The Canvassers' Union (p5): The Fund Busts the Unions
by greg bloom, Tue Nov 28, 2006 at 08:13:49 AM 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.
This post is about how each of these unions died before being born.
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...
While reporting this story for In These Times, I sent emails and made several calls to various people at the Fund -- including the canvassers' regional directors, the Fund's media contact, and national political director Wendy Wendlandt. None of these queries were answered. While reporting on a different story, I did connect via email with Ed Johnson, the national canvass director of the Fund, and I slipped in some questions about the Los Angeles incidents. Mr. Johnson declined to comment specifically on the matter, beyond the following response:
Yes, we support the rights of workers to organize in pursuit of fair labor practices. It's the law.
A group of canvassers and callers in Los Angeles voted to form a union. We recognized the union and began negotiating with them. Eventually, all the canvass directors left the LA office and, unable to run it without directors, we had to close it; the canvassers accepted a severance. Later, the union representing the callers decided to end negotiations of their own volition. Throughout the process, the canvassers and callers filed charges with the NLRB accusing FFPIR of all sorts of infractions. But in the end, the NLRB did not find that FFPIR had violated any laws, and the canvassers and callers did not prevail on a single one of their many charges.
The latter paragraph is technically true except for the final sentence, which is partially false [Link to PDF]. We'll return to the charges in a bit -- but in the meantime, Mr. Johnson's words "eventually" and "later" are ringing out the Euphemism Alarm.
As Mr. Johnson acknowledged, a group of workers has the right to organize in support of better working conditions. Toward those ends, the workers have the right to petition to join a union. If the union is approved in a vote by a majority of the employees in an office, the employer and the union must negotiate a contract. But under current labor law, the employer faces no requirement to actually sign a contract. If, after a period of a year, the negotiations do not yield a mutually-acceptable agreement, then the union faces another vote and the threat of decertification.
In most cases, neither party wants to prolong the contract negotiation - it is disruptive, wasteful, bad for business. But the Fund did not schedule an initial negotiation meeting with the door office's Teamster union reps until September of 05, three months after the canvassers' vote; the Fund did not schedule an initial negotiation meeting with the TOP office's reps until January of 06, four months after the callers' vote. Once negotiations with the door office had begun, the Fund refused to meet for more than one day every five weeks, and then for only two hours at a time; the TOP union reps were only granted two meetings, on consecutive days, in January of 2006. Virtually no progress was made toward a contract on either front. "They sent underlings who claimed not to have the power to sign off on anything, and who professed pretty broad legal ignorance," Christian recalled negotiations with a twinge of amusement. "They spent most of the time nitpicking words on the first page of the contract." The callers' union reps placed calls "almost daily" to Ms. Wendlandt (who had been a regular presence in the TOP office in the weeks before the union vote, speaking out against the union to the employees), but they were never to receive a response.
And so the negotiation period for the L.A. Fund door and TOP offices stretched on indefinitely, until "eventually" there were hardly any employees left to unionize; "later," each office was shut down, shortly before their unborn unions would have faced the threat of decertification anyway.
In that technical sense, it would seem that the Fund legally busted its Los Angeles unions.
- / -
During the "negotiation period," both offices were placed on a hiring freeze. "Their reason was that we were discouraging new recruits from working there," Christian said, adding that this doesn't make much sense: "In order for us to have a union, we need people to work with us--so why would we be discouraging people from working with us?"
The rationale for the hiring freeze was transparent soon enough -- this was the beginning of 'the Retaliation,' as the canvassers call it. Over the summer and fall, the door canvassers were fired one by one, for a series of obscure technicalities or newly-instated strict quota rules (including Christian's girlfriend Tiff, who was fired for missing quota for a single week, then rehired that night after the canvassers filed wrongful termination charges, only to be fired again three weeks later). With the hiring freeze in effect, each firing was a blow not just to the individual employee but to the office itself, which was swiftly whittled down to four canvassers by January, and then to two: just Christian and Mike, who hung on until Spring, when their director transferred out. Ed Johnson was correct: at this point where was not a Fund director in the country who who was willing to transfer to L.A. Door. The office was shut down on April 28th, 2006, exactly one year after the petition was filed.
- / -
But while the canvassers were "picked off" one by one, the callers found themselves faced with what they believed to be a more malicious retaliation.
In the week immediately following their union vote, numbers in the calling room dropped sharply almost across the board -- within the next couple of weeks, wages began to fall by 30% or more. The callers' pay was "tanking," as they say (except for Marcy, who still managed to perform well enough to clear quota and remain at $14.50/hr).
What happened? How did previously-well-paid fundraisers suddenly find themselves hovering near minimum-wage?
One explanation could be that after they voted to unionize, the callers' performance drastically deteriorated.
As with the official reason for the hiring freeze, this explanation does not seem to be the most logical.
In a typical day, a Telephone Outreach Project caller might make fundraising calls for half a dozen different PIRG-related campaigns and organizations, and the quality of these lists can vary greatly. One of the main tasks of a TOP director is to "roll" the calling room through different lists at different times throughout the day - "in order to keep things fresh, keep the numbers high." And in the weeks leading up to the union vote, as Marcy said in the last post, the LA calling rooms' lists were very "fresh," and their numbers were very high. The Fund had put the callers on lists of donors who had a long history of big giving, an extended tele-tour through "the land of milk and honey."
"Immediately after the union vote," Marcy said of the beginning of the 'the Retaliation,' "our lists went from awesome to awful overnight." The lists that the L.A. callers' had regularly worked on in the past were transferred out to the other TOP offices; the lists the LA callers received in return were, in the description of another caller, "punitive."
"All night we'd be getting people in hell-no hang-up mode," said Marcy. "For hours, we'd be calling people who were in the middle of a raging thunderstorm, and the directors wouldn't roll us over."
One example illuminates the situation with startling clarity: for several weeks that winter, the callers made fundraising calls for USPIRG into a post-Katrina New Orleans.
"People were saying "what the hell are you thinking, calling here?"
"Could it have been some terrible mistake?" I asked Marcy.
"Well," she said with a roll her eyes, "we'd never called before for a national campaign into one single city for days at a time."
At one point, the callers realized that one of their primary lists was about ten years old -- they were calling people who hadn't given to PIRG since the mid-90s. But even this was less frustrating than what seemed to have happened to their formerly-reliable "renewals" lists. Membership renewals are normally the easiest lists for the TOP telefundraisers -- these are regular members who just need to be nudged each year to give again. But suddenly, these renewal lists were peppered with members who had just renewed months before.
"We'd say, 'I have here in my computer that you're due for renewal,' but they'd go into their records and sure enough...they'd just renewed last summer."
And with every "no," the callers' wages were dropping.
- / -
Without a contract in hand, the callers and canvassers realized that they had even less clout than they did before the vote. Fighting for leverage, the TOP union stewards filed a series of charges with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming that the Fund was discriminating against the stewards and generally treating the staff unfairly. The door canvassers launched the ffpir.us web site. And the Teamsters did their part to draw outside eyes to the issue.
The deadlock attracted attention in high places. Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) reprimanded the Fund in a letter dated November 14, 2005 [Link to PDF], writing "I urge you to reach an agreement with the canvassers and callers employed by your company in an expeditious manner."
Congresswoman Solis seems to have set off a chain of events that she certainly did not intend. Emboldened by her letter, the TOP union stewards began speaking out at work about their frustration at the bad lists, at shifting office policies, and at the lack of progress toward negotiations, let alone a contract. The Fund's response was sudden, and shocked the other employees: days after Solis' letter had been sent, six callers were fired (one at first, and then--two nights later, on November 17th--five more all at once).
"I think the Fund knew that those [NLRB] charges weren't going to go through," said Marcy. "The charges were right, but we didn't have any hard evidence for it, and the Fund knew it, so they got cocky."
The reasons for the firings were, like in the canvass office, obscure and seemingly arbitrary, related to technicalities in calling procedure. The directors refused to discuss them with the other employees -- which is not to say that the directors were discreet.
"The minute after the firings," Marcy recalls, "the supervisors turned on music in their office and cranked the volume up ... they invited in their friends and opened a box of chocolates to share among them. One of them was bouncing up and down on a yoga ball--this was while we were supposed to be working--and another came in and stuck her tongue out at one of the people who had just been fired."
"They thought they just killed the union," said Marcy. The six fired employees had been the most active agitators. Marcy had been supportive but largely uninvolved in the union drive up to that point; in fact, she had just recently passed the state exam for her real estate license, and had openly announced that she would soon submit notice that she was leaving the job. "They thought the rest of us were little lambs, and we'd be scared into submission."
If so, then management misjudged the situation.
- / -
A number of canvassers expressed frustration with the [Fund]'s procedures for firing people. Although all canvassers were aware that they had to maintain quota to stay on staff, members of many offices reported mysterious firings that were unexplained by the directors...Canvassers provided multiple accounts of staff purges....staff members were not told anything, they just returned to the office one day to find their friends gone. -- Activism, Inc
- / -
"We've all come to realize," Christian said to me, referring to both the firings and the long months yet to come, "that our nation's labor laws are simply not designed to protect employees from employers who resort to measures as self-destructive as what the Fund was willing to do to prevent our union."
- / -
The night of the firings, the callers gathered outside of the office; some of the canvassers joined them. The canvass staff was down to four; the callers were down to six (one of whom would soon file for mental disability, claiming that the working environment had been so stressful as to send him close to a nervous breakdown). The people who had just been fired had been hard-working, successful fundraisers, and had worked alongside each other for years. Marcy and a few others were in tears.
They had little real hope of achieving a union contract. But even if they could not save their jobs, the callers and canvassers could still go down fighting. They voted to select a new steward: the 27 year old Joe Chifari. This vote was made in desperation.
Joe was reluctant to take the responsibility. Like Marcy, he had been supportive of the union up until that point - but not vocally so. He had been working at TOP for several years -- as a trainer and, at one point, as an administrative assistant. After weak beginnings, he was now one of the top callers in the room. "My role had always been to get along with everybody, be everyone's friend--I just wanted, you know, peace and togetherness and no conflict." But to everyone else in the office, Joe was known as "the Numbers Man." He knew more than anyone about how the office worked.
"Even during the union vote, I was still sympathetic toward my directors," Joe said to me. Also like Marcy, Joe had also been planning to get out of the LA TOP office. "But," he said to explain why he accepted the role of steward, "that ended when they fired people wrongfully."
Marcy and Joe set to work, trying to figure out what was happening to their wages, and what they could do about it. They graphed out their pay rates from the last several years: the rates fluctuate within a reasonable range until immediately after the union vote, at which point they show a sudden, steep drop toward the minimum wage. Even Marcy was beginning to struggle.
Yet the graphs alone weren't evidence -- they had learned from the previous group of callers that charges had to consist of more than just allegations of unfairness, which could be dismissed as workplace bickering. So Joe began to collect documents -- calling records, evaluation sheets and quota sets.
The TOP pay scale system is, in Joe's phrasing, "Byzantine." Information is fragmented and compiled in ways that differ between documents; each campaign is coded and differentiated in the scale; the callers, in other words, never did have a very clear idea of why they earned what they earned. Fortunately, Joe says that he has "always had a nerdy obsession with numbers." He soon realized that the bad lists couldn't be the only factor causing their wages to tank -- rather, it seemed like a major source of the callers' standard earnings was falling through the cracks.
Having worked extra shifts in administration for the office, Joe knew about a little hole in the Fund's payment processing system. There are two options that members have to renew their financial commitment to PIRG organizations. Callers encourage the members to give by credit card, but members also have the option to pledge that they'll write a check. They are then sent a pledge packet, which they can return with the donations. These pledge packets are received and processed by the directors, who credit the checks to the appropriate caller. But Joe knew that the checks could be registered to a blank ID -- meaning the caller who solicited the pledge would not receive the credit.
"It was a tedious process," said Joe of his inconspicuous effort to collect all of the documents needed to piece together the picture. But he did determine that the discrepancy was real: the callers were either failing miserably to convince people to send in their money by the mail, or they were simply not being credited for those pledges that were sent in.
Someone might think, oh they werent performing as well as they used to," reasoned Joe. "But even for a bad caller, the lowest rate of return [of pledge checks] would normally be like 40%. [After the vote] I found that one of our original union stewards, for example, had one week been pledged $1583 in total for Environment California, but only $125 made it through mail to his name.
In the meantime, all of the callers report that their "reminder calls" had been turning up more and more members who insisted in frustration that they'd already sent in their checks.
Within a month, Marcy and Joe assembled these scraps of evidence together into a group of new charges that promised to hold more water with the NLRB. Whereas the previous charges held that the Fund was "stacking the decks" against its canvassers, this time the callers charged that the Fund was "cooking the books." In an other word: fraud. The Fund, in response, submitted many boxes worth of the "Byzantine" TOP records - the understaffed NLRB "got swamped with paper," says Marcy. The charges never would move past limbo. But while they were pending, the Fund was not likely to fire anyone who kept their laces straight.
So Marcy and Joe and the handful of other callers dug in their heels, staying extra-careful about every process, gathering whatever information they could, and keeping in close contact with the door canvassers. The callers went to work in that office, half-empty and in disrepair, for nine months after the union vote. Even after it became clear that a union contract would never come, they fought to stay on in hopes that one of their charges would go through, so that the Fund's violations would 'go on the record.'
Even though I knew the answer, I still had to ask the question that any normal person would surely pose:
"Why did you bother for so long? Why not just quit and be done with it?"
Joe and Marcy, separately, gave me the same response: "Because that's what they wanted us to do."
This statement is not just made of spite. This is a sophisticated insight into the key force upon which the PIRG/Fund model thrives: attrition.
"They expect people to just give up and leave -- that's how they keep it all going," Joe said. "And we reached a point where we decided that we weren't going to play into that design."
[In the next post: Marcy, Joe, and Christian ask questions about what, exactly, FFPIRG was trying to protect.]