The Canvassers Union (conclusion): Toward the Reform of the Fund/PIRG
by greg bloom, Sun Dec 03, 2006 at 06:17:39 PM EST
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 - through the entire PIRG/Fund world, thousands of would-be progressive leaders pass every year.
Part Two of the series introduced the Los Angeles door canvassers who "broke the Fund/PIRG model" by staying with their jobs for the long-term.
Part Three traced the path that led them to petition and vote for a union.
Part Four introduced the Los Angeles Telephone Outreach Project employees, who raise the "real money" in the Fund/PIRG model, and who followed the callers' lead toward a union.
Part Five is about how each of these unions was busted by the Fund management.Part Six is about a series of questions raised by the callers and canvassers about the viability of the PIRG/Fund corporate complex.
Lockse, an 8 year PIRG/Fund veteran, wrote a compelling "tough love" response to these incidences here.
This post reports on the conclusion of the LA callers and canvassers' saga. It reflects upon the broader possibility for change that is revealed and made urgent by the stories of the LA Fund offices.
I realize that this issue is not quite at the top of MyDD readers' must-read lists, perhaps because it is about a group of people who are not in the media, not in office or fighting for office, and not online. But think of it this way: if the blogosphere is the intelligentsia of the nascent progressive movement, these fundraisers are its toiling proletariat. Vital, but nearly invisible; in dire need of empowerment. This issue might not be as glamorous as setting the progressive agenda for the next two years, but it shapes the generation of our activists and affects the health of our grassroots for the decades to come...
The Los Angeles Fund for Public Interest Research door canvass office was closed on April 28th, 2006, exactly one year after its employees had filed to petition. The two remaining canvassers, Christian and Mike, had been sticking it out together for months, pounding the pavement and hitting quota five days a week; their director, however, was transferred at the beginning of spring.
"He wanted out," said Christian, "and we didn't blame him. Union-busting was not the job he'd signed up for."
There was not another director in the Fund who was willing to work in Los Angeles door; the Fund shut it down.
Christian left town a couple of days later, on a cross-country road-trip to see family and friends.
Along the way, he made stops at any Fund office that was reasonably in range -- around fifteen in total (Christian has a big family, and lots of friends).
He would stand somewhere near the office's front door, either in the hour before the shift started or right around the time work let out. To anyone who passed by, he'd hand out sheets from a stack of photocopies of the L.A. Weekly articles, Congresswoman Solis's letter, the ffpir.us website. He wouldn't speak, unless he was spoken to.
"I figure the facts speak for themselves," he said.
At many of the offices he visited across the country, Christian got little if any reaction.
"People are walking down the street," he said with a shrug, "you hand them something and they barely look at it unless you get in their face about it, and I wasn't about that."
At a few offices, he was asked some polite questions. Nothing ever got confrontational, although the directors of one office did come out to ask Christian if there was anything they could do to dissuade him from canvassing their canvassers. Christian told them no, there was not.
"I spent the last four years of my life learning--from them--how to not get arrested while doing political action work in a public place," Christian told me with a wry grin. "I wasn't harassing anyone or trying to get in any confrontation." Christian wasn't encouraging any employees to quit the Fund, or to form a union themselves; he wasn't even collecting contact information.
"I just wanted them to know these things about the company they work for. Some thanked me real genuinely -- everyone knew something was up in LA, but they didn't know what, cause they couldn't get a straight answer from their administrators, and finally someone was here to hand them something that shed a little light on the situation."
"One of the directors came out to me and asked, in a real loaded but curious way, `why do you want a union?'" Christian recalled. "And I'm like, `because we liked our jobs and wanted to ensure that we could keep doing it.' You know, that's generally the reason people want a union. And then she's like, `and you guys want more pay.'"
Christian snorted at this recollection, and shook his head sadly.
"Is that what they told you?" he'd asked her.
Yes. That was what everyone in the Fund seemed to have been told about the Los Angeles union incident.
"I don't even know how many times I said this is not about pay, this is not because we don't like doing the work. We just didn't want to be treated like toilet paper and discarded once they realized that we didn't have total blind-faith-trust-obedience in what they're doing."
"Why don't you just get over it?" other directors would ask Christian. Christian had tried for a year to secure basic labor standards at the Fund, and in the process he had come face to face with the machinations of an entrenched power structure. At this point, changing PIRG/Fund - "which might involve them realizing that what they're doing is wrong, that they need to start treating people better, or it might involve them getting shut down by the labor board" - was for Christian as vital an objective as any in the pursuit of social change.
- / -
If not higher pay, then what was it about the union that the Fund was so unwilling to accept?
The callers and canvassers' contractual requests mostly revolved around "consistency." They wanted the office policies to be clarified and fixed so that they wouldn't suddenly change to a canvassers' disadvantage. They wanted to make sure good canvassers wouldn't get fired for having one or two bad weeks. They wanted to ensure that no one was required to pay for gas or office expenses out of their own pocket. They wanted real sick days instead of "self-funded" ones. They wanted everyone to get a solid half-hour for lunch. The callers wanted to be able to go to the bathroom or smoke a cigarette without having to clock out. They wanted their pay structure to be transparent, to get full disclosure of their performance metrics, so that they knew exactly why their wages were set at the given level. They also wanted their calling room to be cleaned of mold and odors, and they wanted a water cooler (for which they offered to chip in).
These seem like minor adjustments. But even minor adjustments to an environment can cause drastic systemic changes, and such changes in Los Angeles offices could reverberate powerfully through the entire FFPIRG world. Indeed, if Joe's belief is correct--in that PIRG/Fund/GCI's erratic administration and dysfunctional operation is "deliberate"--then Doug Phelps' management crew understand perfectly well the potential for such drastic changes.
In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the remarkable transformation of New York City from crime capital to one of the safest cities in the country. It started with comprehensive crackdowns--not on crack dens and crime lords, but on graffiti, on subway toll-skippers. The "broken window" hypothesis holds that the cues in an environment affect the patterns of social behavior: park a car with a broken window in a "bad" neighborhood, it will be stripped and destroyed within hours. Park a similar car in fine shape, its chances are remarkably better. In a subway with scarce graffiti, where everyone is following the most basic rules like paying for the subway toll, it is significantly less likely for behavior to "tip" into violence and crime. A drastic shift is brought by restoring and stabilizing the signifiers of order.
Likewise -- in a working environment in which every single paycheck is delivered on time, everyone is paid in full for every hour of work they've done and compensated for every work-incurred expense, everyone is granted the basic rights of breaks, weekends and holidays, the institutional worth of each worker would rise inordinately over the cost of providing those basic standards. Better work would be done by more people who are willing to keep with their jobs for longer -- conventional industry figured all this out a long time ago (even though labor had to force its hand, too). And once employees' basic rights are wholly upheld, they would once again be acknowledged as individuals worthy of respect; their questions might be considered worth answering; their voice might assume a certain volume; their ideas might be acknowledged, even considered; their knowledge might be absorbed; their interests might influence the direction of the group.
So I think that the Fund management does not want a union, but not because of greed. As I said in my last post, Doug Phelps might be getting rich off of his empire, but even those immediately below him have modest salaries, and they are the ones who have to do the hard work of union busting. As Lockse pointed out, their egos can simply not allow for a union. This is a matter not of greed, but of fear -- fear that the union would break the model, shift responsibility to the bottom, responsibility that the people at the top do not think the bottom deserves. The management don't believe that the bottom needs that responsibility -- they only need to trust in their leaders.
But trust is a privilege, and PIRG/Fund has forfeited it; GCI hasforfeited it. They have failed in their responsibilities to their employees and their citizen base, and until they take responsibility for those failures, the failures will continue and compound.
- / -
Here's the thing. I don't know if a FFPIRG union drive could be successful. Unions are traditionally structured to enhance and protect long-term employment; these jobs are inherently transient. Even under positive working conditions with less extreme attrition, Christian and his long-term co-canvassers would still be perpetually outnumbered by people for whom canvassing is a summer job -- canvass offices just won't have enough time to build and hold the interest and will for a successful union. (In my last post, I mentioned that MPIRG, a state PIRG that is wholly detached from the FFPIRG complex, was successfully unionized; a year after their contract was signed, all of the union-driving campus organizers had quit the job. The union remains to this day, probably just because people in Minnesota are really nice.)
Furthermore, the people who need a union most are the directors who work 80-100 hours a week with expensive cafeteria health care and near-zero benefits, and for whom the job is (in theory at least) long-term. But they are managers--not legally capable of unionizing (especially not in light of the recent NLRB ruling with regard to management classification).
There are other options. Innovations like Open Source Unionism can bring workers--canvassers and directors alike--under the aegis of organized labor without requiring the formality of a closed shop. They would lack the strength of formal collective bargaining power, but they would have guidance and a soft shield, and they could begin to build greater visibility and potentially leverage with the FFPIRG/GCI clients and funders. Open letters signed by staff, alumni and labor leaders can be sent to those clients and funders, like the Sierra Club, HRC, DNC, MoveOn, Pew. Youth advocacy organizations like Young People For and Center for American Progress are probably unwilling to single out a particular organization, but this is an issue that is very much within their mission; it's also problem spread widely throughout the progessive industry. Perhaps it would be possible for these organizations, along with alumni and staff of PIRG/Fund, ACORN, the National Organizers Alliance and union organizers to form a broad-based coalition in support of industry-wide best practices and constructive initiatives like an activist guild.
(So maybe that will only happen in my own little fantasy land.)
The point here is not about securing a better paycheck for young activists (although it is very much about securing them health care and even other benefits). The point is that a generation of progressives should not be shipped off into war to fend for themselves; they should be bound together, not by shallow ephemeral comradery, but by solidarity. The point is that even though "the cause is more important than me," it must not follow that "I am not important to the cause."
The formative principle of student activism, and of the glorified social movements of the 60s which provide the frame of PIRG/Fund's self-mythology, is that individuals have the right and responsibility to affect change over the institutions that shape their lives. It was students and youths who were, time and again, the catalysts; they asserted rights and claimed responsibility, demanding respect and pushing that respect through to broader institutional reform. What I am suggesting is that the worker-led reformation of PIRG/Fund -- accompanied by a call for similar reforms throughout the progressive activist industry -- would be a vital step toward the re-education of a generation of progressive leaders about the principles of political action. It would herald a flood of new ideas and new possibilities. And it would reaffirm the progressive movement's commitment to the ideals of liberalism and social justice.
- / -
Soon after our meeting, Christian got a job with a solar panel installation company.
The TOP callers' charges remained pending all through the summer, and were reportedly making some progress through the NLRB - but it had almost been a year since the vote, and a re-vote (and possible de-certification) was approaching. The callers' union reps finally connected with the Fund, when they called to offer a settlement. Under the conditions of an agreement that the callers are not at liberty to discuss, the NLRB charges against the Fund were dismissed.
However, the callers' goal was still achieved in a small but significant way: the California State Labor Commission found the Fund to be in violation of the law [link to PDF of the decision] with regard to its practice of forcing employees to take unpaid breaks. Joe was awarded over $3k in fees--one hour's worth of wage for every day of employment in the last year. He has another charge pending, this one against the Fund's refusal to offer paid lunch breaks to its employees; the hearing for this charge is on January 3rd, 2007.
This brings Marcy and Joe and the rest of the LA employees no small amount of enjoyment: "At least it's on the books: what they were doing was wrong."
Marcy called me yesterday, thrilled to finally read about their story in a public forum, but concerned somewhat over the tone of the discussion: "I respect that everyone there in the discussion is intelligent and concerned about whether these lobbying groups are effective, but it was still a frustrating conversation. So many of those people didn't seem to care about the bottom line: they stole money from their workers. They claim to work to reform the law, but they broke the law. How can you take them at their word about anything else, anything else, if they're willing to break the law and defraud their employees to protect their precious model?"
Marcy's hearing is tomorrow. She expects it will go well. She has recently received her real estate license, and is setting off on a new practice; her prodigious talents for fundraising are a loss to the progressive movement.
The Fund has relocated the California TOP office out of Los Angeles, to Sacramento, where the climate is not quite as temperate, and where there's no canvass office anyway.