MoveOn, GCI, and the failure of Operation Democracy
by Future Senator D, Wed Sep 13, 2006 at 08:17:16 AM EDT
My name is Takeata King Pang, and mine is the third testimonial from a group of MoveOn Field Organizers (MOFOs) who are going public about the failures of Grassroots Campaigns' MoveOn field operation. Before I start my testimonial, I want to make something clear that seemed to get lost in Kelly and Martin's threads: the MOFOs who are writing these diaries lasted longer with GCI than almost all of the other organizers. Pretty much everyone else quit long before we did--but GCI kept us all isolated from each other and we had no real means of communication, so most everyone is out of touch. But many in this group managed to stay in contact, and we'd discussed these issues even before we'd read the posts here about GCI/MoveOn's 2004 Leave No Voter Behind.
Like the 2004 MoveOn organizers, our concerns are not just about the working conditions - we are also writing about the ways that this campaign is ineffective, and is failing the MoveOn members who join it. 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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).
I was hired by Grassroots Campaigns Incorporated in May 2005. There 70 or 80 staff who attended the first training I went to that month--including six who were hired specifically for the still-unofficial MoveOn field program. By the time September rolled around, almost all of those 70-80 people were gone; by October, none of the other organizers originally hired for MoveOn were still there. In the GCI world, I was by then an old-time veteran.
I had also just experienced the first major crisis of my employment. The MoveOn program still hadn't launched, so they had put me in a Minnesota canvass office as the director for the summer. In August, my best friend from home had gotten sick. We thought it might be cancer. I tried to leave to go see her--but the GCI office told me I couldn't. My office had only five canvassers, and another director who could easily have handled the work - but I was told that I couldn't leave. But it was the end of the summer, my sublease was expiring and I had nowhere else to live, and I wasn't even doing the job I'd been hired (or was needed) to do. So I packed up my car, informed them I was going home, and left.
They weren't pleased. A week later, I flew to Boston (paying my own ticket) to work for the Central office. (In this way, I had the odd fortune of working in almost all facets of GCI: from Canvass directing, to National Recruitment, to Finance, to Field.) From the Central office, I was able to hear and see everything that was happening in the company--suddenly I saw the process by which those 70 or 80 people had all left. One by one they would drop off, and the general feeling toward each was that `they weren't good enough', `they didn't have what it takes', or my favorite, `they just didn't care enough to make the necessary sacrifices.'
I'd like to talk more about sacrifices in this post.
I finally joined MoveOn's Operation Democracy in October 2005. During the training in Boston, I developed a slight cough.
Briefly after I reached my district for Operation Democracy, a hurricane hit and my whole area was shut down -- no power, no phones, no Internet. I was unable to do my job, but I was with my family as they dealt with the crisis. When I was finally able to contact my Lead Organizer (LO), she told me that they wanted me to drive to another part of the state to work in an area that wasn't affected. My family was still dealing with this crisis and the whole area was lacking gasoline--but they wanted me to drive someplace, anyplace, so that I could attempt to organize volunteers who were no doubt dealing with the same problems! I told them that my family at that moment was more important than my job. My LO was way less than happy with my decision. The power returned the next day, as if it was a reward for my choice; I'm not quite sure what would have happened if the power hadn't come back. But it did, and I got back to work.
The cough I'd picked up at training was now kicking in harder--but I didn't have health insurance, because I couldn't afford their plan on what I was being paid, nor did I have enough time to leave to see a doctor. So for months I was drinking Robitussin like nothing. The cough kept getting worse and worse, then I couldn't breathe, I was coughing up blood. It turned out I had pneumonia. I tried to work through the first two weeks, until I just had to take a week off.
During the week off, I got a call from my superiors every day. They were like 'oh we hope you feel better but this is really important, can you keep going?' I couldn't even talk! But I didn't want to hurt the campaign--so I came back during the last week of my pneumonia. When I did came back, even though I told them I wasn't at 100%, I was expected to do the same phone banking for five hours a day--my LO kept saying 'push it as far as you can, keep going, you're farther behind.'...
But everyone was being told how far behind they were. Originally we were supposed to have one district each. Then it was either 5 or 20 districts each, and by the end people had entire states and then some.
Our volunteers were getting frustrated because we couldn't work much with them and it was hard for them to see any tangible result. My very best volunteer, who worked with me for months, got so frustrated. She was working closely on the ballot initiatives, in Florida and nationwide, and couldn't get anyone at MoveOn to even talk with her about the issue. When I brought it up to my LO, I was told to go find another volunteer. But the balloting machines are a huge thing in Florida--they were trying to get the referendum put on the ballot for 2006--and almost all the volunteers were trying to get MoveOn to help them on it, even something as simple as just sending out an email to other members.
MoveOn told us, 'we pick the issues we do from the website forum--whatever issue is in the top five in the Action Forum, we'll work on.' So my volunteers organized an effort to get this issue in the top five -- it was number one and two for over a month. Nothing was done.
We did have a weekly survey to fill out giving suggestions from volunteers. Whenever I'd bring something up to my LO, she'd say, `put it in the online survey'--but nothing we'd put in this survey would ever be addressed. Eventually, that weekly survey page was taken down. I still tried to tell my directors that things weren't working. But my numbers were ok, and so they just didn't believe me when I said volunteers weren't happy. They'd say, 'don't worry about that, call another volunteer.'
Toward the beginning of the campaign, the organizers had tried to form a united front to approach GCI with the issues we were having--like gas reimbursements, housing, hours, and overtime pay. We thought that it would be more effective than going to them each on our own. It wasn't my decision to keep it secret, but many people felt more comfortable that way. Then somehow word got out, LO's found out, FOs freaked and just acted as if it never happened. My LO never spoke to me about it, but I know that others were intimidated by theirs. About a month later, I was getting calls again from other FOs around the country who were frustrated. Turned out we were all having the same type of problems with the volunteers and events, and were getting very little help or understanding from our LO's. So I attempted to arrange a conference call with the organizers, just so that we could share with each other the things we were struggling with and how we were dealing with it. I didn't want it to seem as if I was going behind anyone's back so I told my LO straight out that I was going to do it. I think she must have said something to other LOs, because all of the sudden no one wanted to be on the call. I had people actually tell me they didn't want to get fired.
Around January my LO called and excitedly told me that things were going so well that MoveOn had decided to make the regions even bigger, and I would need to move. My region would now encompass all of Florida and parts of Georgia. I said I couldn't take a bigger region for two reasons. First, my volunteers all over the state were already unhappy with how the campaign was going. And second I was barely able to live on what I was being paid--I was only getting by because I was able to live in my family's home. Without them helping to feed and house me, I would have been drowning in debt. During this conversation my LO said "maybe MoveOn's not the right fit for you."
They were supposed to call me back to assign me somewhere else, but I never heard anything from them. Eventually I received a phone call asking where I wanted my final paycheck sent, and I was told good luck. They never formally said it, but I realized then that I was no longer employed with GCI.
But I still wanted to stay! I don't know why, it was this really weird... I can't even tell you, I just felt like I needed to be there. I couldn't give any reason why.
Anyway, then I had to look for another job, but I was completely in debt. (I'd paid for my own plane ticket to the training, they'd refused to reimburse any of my cell phone bills because of a technicality in my plan's billing, and I'd never been compensated for thousands of miles of driving, for which they would have only paid me 12 cents--not even enough to cover gas.) I had worked at GCI over 10 months, just long enough to qualify for two weeks paid vacation. I left all these messages trying to get those vacation days, but they never called me back. (Months later, I talked to a senior GCI manager with whom I'd become really close during the fundraising canvass. He didn't know that I wasn't in the company any more--he was dumbfounded! He was supposed to look into my vacation pay, but never got back to me.)
I still almost feel like it's my fault, like I didn't try hard enough, wasn't good enough. But on the other hand, during one of the trainings, I roomed with the director of the best office in our region. When I mentioned that hers was the best, she was shocked! She'd thought she was so far behind because that's what she was always being told. It was a mind game--no matter how good you are, it's just 'do more.' It must be what the factory workers in the early 1900's felt like--work that just beats you into submission.
I really believed in Operation Democracy, and so did the MoveOn volunteers...in its original premise of building a long term, localized organization. What Operation Democracy became was not that. Personally, I would love to see the idea restarted and put into action as it was originally planned: one organizer in a House district, helping to create functional, self-sustaining teams of MoveOn members.
But regardless of what MoveOn's plans are, it needs to be aware of what is happening in the field, under its name. They need to hold GCI accountable, and demand that the Organizers are not only being treated with a basic amount of respect, but being allowed to do their jobs right. It's awful to work for a company that has contempt for the very things that we are fighting for--a living wage, worker's rights--and contempt for the very people we're trying to organize. If GCI is not held accountable to non-numerical standards for success, MoveOn will not only continue to fail in its efforts to win campaigns, but GCI will demean and drive away an entire generation of passionate and driven young organizers like myself.