The Canvasser's Union (part 1)
by greg bloom, Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 07:11:59 AM EDT
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.
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 http://ffpir.us ("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 ffpir.us 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.