Strip-mining the grassroots (pt4): Grassroots Campaigns' slash-n-burn-out war

(This is the fourth in a series of posts (cross-posted from DailyKos) about a particular breed of ground operations that is increasingly popular among progressive organizations -- including the DNC and MoveOn. I'll argue -- and I'm not the first to do so, that this model of 'grassroots' activism is unhealthy for the progressive movement; that it saps vital energy and does not effectively advance our cause.)

In 2004, the DNC subcontracted Grassroots Campaigns, Inc (GCI) to run a fundraising canvass that proclaimed its mission to 'beat Bush.' This misleading claim glossed over the fact that the canvass was entirely a 'base-building operation' with no bearing on the '04 election-- in other words, it brought new donors but only paid for itself with their donations. Now that the DNC has relaunched the GCI canvass for '06, I think it's important that the entire enterprise be reconsidered. In my last two posts, I assessed its function as shallow and narrow: instead of progressive civic engagement that would build identity and strength in the bonds between our base and party infrastructure, the canvass merely makes sales. It's cheap, shoddy base-building. And though this kind of canvassing may be a cost-effective way to create donors, cheaper than other fundraising methods, the hidden costs are severe. That per-donor value comes from somewhere, and in this post I'll explain how it comes off the back of thousands of hours of sub-minimum wage labor.

Conveniently, as I sat down to put the post together, the Google Alerts brought me a gift from Craigslist:


Grassroots Campaigns, Incorporated is hiring door to door fundraisers in Boston. We expect our employees to work 60 to 70 hours per week, seven days a week. This works out to an hourly rate that is often below the minimum wage. (We beleive [sic] canvassers are exempt from min. wage)

Worse working conditions, longer work weeks, lower wages. Right on, man!

For all our political rhetoric, were just like any other business. In Marxist terms, we make money by extracting surplus labor value from our workers. Obviously, the less we pay the workers and the more you work us, the more money we get to keep for our own purposes. Of course, were fighting the good fight for the progressive cause--for the party--and we must all make sacrifices for the revolution, comrade.

Attending our job interview is a mass indoctrination session, we'll tell you how wonderful it is going to be to adopt this lifestyle choice. You have the freedom to choose slavery.

    * Compensation: We pay you LESS so we make MORE for US

    *    *    *

This might seem immature, but realize that GCI relies heavily on Craigslist for its recruitment -- whoever posted this (s/he hasn't returned my emails) probably was recruited through a very similar ad, and is now trying to warn others away. If the post had come any closer to calling GCI a 'scam,' I would hesitate to referencing it here -- I don't think anyone is profiting from this operation. As it stands just along that edge, it's a spot-on parody that nails the contradictions between GCI's mission and execution.

I would guess that this person had been working as a 'field manager,' which is a canvasser that takes on added responsibilities and hours in exchange for a pay raise. GCI recruits almost entirely at the entry-level, they hire expansively, and then they promote quickly, identifying the recruits with 'leadership potential' and offering them more intense commitments. Management staff (called 'assistant directors' and 'canvass directors') actually work even more hours per week than what this post describes.

Setting aside for the moment the mention of a 'mass indoctrination session,' the post's reference to a 'lifestyle choice' is plucked from the recruiters' raps. They're quite clear in these interviews about the scale of their demands: you will need to be able to pick up and leave your old life (they call this being 'geographically flexible'), you will need to work 80 to 100 hours a week, you will need to be able to accept a salary that works out, after health insurance, to be about 21K a year. (Plus a bonus from canvassing over quota.)

So, what do GCI employees do in all that time? The directors themselves canvass on most days. The rest of day's ten or so hours of work is devoted to making the canvass run. Most primarily, this entails recruitment for new canvassers--placing ads, fielding job calls, interviewing (up to three sessions a day), and training brand new staff. (Of all potential canvassers who attend an interview, most don't show up for a second day. Of those that do show up and raise enough money to make it on to staff, the average period of employment is between one and two weeks. The canvass rolls must constantly be replenished.) On top of human resources, the directors also handle staff management, office administration, and funds processing.

Altogether, this is a fifteen hour a day job. Some directors will say you need to add a couple more if you want to do the job right. There are no weekends.

Now, it's well-known that the working conditions in progressive organizations are tough. You've heard of the low pay and long hours. Maybe you've even heard, specifically, of the 21K a year and the 100 hr work weeks like this. But what you might not understand is the zeal with which these people throw themselves into it.

I've often heard GCI (and its larger organizational family) described as a 'cult,' and it's not hard to see why people will say that. Not only are they recruiters and boosters by nature, but their level of commitment is one that most people would consider extreme. There's something of a language to it, filled with inclusive 'we's' and references to 'the campaign,' and a habit of answering questions in a way that's both positive and empty of information. And then there are the pep speeches given every day at the end of trainings, before canvassing, in which canvassers share their personal reason for participating in the campaign, directors give inspiring speeches, and the group occasionally bursts into singing and chanting and other physical exuberance.

But the flip side of the 'cult' coin is a supportive community. Everyone canvasses together, directors befriend the staff they train, and the high-pressure environment becomes its own social world. Everyone goes to the same nearby bar (they mostly don't have time enough for other options). And while the campaign doesn't quite have a social budget to speak of, it does encourage out-of-work fraternizing.

One veteran who has also spoken out about GCI's failures wrote to me: 'basically, I love the central idea behing gci, and I wanted it to succeed.'

I share this sentiment about the idea of a group of likeminded, non-professional people, a crack-team of progressive operatives, that bonds together and works incredibly hard to accomplish so much in a short period of time. It's inspiring to see, infectious to be a part of.

It doesn't quite work, though. Though the number of work-hours generated by GCI's labor force is remarkable, equally remarkable is the consistent unreliability of the operation. Paychecks are lost; job applications are lost, travel plans botched; miscommunication is rampant; planning is always changed at the last minute. (There was some good discussion about this in the previous post's comments.)

On the campaign, it was assumed that things went wrong because, hey, the campaign is crazy! Everything goes wrong on a campaign!  It's just part of the slogging glory of it all -- rather than exactly what one should expect from a largely inexperienced work force putting in overlong hours for months on end. Campaign or no campaign, crunch time is crunch time -- it makes for bad work. (That's science, folks.) In this way, contrary to our Craigslist poster's charge, GCI is very much not like other businesses: the business world figured out a long time ago that you can't get good work from overworked workers.

And so, eventually, GCI crew members snap. The turnover rate for these directors is, over a longer period of time, almost as severe as the canvassers. Our office in New York City in 2004 saw two sets of lead directors quit within months of each other. (A third director, who I started under, was demoted, primarily for trying to give his employees Sunday off. The upper management wanted him fired outright, but much of our staff would have walked out with him.) Long after the 2004 election, burnout remains a familiar affliction in GCI's trenches -- some walk out in the middle of the day, some crash and then burn slow, others go on to write bitter rants on the Internet. (I suppose we know where I fall.)

The other day, a director who is still with the organization finally returned my call. This director seemed to be a little reluctant to speak with me (s/he had read most of my book, but had not yet read these posts) -- and immediately acknowledged that in 2004, most of their staff weren't aware of the true nature of a canvass campaign. "But we teach the staff now more specifically about what our objectives are, so that they understand that this is about building membership rather than going out to raise the money that will be used in the election."

It was encouraging to hear an acknowledgment that something was amiss about the way they presented the operation in 2004. But when I pressed the director on this, asking how they describe the objectives in the recruitment sessions, the answer was a backtrack:

"Here's the thing: it's recruitment, and you explain certain things in certain ways for a reason. The army doesn't go out there saying, you're going to be killed in iraq. It goes out there saying you're going to get great benefits, paid college tuition..."
The director trailed off, and chuckled for a moment.
"uh, I think that's a bad analogy, and it could come back to bite me in the ass."

I think the director thought that the problem with this analogy was the whole 'dying in war' thing. But to my ears, the analogy was damning for the reference to the Army's benefits. The Army knows that happy, secure soldiers are good soldiers. But a GCI employee's only tangible 'benefit' is the bonus they get from canvassing over quota. (Plus a solid entry on a resume -- which, don't get me wrong, certainly counts for something, especially for those of the internship age.)

So instead, GCI just sells them the war against evil right-wing forces. As I've noted in past posts, this war metaphor is at least partially deceptive -- these campaigns do not affect any short term political outcome.  But the metaphor persists because it justifies the intensity of their experience (in the same way that it justifies running a canvass for the sole purpose of asking for a maximum amount of money). In one respect, the metaphor then makes itself true: as the director inadvertently admitted, GCI's war is one of attrition.

Rather than fighting a war, a more accurate, stable, progressive paradigm should be building a movement -- and in such a paradigm, the donors should expect to see (for instance) informed canvassers with voter registration cards, and the workers should expect to be treated like they were valued as people, not just as units of production.

In future posts, I'll write about what the upper-level management staff believes about their work and how this managerial attitude shapes the working environment of these campaigns. I should mention that GCI uses the same model (pushed to an extreme) of a whole range of organizations in its 'family'; I'll write more about the idea of this model, and what it means for a vast swath of the progressive frontlines.

Tags: canvassing, DNC, Fundraising, GCI, grassroots (all tags)



pluses and minuses...

I agree that the "it's a campaign, of course there will be mistakes" attitude is a problem.  However, it is also true for the campaign part of it!  I read through your website that you hadn't previously done any political work, but basically, it happens everywhere.  

Now, as Patton mentioned, the "business" side of it (pay checks, reimbursements, hotel rentals, etc) should not be run with the same attitude.  I think that is something that has changed, most of the problems were fixed over the winter of 04-05, and pretty much EVERY problem was fixed by the end of the summer of 05.  That's one of the reasons I'm hopeful for the future of the company.  That is the plus.

More generally, I think the main problem with your analysis is that you talk in a way that makes it seem like you think the GCI idea is bad, when what you are really critiqueing is the lack of progressive values in the organization.

Do you think door to door fundraising is a bad way to get donor lists?  Not really, it seems.  Do you think it should be outsourced to a for profit company?  Well, you seem a bit more mixed about that, but I think you see the benefit.  You just want that company to do things like not burn people out, pay a living wage, encourage unions, and so on.  I agree with you.  I just don't think GCI was ever designed to be that company.  That's the minus.

by dansomone 2006-06-01 07:57AM | 0 recs
Re: pluses and minuses...

If I didn't have some strong attraction to the idea itself-- its potential and, to be sure, the need we have for something like it-- then I would not be trying to figure out what went wrong.

Everyone on that campaign was more than happy to work plenty hard and deal with all kinds of shit--myself included. Up to a point--and almost everyone I knew reached that point. And my problem is exactly what you pick up on -- the attitude. (Well, that and a few key deceptions.) And the closer I looked at it, the farther the problem seemed to reach. It's bigger than GCI, and in the meantime, GCI is getting bigger.

by greg bloom 2006-06-01 08:15AM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt4): Grassroots

I really don't understand the point of this series.

by Matt Stoller 2006-06-01 11:07AM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt4): Grassroots
Do you understand the point of this blog?
by greg bloom 2006-06-01 11:33AM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt4): Grassroots

Your diary is provocatively titled 'strip-mining the grassroots'.  I see no evidence of anything except a somewhat disorganized program done for no net cost set up to canvass nationwide and contacting millions of people who never would have talked to a Democrat.  Where exactly is the strip-mining?  

by Matt Stoller 2006-06-01 11:46AM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt4): Grassroots
In the course of the first three posts, I made a number of points about the fundraising tactics that this company employs (or fails to employ). Perhaps these points were small, but people in the comments thought they were significant. I won't retread over discussions that we've already had several posts ago, except for one example that I guess bears repeating: this organization (which you call 'somewhat disorganized') *instructed* its offices in Ohio and Florida and other swing states not to carry voter registration forms. Because they would distract canvassers from making money. Maybe this, too, sounds like a small point -- but for the sake of this comment's expediency, allow me the claim that it illuminates the pattern of 'strip-mining.'

As for this post right here -- Matt, I wonder if you've read this book called Crashing the Gate? It has a whole chapter devoted to the Left's 'insitutional hostility' towards fair labor practices, which causes 'a steady stream of defections to the private sector.' In fact, that is one of the book's three main arguments as to what is so fucked up with the Left. The book is great. I'm trying to provide a specific example of a major source of such progressive burnout that now is being employed by the Democratic party and by one of the netroots' biggest forces. (In fact, I'm going to argue later that the issue of Grassroots Campaigns' canvassing model also touches upon Crashing the Gate's other two points--making this a triple-threat--but the burnout issue is by far the most important point of this series.)

There's no scandal here, there's just bad business and bad politics. Same old. I thought you were interested in how to get past it. In the meantime, my next post will bring the scope of this issue into clearer focus. I will try not to scandalize anyone, but hey no promises.
by greg bloom 2006-06-01 01:17PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt4): Grassroots

Perhaps these points were small, but people in the comments thought they were significant.

That's misleading.  Several people pointed out that your analysis didn't match their experiences.

instructed its offices in Ohio and Florida and other swing states not to carry voter registration forms. Because they would distract canvassers from making money.

You are not allowing for the possibility that building a donor program is different from registering voters.  

Again, I don't find your analysis persuasive.

by Matt Stoller 2006-06-01 03:50PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt4): Grassroots

Matt you seem a little out of line here. I'm one of those people who had a different experience than Greg, and I think you're being misleading. We were having a debate -- a pretty healthy one, considering Greg has kept people like me and Dan around, even though we were higher up in the organization.

You are not allowing for the possibility that building a donor program is different from registering voters.

Greg is making an argument that the Democratic Party should be running holistic base-building operation fundraising campaigns. He's being specific and (I hesitate to say it) fair, and he's making good enough points that it seems rather strange for you to be dismissing him so blankly in your own forum. And you didn't answer his question -- have you read 'Crashing the Gate'? The burnout that Greg is talking about -- that happened to me after years in this canvassing business.

As for you, Greg, things did go wrong in 2004. It was a start-up. Where are you going with this?
- Show quoted text -

by Lockse 2006-06-01 04:36PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt4): Grassroots
Lockse, I thank you for your patience. I hope that I can make good on it. (also -- 'holistic base-building operation' sounds like a kind of vitamin you can pick up at a Whole Foods. <shrugs> Just saying!)
by greg bloom 2006-06-01 05:07PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt4): Grassroots

Fundraising mixed with political persuasion on a door-to-door basis is brutalizing poorly paid work. It turn people off to progressive causes. It makes them want to sell out.

Giving people are horrible personal experience with progressive politics is a way to destroy it.

by Alice Marshall 2006-06-01 03:43PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt4): Grassroots
(Sorry, I meant to say there is an institutional hostility towards fair labor practices in "progressive organizations," not "the Left." It is my understanding that people on the Left still care about fair labor practices--just not always in their own organizations. Also, I did not mean to imply that Crashing the Gate has only three 'points.' It has quite a few more.)
by greg bloom 2006-06-01 01:34PM | 0 recs


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