The Canvasser's Union (part 1)

My article inIn These Times magazine is published online today- it's about two Los Angeles offices of the Fund for Public Interest Research that voted to unionize over a year ago. You can read their stories directly at their web site. I'm thrilled with how the ITT piece has turned out; I also want to expand upon many of the issues in there. So I'm going to blog for a while about this issue of activist unionization, a subject that has come up a few times in the comments of my last two series, "Strip-Mining the Grassroots" and "Grassroots Campaigns Inc's Great War of 2004."

From "Do You Have a Minute for ... ?," August 18th, In These Times

There's a word that gets tossed around in canvassing offices to describe people like Christian Miller: "scrappy." That's not because of his skinny frame and sparse, wiry chin-scrabble. Rather, in an industry where the average career lasts two weeks, Miller, 28, canvassed door-to-door throughout Los Angeles for four years.

In the last 30 years, canvassers like Miller have become the most common--if unsung--figures in political activism, going door-to-door or standing on busy street corners to talk to people about various public interest issues. It took Miller a minute to tick through the long list of campaigns for which he'd raised money: solar energy bills, forest protection, Sierra Club, Human Rights Campaign. All were operated by the same company: the Fund for Public Interest Research (commonly known as "the Fund"), a national nonprofit founded by the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) in 1982. Since then, canvassers for the now-ubiquitous state PIRGs have raised over $350 million and gathered more than 20 million signatures for causes ranging from environmental protection to gay rights. The Fund holds a near-monopoly on the canvass industry, running 30 to 60 offices each summer, with thousands of canvassers working on dozens of campaigns.

The Fund is built around a campaign model that can be deployed for any progressive organizations' cause -- I wrote more about the early history of FFPIRG and described its model here (and an example of the model in action can be found here).

In a consolidating trend that intensified throughout the 90s, the vast majority of national and state progressive organizations that run canvasses have chosen to outsource to the Fund, making it perhaps the largest single employer of "activists" in the country.

The last five years have been perhaps the most interesting in its history since a string of early PIRG victories in the late 70's/early 80's. First of all, in 2001, the Fund began "street canvassing." As opposed to traditional door-to-door canvassing, the street canvass is a more visible, aggressive, and lucrative form of fundraising. This boosted the Fund's growth even more.

Then, in 2003, riding on the Fund's street-fueled boom, a new branch of the FFPIRG family scored a primo contract immediately upon its conception: Grassroots Campaigns, Inc began to open scores of canvass offices across the country for the Democratic National Committee. This was the first time that the FFPIRG model had ever been used toward partisan ends (since GCI is for-profit, and is legally enabled to do so). In 2004, GCI raised $22 million dollars "to beat George Bush."

Recently, the FFPIRG world has reached two more (quite literally) critical thresholds.

The Fund/PIRG complex has always carried around a somewhat-rotten reputation, but now there is finally a formal analysis of its costs/benefits to the progressive movement - and no, I'm not referring to my blog posts. Dr Dana Fisher's book is published next month: Activism Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America. The title really does get right to the point with regards to her conclusion.

Finally, the last few years have seen the FFPIRG management facing down the dispersed rumblings of internal turmoil. Specifically, a series of attempts on behalf of the canvassers to unionize. These attempts have come from all over the country, in all columns of the deceptively complex industry. They have often gone wholly unnoticed by anyone outside of this world, as in the case of one group of MASSPIRG campus organizers; some have popped up in a few blog-blurbs, as in the case of the Denver office of Telefund (a phone canvassing for-profit company that raises money for a wide range of organizations like the DNC, the ACLU and Mother Jones magazine). The only incident that registered any significant media attention was with the Los Angeles Fund offices--Christian Miller's long-term place of employment.

This last incident with the LA Fund is rather unique -- in part because of how close these offices came to success, but also because of how far they fell from it. There have been countless attempts in the past to 'organize against the organizers,' but in this case--as is painstakingly documented on their website ("Fearlessly Fighting to Protect its Rear")--the canvassers actually managed to get a union contract in hand. And yet, as Ben Ehrenreich reported in the LA Weekly ("Double Standard," January 26th, 2006), "despite successful union votes in two L.A. offices and no less than 14 complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), [the canvassers] say they've faced a fierce union-busting effort from an organization that survives on its wholesome liberal image." Christian, who is quoted prominently in Ehrenreich's piece, answered my email when I contacted the site in May.

Quick recap: the largest employer of progressive activists in the country is engaging in widespread union-busting. Its "sister" organization just raised twenty-two million dollars for the DNC to "beat George Bush," although almost none of that money actually went to the 2004 election. Put those two facts together in light of the failure of the Left to mount a coherent, coordinated opposition to its greatest opponent in modern American history.

I'm not saying that the former two had a direct causal effect upon the latter - but when I went to YearlyKos in June, it struck me as clearer than ever that the LA canvassers' struggle was of the same nature and urgency that I heard expressed by each speaker and every panel: a struggle about nothing less than reclaiming the soul of the progressive movement. This struck loudest of all at the sparsely-attended Labor panel. As Nathan Newman, Joel Rogers and other representatives of the unions beseeched and warned the near-empty room that the unions can't win without us, and we can't win without them, I finalized my plans over email to meet with Christian Miller.

I met Miller... near his home. He was wearing a denim jacket sporting classic rock band buttons, looking every bit the unemployed dude living in L.A.--which by that point, he was. Six weeks earlier, the Fund had shuttered his office, leaving him unemployed. It seems he may have been too "scrappy" for his employers, particularly in his role as a union steward.

In my next post, I'll try to explain why it is that, out of all the cities in the country, Los Angeles alone has seen the Fund for Public Interest Research shut down three of its offices in the last three years.

Tags: GCI, grassroots, Labor, master/slave, PIRG, TheFund, Unions (all tags)



Re: The Canvasser's Union (part 1)

Goes without saying that there are unions that have unionbusted staff members when those staff members attempted to unionize.

ACORN did this somewhere too.

by Our Gal in Brooklyn 2006-08-18 01:30PM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvasser's Union (part 1)

There was "success" of sorts at an attempt at unionizing Stephen Dunn and Associates, which does phone fundraising for political causes and ticket sales for cultural groups.  (They changed their name to msgi some time after I left.)  They had a huge boiler room operation with over 100 phone lines in Berkeley, which I worked at briefly in 1998.  I made phone calls for Mother Jones, the Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, and the Democratic National Committee, which were just some of the contracts that they had.  Conditions were not good.  It was noisy and the pay structure was tilted heavily in favor of the company.  Several years after I left, there was a serious attempt at unionizing the place.  The anti-union tactics were so bad that the NLRB issued an order that the union be recognized even though they lost a vote.  The operation immediately shut down and left town.  I have never heard anything about them again.  

by chrisdarling 2006-08-19 07:54AM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvasser's Union (part 1)

As someone who has canvassed over five years of his life and ran a canvass for three years, this makes sense. When I have time I'll have to talk about my latest canvassing experiences with ACT (not so bad) and a Pittsburgh summer pirg (pretty bad all around.)

Philip Shropshire

by pshropshire 2006-08-19 10:25AM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvasser's Union (part 1)

You might also want to read this: 35/387

by pshropshire 2006-08-19 10:31AM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvasser's Union (part 1)

Hey Greg,

As I mentioned on the In These Times site, loved your article. As a professional fundraiser working for progressive causes, I find it frustrating that some of our most promising future leaders are being turned away from making careers in the field because of nonprofit labor practices.

The only additional comment I'd like to make, which I forgot on my other post, is that donor acquisition strategies -- whether it is street canvassing, direct response or fundraising events -- rarely return much money to a nonprofit. Often in fact, they are strategic loss leaders. The true return on investment doesn't come until 3-5 years down the road through additional fundraising efforts. That's when the upfront costs and efforts start to pay off. The situation is the same at every nonprofit in America. Here's what people need to know: Fundraising isn't about raising money, it's about raising relationships, and that takes time. One year is too short of an evaluation framework to say if a fundraising strategy is working or not.

My point is that if anyone said that all that canvassing was going to raise a lot of money to "Beat Bush" in 2004, they weren't telling the truth. Those names collected could never have generated a significant revenue then. But if they have been carefully stewarded, they should make a very big difference in beating Bush in 2008.

The question is of course, has been anybody been looking after those donors since then?

Fundraising for Nonprofits

by Gayle Roberts 2006-08-20 10:17AM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvasser's Union (part 1)

if anyone said that all that canvassing was going to raise a lot of money to "Beat Bush" in 2004, they weren't telling the truth.... The question is of course, has been anybody been looking after those donors since then?

Thanks again Gayle; the issue of short-term overhead vs long-term donor base-building was discussed at length in the course of the "Strip-Mining the Grassroots" series. As for your question -- I think it's likely that the DNC is, in fact, making good use out of the donors generated in 2004; after all, 2005 was a record year for them in fundraising.

However, with regards to the 2004 canvass, my question is whether it was OK for GCI to essentially lie -- to canvassers and donors alike -- about the ends of that money.

And I think that question brings the larger issue into clearer focus: the FFPIRG canvass model has always blurred the space between the urgency of its given cause and the truth of its long-term  base-building nature. When stepping into the partisan electoral realm, bringing this model into a short-term campaign, GCI crossed a line -- and maybe the executives didn't even think about it that way -- and the tricky balance of the canvass was upset.

I think that this revealed contradictions that can help us think about how to rebalance the FFPIRG model. In the meantime, here were these LA canvassers making a valiant but doomed attempt to try to restore that balance themselves.

by greg bloom 2006-08-20 11:23AM | 0 recs


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