The Canvassers Union (p6): the Questions
by greg bloom, Fri Dec 01, 2006 at 10:15:53 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.
Part Five is about how each of these unions was busted by the Fund management.Lockse, an 8 year PIRG/Fund veteran, wrote a compelling "tough love" response to these incidences here.
This post is about the questions that the callers and canvassers are asking about the PIRG/Fund network. It is a long list of questions, some of which are answered -- many of which are not.
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...
This post is very long. I thought about apologizing for that, but then I decided I'm not sorry. Grab a cup of tea or something.
- / -
Consider the immense knowledge of waste, fraud, negligence, and other misdeeds which employees of corporations, governmental agencies, and other bureaucracies possess. Most of this country's abuses are secrets known to thousands of insiders, at times right down to the lowest paid worker. ... The complicity of silence, of getting along by going along, of just taking orders, of "mum's the word" has been a prime target of student activism and a prime factor leading students to exercise their moral concern. -- Ralph Nader, Action For A Change
- / -
In 2005, the Los Angeles Telephone Outreach Project calling room was put to work exclusively on "an emergency campaign" to raise money to post a full-page ad in the West Coast edition of the New York Times, in support of Environment California's 'solar roofs bill.' "So we're tearing through the lists for three weeks," recalls Marcy, "asking people to give 500 or 1000 dollars, since it's an emergency. And our office raised something like 70 thousand dollars [a good week is usually 40-50k] but then when the ad came out, there were all these big celebrity sponsors in big letters at the bottom, people like Ed Begley Jr, at least thirty names, and then there was the Environment California logo in the corner."
For a year afterwards, the callers' scripts claimed that Environment California drafted the bill and had successfully lobbied it into law. They have several records of member complaints over this.
"People would say that it was fraudulent of us to be claiming that! Not only had the bill not been fully passed, but they'd ask us to tell them how Environment California was involved in it, other than our advocates jumping into a photo op with Davis. And of course we had no idea how it was involved. Did Environment California contribute some money to that emergency ad? Probably. But what about the rest of those 'emergency' funds?"
The callers and canvassers have a long list of questions like this. I find some of their questions to be better than others -- but considering this group of people raised hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars for these organizations, only to have their human rights violated by representatives of those organizations, I think these questions deserve whatever kind of hearing they can get.
- / -
Neither the canvassers nor callers have any access to the internal workings of the PIRG/Fund network. But the callers--unlike the canvassers--do speak on a daily basis to a broad section of the PIRG/Fund membership base. In fact, the TOP callers work more closely with that base than any other Fund/PIRG staff. If the Fund was indeed trying to punish the callers, it was tipping its hand in the process.
It started with the membership renewals. In the previous post, Marcy and Joe explained that the "lists went from awesome to awful overnight" after the union vote. In part, they meant that while they were calling lists of members who were supposedly due to renew their membership with a donation, the callers suddenly started to come across an unusually large amount of people who claimed to only just recently have renewed. Of course, in any large database, duplicate entries can be expected -- but suddenly something seemed to be wrong.
"There were an awful lot of these errors," said Joe, and just like the payroll dysfunction and erratic reimbursements, "they all seemed to benefit the organization."
And weeks after the callers had reported the problems, without sign of improvement, they took it upon themselves to compile information about members who might otherwise be inappropriately solicited. On scraps of paper, napkins and receipts, the callers began a surreptitious inventory of complaints from their members -- members who had spent hours trying to cancel their "sustainer" automatic-deduction memberships; members who had thought they'd cancelled but were renewed anyway; members who had cancelled and were being called as if they were still members; members who had asked several times over not to be called; members whose names appeared in calling lists for PIRG organizations that they claimed to have never joined in the first place; members of CalPIRG who'd been called by USPIRG, Environment California, and Pesticide Watch just that week. Marcy's had several cluttered cabinets full of these scribbled notes and photocopies of other material that had been submitted to the NLRB.
"It had always seemed so sloppy to me," admitted Joe, "but I'd still assumed that overall it was a good operation, they just didn't have their act together." After the callers had run up against the union-busting tactics, that assumption vanished. "The fact that they put so many resources against us in such a concerted way...that experience really brought it home. I came to believe that all those mistakes, the working environment, it all seemed deliberate. And once it started affecting my pay, and my money was being stolen - well, that's when I really tried to figure it out."
- / -
Simply figuring out the structure of the PIRG family tree is a difficult task. First of all, there is the odd PIRG that is not at all connected with the others - like the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, MPIRG (in which, ironically, the campus organizer staff successfully unionized several years ago). But for the most part, the Fund for Public Interest Research is "the glue" that holds together the state PIRGs plus a large number of other organizations, all of which are chartered and managed by the same handful of people.
Marcy wrote me a list of the state PIRGs under the FFPIRG umbrella:
Alaska PIRG (AKPIRG), Arizona PIRG (AZPIRG), Colorado PIRG (CoPIRG), Connecticut PIRG (ConnPIRG), Florida PIRG, Georgia PIRG, Illinois PIRG, Iowa PIRG, Maryland PIRG (MaryPIRG), PIRG in Michigan (PIRGIM), Missouri PIRG (MoPIRG), Massachusetts PIRG (MassPIRG), New Jersey PIRG (NJPIRG), New Mexico PIRG (NMPIRG), New York PIRG (NYPIRG) [ed--sort of], North Carolina PIRG, Ohio PIRG, Oregon State PIRG (OSPirg), Pennsylvania PIRG (Penn Pirg), Rhode Island PIRG (RIPIRG), Texas PIRG (TexPIRG), Vermont PIRG (VPIRG), Washington PIRG (WashPIRG), Wisconsin PIRG (WisPIRG)
Originally, these state PIRGs were almost all loosely-affiliated, student-run, volunteer-based organizations--a true state-level grassroots movement. But (and this is some history that the callers might not know) as the 1980s came into swing, these organizations found their funding sources under attack by conservative college groups led by people like Jack Abramoff and Karl Rove. The Fund was created to provide a steady stream of resources through a nationalized canvassing platform; the state PIRGs came to rely upon this funding stream, and because of its success, more PIRGs were created and the national structure was forged. Thus began the consolidation and centralization and that defines FFPIRG today. (The odd PIRG, like NYPIRG, opted out of this centralization, and remains somewhat independent.) The above list is not exhaustive; new state PIRGs are still being launched.
At this point, these organizations are (despite their figurehead student boards) little more than headless bodies, or rather, legs on the bodiless head that is USPIRG. And the crown of that head is the National Associations Organizing in the Public Interest (AKA National Association of the Public Interest) -- NAOPI. NAOPI is the national platform that calls the shots. NAOPI isimpressively un-Googleable.
Honestly, I can't say what, exactly, NAOPI is -- and I've spoken with people who've been senior PIRG management since the mid-90s. Nobody seems to be totally clear on what it is, except that it controls everything.
- / -
"Why were we calling on behalf of a forest protection campaign for Iowa PIRG?" asks Joe. He adds dryly: "There are no forests in Iowa."
Now, here's where I have to be skeptical of my fellow skeptics.
It could be that all state PIRGs are working on a nationalized campaign to save America's forests.
One might believe that PIRG's conception of "the environment" is abstracted and fetishized, externalized into something out there that needs to be protected, reduced to an idea that can be signed off on with a check -- the kind of arbitrary campaigns that both preserve the "growth" of environmental groups while killing environmentalism, as Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue in "The Death of Environmentalism."If you just give us more money to save the forests, we will fight and win--despite the fact that we will just be doing the same things that have lost for twenty years. One might agree that this is bad for the environmental movement, and that Iowa PIRG's members would better serve the public interest--and would be better served as citizens--by supporting an organization that actually engages them and their community toward meaningful, tangible actions. But there's a big leap between ineffectual and scam.
On the other hand, Iowa PIRG is clearly not going to be the organization that does the work that saves the national forests.
"So who knows where the money goes? The members don't know. I tell them it goes to 'get stuff done,' but I don't know."
So I tried to find out where the money in a state PIRG goes.
I called up Missouri PIRG, which is apparently an organization that has 13,500 "members." These people became members when they were canvassed on the street by Fund canvassers. As of 2005, the callers reported that MoPIRG did not actually have an advocate on staff. So what, exactly, were those 13,500 members supporting? They were supporting the further development of MoPIRG, to get more members and hopefully hire an advocate. But when I spoke with MoPIRG this month, they still did not have an advocate on staff. In the meantime, the nice campus organizer who spoke with me on the phone said that she helps work on something called the New Energy Future campaign, and that "everyone" around the country is working on the campaign. Later in this year [ed--if she hasn't quit yet] she expects to "work with legislators" and "create an accountability moment" where the New Energy Future will be rallied into fruition.
This "campaign" exists, and somewhere there is some "work" being done on it. But Missouri PIRG and Iowa PIRG recruit "members" for these same campaigns every year, constantly, a never-ending cycle of forest, ocean, air, energy campaigns. The "New Energy Future" is not yet upon us. But did the woman on the phone know exactly what happens to the money that the Fund canvassers raised in Missouri to "speak up an take action on their [members'] behalf"? No, she did not.
Does the IowaPIRG campus organizer know that TOP callers are calling IowaPIRG members to ask them to help save the national forest?
- / -
A new part of the PIRG family tree from which the TOP callers spent a lot of time hanging are the Environment [State] groups. The PIRG-splits.
"As soon as I started working there," said Joe, "they were splitting CalPIRG into CalPIRG and Environment California."
Around that time, CoPIRG split into CoPIRG and Environment Colorado. Quite recently, other PIRG-splits have included Environment Georgia, Environment Maine, Environment Florida, Environment Maryland, Environment Illinois, Environment Texas and, why not mix it up a little, Penn Environment.
Whereas PIRG groups used to engage in both consumer and environment advocacy, the `splits' now divided those missions cleanly: state PIRG groups still release credit reports and disputed research about college textbooks, while the Environment [State] groups cover...you know. And the people in the Environment [State] groups are the same people who were in the state PIRG groups -- same advocates, same members. Or, from a different perspective: twice the membership.
See, when the state PIRG groups split, all existing PIRG "members" were "grandfathered" in to the Environment [State] groups--meaning that for the first year their "membership" in the PIRG-split group (i.e., the newsletter/donation form they get four or so times a year) was all free. Then the following year, Marcy and the other TOP callers now could be calling them twice: once to renew for the state PIRG, and once to renew for the PIRG-split. And now the Fund has another set of organization names--new, more appealing names--under which it can run its canvasses.
Was this illegal? Nope. It was clever, is what it was.
"Most people hear `Environment California' and think `oh, sure, I know you guys,' even though it's the first time we were talking to them," said Marcy, who found those campaigns to be particularly easy to call into. Marcy befriends most people instantly, and can give the warm, comforting impression that the person is already quite familiar with whatever it is that she is talking about. Details like 'what is this organization, and what does it do' simply don't matter all that much when Marcy is talking to you about the environment.
"I'd been raising them so much money for so long, and I'd had my doubts before," Marcy says, "but now that I was looking at it square in the face, I just didn't know where it was all going. I'd been there on the phone telling people `we won this with your help, and now we need you to do this other thing,' but the more I looked, the more I just saw smoke and mirrors, just this big circular pattern."
- / -
Supposedly, Environment California's big shining success was that California solar roofs bill for which the TOP raised money so furiously. After several years in which the bill was shot down, taken apart, and forced to regroup, it has finally passed.
I have a PIRG pamphlet ("30 Years of Action in the Public Interest") that lists this victory, along with a set of achievements and victories won by these organizations. But if you look chiefly at the list of the last fifteen, twenty years, almost all of the victories have words like "helped" and phrases like "and a coalition of."
PIRG does have lobbyists; PIRG lobbyists do write reports and send letters to legislators about various policy initiatives. That much is fact enough. Who do these lobbyists report back to? Not the membership. Not the individual state PIRGs. The lobbyists brief the callers and the canvassers every few months, often over the phone, and the briefings are "not much more specific than the raps."
As a result, the canvassers, callers, and directors alike cannot say in any substantive way what it is that the lobbyists and advocates actually do by way of the funds that are raised. The calling raps, like the canvass raps, claim that the campaigns are working to "show" how much support there is, to "hold politicians accountable" and to "get legislation passed" - but beyond those claims, they are almost entirely devoid of information about the campaign at hand. Callers are actively discouraged from getting into time-consuming discussions about the issues and campaigns in detail. As for those members who ask about, say, what a PIRG advocate does and how the campaigns work (in greater detail than "lobbying" to "get" important bills passed) - "those people are supposedly `not worth our time,'" says Joe.
That strikes a chord of recognition with me -- canvass directing for GCI in 2004, we always used to say that Republicans are "not worth our time."
- / -
Here's something that is supposedly worth the Fund employees' time: postcards.
Aside from donations, postcards are the primary form of "political action" that the Fund claims it offers forth to the public in the public interest's service. The Fund canvassers will gather signatures on these postcards - quarter-sheet statements of support for or against given legislation. Postcarding sessions are those "volunteer activities" that will push a Field Manager's work week up to 60 hours, a director's work week up to 80. The idea is that postcards are a tactically-valid display of popular support, the voice of the citizens, only not quite as imposing as a petition, and much easier than asking for money -- it's just asking the signer to include their contact information.
"Then months later we'll call them up," said Marcy, "we'll call them our members, and ask them to support the organization with a donation." Sometimes, they would be calling people on behalf of organizations or campaigns that were for causes entirely unrelated to the matter on the postcard. More troubling still, postcards for the Sierra Club and other Fund clients would somehow find their way into the PIRG calling sessions.
One thing is for sure: this is resourceful list-building. And, conveniently, PIRG organizations also receive "postcard grant" funding from foundations like Pew.
But once the callers were paying closer attention, they realized that these postcards' path went from the street, to the office to be processed for information and called, and only to be left en masse in a back room. The shelves and floor were "totally packed with boxes," said Marcy, "all these thousands of postcards left to rot."
Have PIRG and PIRG-related organizations "presented" giant sacks of postcards to legislators and committees and press conferences before? Yes. What is the political effect of these sacks full of postcards? It's unclear. But it is clear that PIRG employees spend a considerable amount of time collecting and processing them, and that the Fund does bring in a considerable amount of money from them. And it seems likely that a union might make it difficult for the Fund to wring significant amounts of "volunteer time" from its employees at the postcard table.
- / -
One of the callers' favorite examples of what they believe to be fraud is the Green Life.
Every few months, LA TOP would start calling to raise money for the "Green Life." They say they were always unclear about what the Green Life was.
"The Green Life is supposedly this big internet campaign to do all these things in support of sustainable industry and living and so on. Our raps say, 'we hold corporations accountable for their environmentally unsound activities.' Ok, so go to the web site - what is it? It's just a series of pamphlets, standard-issue environmental magazine copy, repackaged into a web site and left alone. The same pamphlets they used in EcoPledge and Earthday 2000."
From what I can tell, that wasn't always entirely a fair description -- the Green Life was at one point at least marginally more than a series of pamphlets, as there was a blog (of sorts) that went dormant earlier this year, and a couple of other blog-like features that died before then. The Green Life's presence on the internet is close tonil.
"What does it need -- $30 a year in web hosting fees to keep doing what it's doing?"
Members of the Green Life received no informational packets or newsletters of any kind--though they did receive emails. At one point there was at least one full-time employee for the Green Life--that is no longer true. It appears that the Green Life is a ghost.
But was it a scam? Well, it was an idea. Not a very clever idea. The idea failed. That is not inherently a bad thing. Big companies have to take risks in order to grow and they will inevitably fail sometimes. But if Green Life was a risk-taking enterprise that PIRGers cobbled together and abandoned just as promptly, why were PIRG donors were being asked to front the money -- lots of money, Marcy says, big donations, five hundred or a thousand, or even a hundred a month -- as if it were already established and functioning and "winning"? Why was LA TOP raising money for it after it had apparently died? Could it be that some of those members are still paying monthly dues to a ghost?
- / -
There is Green Corps, the environmental activist training program, which has alumni in almost every major progressive organization.
There is the National Environmental Law Center, a "litigation center" that does seem to do a good amount of legal work on environmental causes. "But were NELC lawyers the ones who worked for weeks to kill our petition?" asked Christian. "Were those the lawyers who swamped the NLRB with boxes of evidence against the TOP callers' charges?" asked Marcy.
There is Earth Tones, an old-school long-distance calling company that gives all of its proceeds to PIRG.
There is the PIRG Fuel Buyers, which provides discounts on oil to its consumers.
There is a string of initiatives--some reported successes, some almost wholly forgotten--like EcoPledge; like Earthday 2000; like Toxic Action Center; like Pesticide Watch; like the New Voters Project (which is rumored--yes, rumored--to have "misplaced" the massive voter file from its "hugely successful" 2005 GOTV drive).
There is Telefund, a for-profit sister to the TOP, which telefundraises for scores of progressive organizations, including the DNC and Mother Jones magazine (which, unfortunately, seems resolutely uninterested in deploying its trademark investigative journalism onto PIRG/Fund). Telefund was built upon PIRG's human resources; back in the day, TOP calling was siphoned off to Telefund, to get it off the ground; even today, when carrying a light client load, Telefund has reportedly taken on work for PIRG and PIRG-related organizations. (Telefund seems to bust unions too.)
There is Grassroots Campaigns Inc, a for-profit subcontractor that provides field campaigns for organizations like the DNC and MoveOn. (MoveOn PAC's Field Director, Adam Ruben, was once the national Field Director of U.S. PIRG and the Organizing Director for Green Corps.)
There is Grassroots Voter Outreach, which is a kind of corporate turnkey that allowed the staff of the non-profit non-partisan Fund to take a "leave of absence" and start work with the for-profit partisan GCI for MoveOn in the 2004 election.
There is Environmental Action, which was originally an influential special interest outfit in the 70s that helped pass the Clean Air Act. Environmental Action ultimately went defunct, but a few years ago, the mantle was picked back up as a PIRG project. Environmental Action is now based in the MASSPIRG office. It has a handful of employees, if that. (The Environmental Action website still describes the 30 year-old history of the original group, as if it is the same group still running. 'Unfortunately, three decades later, environmental and political problems remain...') This is a savvy business trick. PIRGers took the name of a moribund entity and relaunched the brand, deploying it into their canvass model to bring in more donors. Grassroots Campaigns Inc canvasses for Environmental Action--especially in seasons when GCI has no other clients to work for. The Fund has canvassed for it as well. That means that a PIRG organization pays a PIRG-related for-profit company to canvass, in the process generating donor lists for Telefund.
There is now a lobbyist on staff at Environmental Action. There is even a MySpace page. But what is the "impassioned, results-oriented activism" that has been enabled by the tens of thousands of people who have given to Environmental Action via GCI canvassers? The people don't know. The canvassers don't know. GCI's Canvass Directors don't know. The MySpace page doesn't say.
- / -
The members of the late LA Fund union have a simple, clear answer as to where the money goes:
Green Century Funds. It's a PIRG-owned mutual fund.
"It's all right there - you can see that there's upwards of fifty million dollars invested in corporations like Procter & Gamble, JP Morgan, McDonalds, Toyota. Merck."
Christian finds this evidence to be damning on its face.
"Supposedly it's for shareholder activism," he said, shaking his head. "But shareholder activism requires a token amount of shares in a company - not tens of millions of dollars." That means that PIRG is yielding investment profit from the very corporations it is supposedly trying to hold accountable.
I actually think the callers are jumping a step too far here. I made some calls, but mostly it was a couple of chance encounters that put me in touch with people who might understand this: Green Century Capital Management has around $2-5k invested for the purpose of shareholder advocacy in these and other companies -- not egregious amounts. Its record for shareholder activism does exist, and in fact that record looks more concrete and impressive than anything that State PIRG have accomplished in the last ten years. It's widely rumored that PIRG has a massive chunk of assets lying around somewhere, but that chunk doesn't seem visible in Green Century.
So there is no readily available evidence that the entire thing is "the biggest scam in the history of modern progressive politics," as one of the people I interviewed for this story put it emphatically. After all, if anything, one would hope that a network this large would have a big stash of resources. In theory, that's healthy. The thing is, no one seems to be able to account for this money. Can anyone blame the callers for taking that jump?
In the end, I told Christian and Marcy that I think the money trail is a distraction--and that their situation, and to a lesser extent the situation of most of the entry level workers in PIRG/Fund, is inexcusable regardless of how much money was backed up in there. But it remains a giant question mark and that big-piggy question mark has a whole host of smaller question marks suckling up to it -- many of which would be asked in the process of staff unionization. Lockse, who very well may have busted a few proto-union drives in her own day, asked a good amount of the questions herself on this blog:
[D]oes Fund/PIRG/GCI have the resources to run better campaigns? Does Fund/PIRG/GCI have the money to not just give its employees the cafeteria option of health care--but to actually pay for it? Does it have the money to create a well-staffed and technologically-adept administration, so that its employees aren't plagued regularly with mistakes? Does it have the money to reimburse its employees fairly for gas, to pay up-front for the expenses of running an office, to equip them with the proper resources that they need? ...What are the formal channels through which the Fund/PIRG/GCI can receive, evaluate, and act upon feedback? Could the leaders keep more and better staff, and get better work done, by making the job more sustainable ( i.e. less than 12 hours a day, 7 days a week)? Can we build a progressive movement without respecting the commitments and intelligence of the people working within it? And what will it take to get Fund/PIRG/GCI to uphold their own responsibility over the progressive movement's most important natural resource?
- / -
The big question still hangs in the air between me and the callers and canvassers, I play the skeptic's skeptic once more:
"If it's a scam, who benefits?"
"Doug Phelps," Christian and Marcy said without hesitation, in unison, as if the answer was obvious.
And the answer isobvious -- even though it's tweaked in rumor and masked by layers of puppet fabric -- but I have intentionally reported up until this point as if the answer was irrelevant. I have focused on what is visible on the ground -- on what is claimed and what is actually accomplished and why there is such a big gap in between.
At a certain point, the "who" can no longer be ignored.
Doug Phelps is independently wealthy -- so it is said, even by those who are critical of his model. It's inherited wealth -- but that, it turns out, is a PIRGer's urban myth. Phelps came from a humble upbringing before ultimately attending Harvard Law and consolidating power over the PIRGs in the early 80s.
He gives all of his salary back to PIRG -- so it is said, also as if fact. But that is simply not clear - especially considering the sheer number of interconnected organizations over which he has control.
He walks the walkahisma told us, soon after calling me "a few tacos short of a combination plate."He did jail for Native American rights -- this urban myth is a new one, and my sources were very amused.
[He] told people they were lucky to be paid at all since he was originally paid in postage stamps -- so wrote an anonymous GCI staff member to me, describing a central-HQ meeting in Boston that Phelps called in the midst of the stringofpostingsbyMoveOn Operation Democracy veterans about the various deeds of waste, fraud and negligence on that campaign. also gave the bushian you are with us or against us line, the tipster said, signing off: staff not happy. (By now, most of that staff is already long gone.)
Doug Phelps, who made the deal with Terry McAuliffe to launch Grassroots Campaigns Inc and send thousands of its canvassers into the streets to "beat Bush" by raising 21 million dollars that did not go to the 2004 election. Doug Phelps, who made the deal with Adam Ruben, his former employee and current MoveOn PAC Political Director, to launch MoveOn's 2004 Leave No Voter Behind campaign, and who I personally--for whatever it's worth, cards on the table--hold responsible for that campaign's total collapse.
Doug Phelps, he of the email address Pirg1@[xxx].com. He works twenty hours a day and sleeps with one eye open.
That last one I actually kind of believe, which makes the idea that this is a scam even stranger. Phelps is at the top of everything. He controls NAOPI, he's the chair of USPIRG, he controls Green Century Capital Management, the chair of Green Corps; Grassroots Campaigns Inc is his, Telefund is his. All the executive managers that busted the LA unions answer to him. And he is hands-on. No important decision seems to be made in any of these organizations without going through him. So what if he has a massive loft in Denver and a friggin mansion in California--aside from the yearly PIRGathon bacchanalia in Aspen, he cannot possibly find much time to enjoy the spoils, what with all the strings that he is pulling.
So if it's not a scam, then what does it amount to? No one knows but Doug Phelps, and while most people have an awed respect for the man, few seem to trust him.
"It's just like Keyser Soze," Marcy said, several times in our conversation, in reference to the Usual Suspects. "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."
Personally, my impression of Phelps now is not all that much different from my first impression, while cheering for him in the Milwaukee convention center at the launch of the disastrous Leave No Voter Behind campaign. General. Businessman. Mastermind. And if the business of saving the world is a jungle, Phelps is deep in the heart of darkness.
- / -
I will try now to be clear on what this post is about.
I am not at all convinced--as are some of the people I've interviewed for these posts--that this network of organizations is "the biggest scam in the history of modern progressive politics." That explanation just isn't a satisfying answer to all these questions -- and the questions are, after all, the titular subject of this post.
I would imagine that at least one or two of these questions have answers that would satisfy a PIRG donor.
I also have a strong hunch that the sum total of the answers to these questions would not satisfy a PIRG donor.
Does it matter? If the relatively small group of PIRG lobbyists that do exist are, in fact, as resourceful and ruthless and stealthy in their lobbying as the Fund managers were in preventing their employees from securing better working conditions, then perhaps this whole system is--means be damned--a vital force for positive change. I would be foolish to say that's impossible--I doubt it, but I just don't know. And on the other side are a good many PIRG/Fund/GCI people who believe it with the kind of faith that does not need nor tend to seek knowledge.
But yes, to definitively answer at least one of the questions in this post: it does matter whether these answers would satisfy a PIRG donor.
- / -
So in one last attempt at fairness, I asked the LA Fund employees to put me in touch with some actual PIRG "members."
(You didn't think that I would write all this just to let a bunch of ex-employees, myself included, take potshots, did you?)
Specifically, I wanted to speak with members who would know something about the public interest matters in which these groups are acting. Since both the canvassers and callers had worked on Environment California and its solar roofs bill, in fact worked down the hall from the lobbyists who are supposedly responsible, I focused there.
First I contacted a professor emeritus of environmental science at a major California university. He was more than happy to talk at me for forty minutes, almost without stopping. Here is the most concise excerpt I could pick out:
"So they hire these young people who have a gift for sales, and they put them to work. Years back, this rather attractive young woman came to my door and gave me a big song and dance and some literature about all sorts of stuff that they're doing in Washington, what they're doing in the state capitol, and I let them take a rather large amount of money from my bank account for a while, before I began to realize that I've seen no shred of hard evidence that they're doing anything."
You mean in the policy realm, I ask.
"Yes, they're totally unknown in the policy world. I took that donation seriously, because believe me this world needs us to be saving the environment right now, it needs us to be saving our country. But I asked around and none not one of my colleagues could say what this money was doing -- and I know some very important people, son, do you understand? So we have come to believe that all they're doing is collecting money to support some top brass's large salaries. And I wonder, what did they teach that young woman who came up real close to me with her song and dance? What did they tell her about what she was doing?" I noted that the professor seemed to find this question to be even more troubling than the question about what was happening to the money she took from him.
In the end, though, maybe a professor emeritus of environmental science wouldn't necessarily be qualified to comment on environmental policy matters. The other person I contacted, however, certainly was: he was a former PIRG donor who now has a deep involvement with the solar energy industry in California. I asked him about Environment California's "baby," its big victory, the solar roofs bill:
"Absolutely, Environment California deserves a share of the credit [for the solar roofs bill] - they were not the only ones, by any means, but yes, they were definitely out there doing legwork."
He followed this with a remark upon the "funny system" of PIRG organizations, and I prompted him to continue:
"So they employ hundreds of people in a purely fundraising capacity - but they only have a tiny number of people with a policy role. And there's no system of accountability for those people."
When I asked whether that lack of accountability might affect the PIRG lobbyists' effectiveness, he said from what he saw of their work, it certainly seemed that way:
"They don't solicit any involvement from their members or partners, to give them the chance to impact what the strategy is. Because there's no channels for communication, information doesn't make its way up. Because only a few people make the decisions, there's no deliberation on how to move forward. And instead of moving in concert with other groups and interested parties [in the solar energy bill's case], and instead of talking to the industry, they got way out in front. Part of that, I will say, was an admirable sense of ambition [ed--go big or go home is the phrase used in PIRG/Fund] -- but they didn't understand the issues as well as they might have, and they would have done better work moving forward in harmony with the other groups. That brought on a number of failures and setbacks, and the need to regroup."
He made it clear to me that his view of these groups has softened in the last year or so:
"People make mistakes--and I do think that they've learned from their mistakes."
And would their efforts improve if their organization was more open and democratic in structure?
"I don't know," he laughed. "Democracy is a messy thing."