked for the Fund during these periods of time, please pass this on to them as well, and encourage them to get in touch with the lawyers, or with me.

I know that this issue seems sort of off topic for this website, but these blogs were the site of much of the discussion about PIRG and Grassroots Campaigns Inc, which runs campaigns for MoveOn, the Democratic National Committee, the ACLU and so on. Since GCI is basically built on the Fund's model, this has a lot to do with those organizations. Ultimately, if the vendor for the better part of the progressive Left loses a major labor law suit, it smells rank. And from what I know of the GCI veterans, they're almost as incensed about that organization as we were about the Fund.  We'll keep posting updates on these blogs as the case progresses.

Tags: canvassing, Fundraising, grassroots, Labor, PIRG, The Fund (all tags)

Comments

7 Comments

Re: Fund for Public Interest Research class action

In my years there, labor laws were so far off our radar as directors, since it was a campaign and our employees were activists, etc etc, that something like this would have been truly a surprise. Shocking.

But from what I know now, having spoken with many people inside and outside of PIRG/Fund with years of experience running canvasses, there is a great amount of anxiety that the Fund would bring exactly this upon itself.

It concerns me too, a little bit, that the canvass model could be really threatened, but I also think that this is appropriate and maybe even necessary.

by Lockse 2007-05-01 04:55AM | 0 recs
Accountability at last?

The GCI canvass was not just build on the Fund model, it stole from it. Doug Phelps, who is head of the for profit GCI and the defacto head of Fund (although he will deny it despite the fact that no one in the Fund or PIRG can make a decision without his approval) literally stole the canvass models the Fund uses, as well as its member lists, and used it to start the GCI canvasses. He also used Fund staff to help train and run the GCI canvasses and paid them through GCI so it would not show up on the Fund books and so he would give Fund staff bonuses and extra payments while keeping Fund salaries artifically low.

This lawsuit was a longtime in coming, and it will be interesting to see how is shakes out. It is well known throughout the Fund organization that canvassers who do not come in for extra hours are targeted for firing or demotion, but this policy will not show up anywhere in writing and may be difficult to prove in court.

by doonesbury 2007-05-01 07:26AM | 0 recs
Re: Accountability at last?

"Doug Phelps ... literally stole the [PIRGs]  member lists, and used it to start the GCI canvasses."

Umm, what?  As far as I know, the GCI canvass started going door to door without any lists at all.  At least, that was how it was in March of 04, 2 months after the company started, when I was a director in Boston.  Saying Phelps stole lists seems odd.

by dansomone 2007-05-01 10:00AM | 0 recs
Re: Fund for Public Interest Research class action

Go, Christian.

I read Greg Bloom's series and thought it was great.  I canvassed door-to-door in the early 80s before the Fund and GCI became dominant in canvassing.  Even back then, the PIRG canvasses had a reputation for treating their canvassers like dirt.

I wish you the greatest success in your class-action suit.  I am disgusted that so-called progressive organizations are not willing to examine the dirty laundry regarding the canvasses they hire through the  Fund.

by chrisdarling 2007-05-01 08:54AM | 0 recs
wow, tough case

Interesting.  I worked for GCI, and am now in law school focused on labor law. Not that I am not a lawyer (IANAL!), so don't take any of this as legal advice...

The outside sales exception is fairly broad, so I'm honestly not sure how successful this suit will be.  There is a department of labor opinion letter from last year saying that charitable solicition is not outside sales, but there are a few issues using that as precedent.  

First, it is an administrative decision, so while there will be some level of deference, it won't be binding.  (Don't ask what level of deference, please, it will make me go look at my admin law notes, I'd rather punch myself in the nuts).

Second, the cases establishing the exception make it fairly clear that people who are out on their own, and provide few services other then customer contact, are outside sales.

There are probably some issues related directly to class certification, as well.  (For example, field managers and canvassers would be very different in terms of hours worked, so the Fund could have a challenge on typicallity)

I'm not going to go too far into detail on this, but the case is not cut and dry.

by dansomone 2007-05-01 10:07AM | 0 recs
Re: Fund for Public Interest Research class action

Wonderful news!  Thanks for pursuing this.

I worked for the PIRG, but as a Campus Organizer in their MASSPIRG branch from 2002-2003.  Myself and several other of the campus organizers at that time attempted to unionize, but unfortunately our effort fizzled out at the end.  I don't know if our stories would help our not, but feel free to contact me.

by cmtalbert 2007-05-03 10:15AM | 0 recs
Re: Fund for Public Interest Research class action

hi christian-- this is the former gci employee from sf you spoke to during the winter, after the moveon project. we got our lawsuit off the ground, finally! things are moving. we're class action, too. :)

i'm sorry i lost contact with you. email me/call me if you still have my info! or you can email my anonymail: processwhore AT hotmail DOT com.

I hope you are well! hanging at the yearlykos?

by lovelyrough 2007-08-02 09:16PM | 0 recs

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