The Canvassers Union (p4): the Calling Room
by greg bloom, Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 06:50:03 AM EST
Last summer, I reported on the saga of two Los Angeles offices of the Fund for Public Interest Research ("the Fund") that voted to unionize and were subsequently shut down -- In These Times magazine published the story (August 18th, "Do You Have a Minute For...?") and I expanded upon it here (P1, P2, P3). Then someotherthingshappened, and the second half of "The Canvassers Union" was delayed.
But, now we're back! I will finish the story this week, with one post a day.
As I noted in the first post of the series, the Fund/PIRG network is perhaps the single largest employer of young progressive activists in the country. The FFPIRG model of activism has recently been the subject of deep criticism, under the charge that it is "strangling progressive politics in America." 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 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...
Los Angeles has been problematic for the Fund for Public Interest Research.
With its wealthy, green communities and temperate climate, Los Angeles attracted a group of Fund canvassers who lasted from summer to winter and back--unlike most other cities in which the Fund runs canvass offices, where staff turnover in the course of year is almost total. These canvassers became friends; they learned their jobs inside and out; they also opted not to take higher positions in the Fund, for which they would have to work 80-hour weeks and ultimately be transferred out of the city. They just wanted to canvass. (See the second post in this series for this story in full.) And soon enough, for the second time in three years, the Fund's L.A. canvassers decided that they wanted to form a union. (See the third post in this series for that story in full.)
For the Fund, this was a problem--and this time, the problem had another problem, a much bigger problem, stacked right on top.
The Los Angeles door canvass headquarters actually shared its office space with the rarefied third division of the Fund: the Telephone Outreach Project. (The street canvass office was located across town.) The Telephone Outreach Project, or TOP, conducts the tele-fundraising for most of the state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG) and PIRG-affiliated organizations. It bears repeating that the scores of fundraising canvasses that the Fund operates across the country for PIRG groups (and other outsourcing clients like the Sierra Club and Human Rights Campaign) typically do not net any money - rather, these canvasses generate the donor lists that are fed to the TOP callers, who are the Fund's real net, so to speak. The three or four "calling rooms" are scattered across the country (the others are currently in Portland and Boston); they are the central engine of the Fund/PIRG model.
So when the L.A. door canvass staff organized in demand of a union, the Fund's much bigger, stacked-right-on-top problem was the TOP calling staff. The canvassers and callers' workdays don't interact in any way--they saw each other, if at all, only as the door canvassers were leaving and the callers were arriving--but they were comrades, if not technically co-workers.
In Los Angeles last June--immediately after YearlyKos, and just about a year after the door canvassers voted to unionize--I met with Christian Miller, former door canvasser and union steward, who now oversees the website ffpir.us ("Fearlessly Fighting to Protect Its Rear!"). Midway through our conversation about the door canvassers' union drive, Christian insisted that we speak with Marcy Harris, one of the last remaining TOP callers. It was, fortunately, Marcy's day off of work.
On the way over, Christian told me that Marcy had been working for the Fund even longer than he: almost five years. I whistled.
Marcy's apartment was cozy, just shy of messy, with a fair number of stacks of files and books in various corners. She's in her 40s and speaks with a soft Southern lilt. She was fairly gushing with enthusiasm to meet me; though I got the sense that she was just naturally this friendly, she said she'd been waiting for some time to be able to have this conversation "with someone like [me]." While fixing tea for Christian and I, she brought up about six or seven topics of conversation that we should cover, and apologized twice for not having a very organized mind.
That's ok, I insisted--I'm used to conversations with PIRG/Fund veterans that wander in feverish circles.
"Let's just start at the beginning."
"Well, I took the job in August of 2001," Marcy said, and I whistled again. That was a helluva time to start working to save the world. She nodded.
"I came in so excited to be able to make a difference in the world, really affect change, while being a wage earner and keeping my life modest," she says. "[Then] September 11 strengthened my resolve, and our directors made us feel like we had to fight harder against the Bush administration."
In those first frenzied months, Marcy Harris discovered that she had a talent. Whereas Christian had been a "solid, not spectacular" canvasser, Marcy Harris was, in the lingo of the canvass world, a "superstar." In fact, her directors told her that she was probably the top all-time earner in the history of the organization. (For most of her five years at TOP, Marcy was raising twice the office quota or more - if it weren't for the set maximum wage of $14.50/hr, Marcy would have earned as much as $29/hr. She didn't mention this specifically in our conversation, but one of her co-workers calculated it out for me with no small amount of reverence.)
I asked Marcy why she was so good at telefundraising. With a little bat of her eyes, she said:
"I can put 100 percent of myself into something, if I believe in it. But I'm creative and I don't follow the script word for word. It's so cheesy. You're supposed to thank them for their contribution, tell them what we won, tell them about the current campaign. I'd just say, `I'm so grateful that you're so passionate about the environment' - I'd try to make it more personal. Always over-the-top enthusiasm. My directors just found it outrageous how much money I could bring in. And I never asked for a raise. I thought this was for a good cause, I kept my life simple and small, I felt so great about it."
Marcy loved the job for the first three or four years. She befriended her co-workers. The Fund managers offered to promote her into a large-donor role, where she would meet personally with celebrities and assorted California big-wigs in their homes and at events on behalf of PIRG groups- but she declined, and stayed in the calling chair. Even then, she says she "had some doubts" about the organization, and that kept her ambition in check.
It took some effort to tease out some linear path that connected these early years with Marcy's current situation, to separate the doubts from the grievances. Ace fundraiser that she is, Marcy deals best in emotional currents--as opposed to facts and details, which would pop up and flit away amid the dizzying rush of her story. Fortunately, Christian seemed to know every step of Marcy's path, and was quite deft at making the appropriate prompts, filling the gaps and bridging her anecdotes from one to the next.
Over time, [Marcy] and her co-workers saw a similar accumulation of "little things" that added up to an untenable working situation.
Here's a sampling of the accumulated "little things": Meal breaks were not allowed during the six-seven hour shifts. Callers had to clock out if they wanted to take cigarette or bathroom breaks. Employees often felt uncertain, or uninformed entirely, about the particularities of office policies--like the bonus structure or health care. They learned to keep meticulous personal records of "their numbers," as paycheck errors were somewhat regular. They would often hear from former co-workers who had recently left or been fired, and who had not received their final paycheck. Promises of reimbursements (for instance, during a bus strike, when callers with cars picked up their co-workers) often went unfulfilled. Callers were expected to bring their own cleaning products to wipe down their keyboards.
Individually, these were all issues that most long-term callers were willing to tolerate. "I was in excuse mode," Marcy said, and I nodded at Christian, who had used the same term to describe his early attitude toward the `accumulation of little things.' "I was working with a group of like-minded people, on real important causes, and it was easy to just put off questions of effectiveness, or our own personal treatment. If I would ever bring up issues like sick days or unpaid breaks, [the directors] would say `well you've never worked for a non-profit before, have you?,' and I'd just let it go at that."
Still, it seemed to Marcy that the value of each caller to the organization was on a perpetual downward slide.
"They hired me at 10 dollars an hour, and years later they were hiring at 7 an hour," Marcy told me. "But when I'd bring that or anything else up [to the directors], they'd be like, `Marcy don't question that, it's none of your concern.'"
The TOP staff tends to be considerably older than the canvassers, and callers will often stay with the job for several years. Turnover in TOP offices is not quite as extreme as the canvass, where the average length of employment is two weeks; the pay is better, and the work is less physically (if not emotionally) demanding. Yet in the end, Marcy and the LA TOP callers' stories would likely have played out as the vast majority of stories in the PIRG/Fund world tend to go: they would have eventually walked away, one by one, with a sour lingering aftertaste.
But as the door canvassers who shared their office became increasingly organized, the Los Angeles TOP calling room paid close attention. They heard about the series of unsuccessful legal feints that the Fund's lawyers made to delegitimize the door canvassers' petition, and they saw the directors spending hours pressuring the new canvassers to vote "no."
"That really was a wake-up call to our office," said Marcy. "We thought, `why is this organization spending so many resources to fight their own workers? What are they afraid of?'"
On June 9th, 2005, the day that the door office voted to unionize, Christian gave Marcy his phone number, and she passed the number along to one of a group of callers who were increasingly agitated and supportive of a union drive of their own. Marcy was supportive of the door canvassers, but she was also averse to the conflict; instead, she enrolled in real estate classes and prepared to move on to a new job.
The situation in her office, however, was about to change.
[The] TOP callers were suddenly swarmed with attention from management.... several high-level Fund administrators flew to L.A. for extensive meetings with [the callers]. "They were all love and kisses," says Harris.
The Fund managers' promises and good will, offered up in lengthy on-the-clock meetings, were contrasted starkly against their behavior toward the canvassers, who reported that after their vote, office policies were being abruptly changed to their disadvantage. One evening, many of the callers gathered outside of the office with the door canvass stewards, who were telling the story about how the Field Manager, Tiff, had been fired weeks before, only to be promptly rehired after they filed charges with the NLRB. Just then, Tiff came storming out of the office in tears--she had just been fired once again.
"We always knew that the canvassers were afforded so little respect--that they worked way harder and made way less than us," recalled Marcy. "but this scene just drove it home. For all the time [the directors and executives] spent meeting with us, we didn't feel safe any more."
Within a week, a group of pro-union callers collected signatures and filed a petition. Senior PIRG lobbyists and national Fund directors suddenly began spending lots of time in the calling room. Anti-union propaganda was passed around the office.
"Directors were flying in from around the country, giving us speeches on-the-clock for an hour and a half, saying they're going to increase our pay any week now, trying to take us out to karaoke. And they gave us only the best lists. But it all felt very intrusive--they would never leave us alone during the breaks. They'd follow us across the street to 7-11."
The Fund executives... insisted that the caller's problems did not need to be resolved by a union. But, [Marcy] adds, "They never did actually ask us what those problems were."
Staunch managerial pressure against unionizing only pushed the callers closer to it. The TOP office voted to unionize on Sept. 22, 2005.
"After the vote, we thought that was it, the worst of it was behind us," said Marcy, echoing Christian once again. "But that was really just the beginning."
[In the next post: the stillborn unions.]