The Canvassers' Union (pt2): How Los Angeles Broke the PIRG/Fund Model

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. The topic is perhaps a little earthy for these blogs, which focus largely on issues of electoral strategy and national news; but as I noted in this series' first post, the Fund is perhaps the single largest employer of progressive activists in the country - in the entire PIRG/Fund world, thousands of would-be progressive leaders pass through every year. A new book is being published that argues this mode of activism is "strangling progressive politics in America." Think of it this way: if the blogosphere is the nascent progressive movement's intelligentsia, these canvassers are its toiling, near-invisible laborers - this might not be as glamorous as the ouster of a wayward Democratic Party leader, but it is just as central to our cause...

Let's start with the weather.

Famously temperate, Los Angeles enjoys the kind of brisk winters through which a committed progressive person could spend each night knocking on doors, asking to speak with residents about a subject of pressing public interest. In the rest of the country, most canvass offices will ramp down or close entirely during the winter months. But in L.A., an office might retain its most committed canvassers year-round, as they nightly comb the wide, wealthy liberal, subtropical city.

This could help explain why, in the past four years, the Fund has shut down three of its L.A. offices.

It certainly helps explain how Christian Miller, one of the primary stewards in the 2005 L.A. door canvassers' union drive, could have kept at canvassing for a full four years.

I met Miller in June, 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.

Christian is a skinny, long-haired drawler with wiry, sparse chin-scrabble; once we got to talking, I could also see that Christian must have made a fine canvasser -- soft-spoken but emphatic, he has an easy, direct way with words. He describes himself as a "solid, not spectacular" canvasser. In the course of our meeting he betrayed that modesty only once, with a flash of pride upon mentioning that in all four years, he never missed a weekly quota.

When Christian first started as a door canvasser for the Fund in the summer of '02, all the staff in his office was "brand spankin' new." He would ultimately outlast every one of them. When winter rolled around, Christian threw on a pair of thermals under his campaign t-shirt and jeans, and kept at it; and kept at it again the next year. It's hard to overstate how long four years is in terms of canvassing - for most, making it through a whole summer is a feat of endurance.

I was impressed; Christian shrugged.

"The money was enough to live on, and keep me from going further into debt, and I enjoyed the work," Miller says .... "I was able to experience the benefits immediately--just by going up to people's homes and putting these issues on their radar."

There's an important clarification to make here: as a "solid, not spectacular" canvasser who hit every weekly quota, Christian was making significantly more money (hour-by-hour) than any of those above him in his office. Which is to say, he was making a living wage.

    - / -

Now let's talk about leadership.

The FFPIRG model places a high value on leadership, and managers constantly encourage it among staff - inasmuch as "leadership" means commitment to the principles and structure of the FFPIRG model itself. About 15% or more of all new recruits are immediately encouraged to take on 'leadership positions' -- like 'Field Manager' and 'Assistant Director,' jobs that go beyond canvassing and into office administration. In other words: significant increases in work hours for marginal increases in pay.

As Christian astutely observes, "essentially, you buy into the system."
Christian wasn't buying - again and again, he'd refuse to be promoted.    

"For 40 hours a week I would do anything they wanted -- help out in the office, train new people, I don't care," says Christian. "But I wasn't going to work any longer -- particularly not for an extra five dollars a day."

Christian uses his current girlfriend, Tiff, as an illustrative example of the soundness of this decision. Tiff came on in 2004, several years into Christian's tenure, and was almost immediately recruited to be a `Field Manager.'

"She was the most efficient field manager I'd ever seen," he says, "and she made that summer a blast for everyone involved."

And she was working 60 to 70 hour weeks. A canvass day entails more than just four hours of canvassing -- there is a training, transportation to the site, and then a post-canvass processing period. Field managers come earlier and stay later to help with administration. On top of that, they're asked to volunteer on weekend and after-work events; often times, this extra commitment is not posed as a question.

"The directors make you feel like you're not being a part of the team if you're not working off the clock," Christian says.

But he hugged the ground floor of the canvass a 40 hours a week. This is not to say that he was refusing to invest himself in the cause. In fact, he'd often spend his nights doing research on the issue that he was working on. The Fund does not educate its canvassers about their campaigns; for the most part, canvassers are supplied only with their scripted `raps.'

"So as a result they have a lot of people going out there knowing how to say three sentences and ask for money," he says.

By learning about the issues on his own, Christian was able to `go beyond the rap' and actually talk with people about the particularities of the cause he was raising money for. It wasn't long before he figured upon the unspoken fact that the money they raised was really just going to cover their own overhead - but this in and of itself didn't diminish his enthusiasm for the job: "regardless of where the money is going beyond paying my wages, this is still stuff that these people might not think about otherwise."

By treating the canvass itself as his commitment, Christian defined his job around the interactions he'd have with the people he'd meet, rather than the faceless campaign organization itself. By ensuring that the job fit into his lifestyle, rather than overtake it, he was making sure that he would continue to want to do it. By staying on year after year, he was turning it into a stable, rewarding career - almost what you could call a profession.

Christian was beginning to break the FFPIRG model.

Ironically, after a few years of turning down "leadership roles," Christian slowly began to assume a different kind of leadership.

"I got sick and tired of coming into work and finding that somebody who'd been busting their ass for months was suddenly gone," he says.

Christian told me he lost count of how many passionate kids had found themselves quickly burning out under the "leadership roles" - many of them who wanted to keep canvassing, but couldn't sustain the lifestyle that came with it. Furthermore, they were often under the misconception that they could not stop Field Managing - that their leadership role was permanent, that they had no choice but to participate in the volunteer events after work and on weekends, and that their only option was to increase their commitment or quit.

Miller became [something like] a protective uncle to many of the younger canvassers, helping them navigate the Fund's complicated work and pay policies and advising them on how to pace themselves.

By 2004, long before any romance blossomed between him and Tiff, Christian had made a few friends. Those friends then made friends with each other and others. Even as Tiff and the other Field Managers among them were burning out, their commitments to the office grew stronger.  

Those commitments even outlasted their bosses, several times over. The Fund constantly rotates its management staff, switching directors out of their offices at the end of April and the end of August. "They call it being 'geographically flexible,'" Christian says, noting that this also keeps directors from forming personal connections with their staff or outside of their jobs.

But the Los Angeles office was no longer a rootless, rotating swirl of people:

By 2005, [they] had seven canvassers with more than six months of experience--all of them close friends. "Four of us had been there over a year, we had 11 years between the seven of us, and the average age was 28--which is practically unheard of," Miller says.

Though Christian acknowledges that the friendships he made over the course of the four years accumulated and helped congeal the group, he staunchly denies that he was its `ringleader.'  "Everyone was staying for everyone else."

This was the group that would ultimately take a stand against the Fund. They would spend more than a year fighting for a union contract, maintaining group solidarity, and enduring hostile confrontation from management. But why--when the easiest thing to do was just to quit, when in fact the Fund's culture is predicated upon constant and ultimately total attrition, and when all their managers insisted that the way things are is just the way things always have been and always should be--would they put themselves through this ordeal?

"People don't form a union because they don't like the work," Christian says as a matter-of-fact. "They unionize because they like the job, and want to ensure that they can keep doing it."

Tags: Fundraising, grassroots, Labor, PIRG, TheFund, union-busting, Unions (all tags)



PIRG is connected to Nader

I once interviewed there during my senior year of college, and I wasn't impressed. They only offered to pay $18500. On top of that, during the day of my "interivew", they had me on the streets of DC "postcarding". I thought the organization was extremely ineffective.

They did offer to pay back student loans, but really the organization seemed to be a joke. Their pay was really, really crappy. And ultimately I was glad that they didn't offer me a job.

I'm surprised how anyone can make ends on a PIRG salary. I wonder how people in DC could make such money and still pay the rent. I guess that a lot of probably got assistance from their praents.

All in all I don't have a good impression of PIRG. You have to be a specific type of person--someone who can endure crappy pay, shitty working conditions, long hours, and futile tasks like "postcarding". It probably works well for someone interested in social policy, who is willing to endure a year or two of shitty pay, before going to graduate and/or law school. For the rest of the people, especially for those without parents to financially support them, it's a job to avoid.

But this is par for the course in regard to any organization associated with Nader. Anyone working for anything connected to Nader has had to endure long working hours with crappy pay and horrible working conditions. So this doesn't suprise me.

by jiacinto 2006-08-21 09:06AM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvassers' Union (pt2): How Los Angeles B

I've been reading the blogs for a long time, and I want to say I think this is the easily the most important series of posts I've ever read.

by Bob Brigham 2006-08-21 01:51PM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvassers' Union

Actually, if memory serves, Kos and Armstrong hit on this as a general concept in CTG.  The way that liberal/progressive organizations use and abuse young activists, ultimately forcing them to give up and go find a job that PAYS.  

They said that model must go.  

And they're right.  I'd love to work for a non-profit or public interest organization in a finance role.  But they pay for shit.

by JJCPA 2006-08-21 06:03PM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvassers' Union

I know of a couple "non-profit," supposedly "progressive public interest organizations". And a lot of them treat their employees like dirt and pay them horribly. The biggest mistake of my life was taking a job with one, moving to another state, and trying the position. After three weeks I quit because of various issues. I ended up losing thousands of dollars and a year of my professional life that I could have spent pursuing a real career.

These groups are good for the type of person who wants to work for a year or so before going to law school, graduate school, or some other form of post-graduate education. Otherwise it is all but impossible to make a living on these salaries.

Read what I said about PIRG above. I would NEVER work for them. And like anything connect to Nader people at that organization end up working long hours in crappy conditions for shitty pay.

by jiacinto 2006-08-21 06:08PM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvassers' Union (pt2): How Los Angeles B

Totally with you there. Young people need to be able to support themselves on activist salaries or else they have to sell-out or be lucky enough to have rich parents. Then we loose a whole base of activist youth from low income families and those are the kinds of activists that we desperately need more of, not less of.

And I'm starting to hear about progressive groups that will do something about it (don't worry I'll come to MyDD with the details).

by Our Gal in Brooklyn 2006-08-22 11:36AM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvassers' Union (pt2): How Los Angeles B

I agree that figuring out how the left can recruit/retain more talent and more diverse talent is a valuable discussion.  However, I would like to add some perspective to this conversation about salaries and how that factors in.  

Compared to what the average American earns, these canvassing jobs appear to pay somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.  

According to, the starting pay for canvass directors ranges from $23K-$25K.

According to recent median household income stats, if two earners in a household are earning $23-$25K each (a combined household income of $46K-$50K), that puts them squarely in the middle of the country in terms of household income.  Presumably, your salary doing this canvass work increases at least slightly as you gain seniority.  Once your household income crosses $55K/year, you're in the fourth-highest income quintile.  

Thus, it seems like a stretch to say these are salaries upon which one is incapable of supporting oneself, since it appears as if most of the country gets by on about this much $ or less.

I think the real question isn't whether these salaries are enough to survive on, the real question is whether these salaries are enough to recruit enough appropriately talented people to do political work, considering that you're competing for talent with the for-profit sectors of the economy.  

by dal27 2006-08-22 12:35PM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvassers' Union (pt2): How Los Angeles B

I don't think the 'real question' here has much, if anything, to do with salary level. Remember, Christian was content to earn a living wage. On the other hand, the question of whether FFPIRG benefits the progressive movement to force its lowest workers into working 70 hours a week--or in the case of GCI and Greencorps, 90 to 100 hours a week--is certainly at hand.

The question of whether the organization has a (legal, moral) responsibility to pay its workers on time and reimburse them fairly for out-of-pocket expenses should not even have to be asked. And yet...

by greg bloom 2006-08-22 12:48PM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvassers' Union (pt2): How Los Angeles B

I think Dal 27's point is a legitimate response to the previous comments - which predominantly revolve around the claim that these salaries are below a living wage.  

You might be making the point that because campaign work or non-profit work inevitably means long long work weeks that the salary should begin at $30 or $40 thousand a year.

Anyway, I think you are trying to get at a point more substantive than late payroll.  Certainly the comment from Dal27 was a legitimate point which you seem to be trying to side-step.

by Orlando 2006-08-22 01:38PM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvassers' Union (pt2): How Los Angeles B


Well, 50k for two earners is usually livable.  But that is 50k with a reasonable (say 60 hours per week including commute) work week, where you can do things like cook your own dinner.

If you are working 70-90 hours a week, and being asked to relocate to a new state on top of that, suddenly you have all kinds of expenses that most people in "typical" jobs don't.  Top on the list is probably eating out for far too many meals.  But there are countless little things that add up, from moving expenses to ATM fees.  So I don't think comparing with typical jobs is really giving the true story.  (and let's not even talk about the true hourly rate...)

by dansomone 2006-08-22 02:04PM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvassers' Union (pt2): How Los Angeles B

I think Dal 27's point is a legitimate response to the previous comments

So do I -- my comment was not a quibble with dal so much as trying to actually steer the issue away from salary level. On the other hand...

You might be making the point that because campaign work or non-profit work inevitably means long long work weeks that the salary should begin at $30 or $40 thousand a year.

Actually, I think that campaign/non-profit work inevitably means long -- but not long long -- work weeks. There is a big difference between even 60 and 70 hours a week; as for 80-90...well, like I said, if your model requires 12 hours of work, seven days a week, your model is broken. Most of those obscenely long work hours would simply be unnecessary if administrative staff was professional, if technological infrastructure was kept up to some basic standard, and if recruitment demands were reduced (by reducing turnover).

And, finally, I welcome anyone into this discussion who cares to explain how the progressive movement gains by pressuring already-overworked canvassers to hand out postcards all day on a Saturday.

by greg bloom 2006-08-22 02:36PM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvassers' Union (pt2): How Los Angeles B

"Most of those obscenely long work hours would simply be unnecessary if administrative staff was professional..."


I honestly am not sure if more professional administrative staff would make a difference.  The admin folks are only as good as good as the data coming in from the field, and when 1/2 of your timesheets and requisitions are wrong or late, it doesn't matter how professional your staff is.  

I think the change that has to be made is broader then that; when admin is squeezed into a half a day at the end of a week long training, well, why are we suprised when checks are late or wrong?  I think it gets back to the idea that everyone should do everything; directors are expected to be good at administrative stuff, canvassing, training, recruitment, and 1000000 other things.  No one is good at everything, and the lack of flexibility hurts.

Now excuse me while my head explodes.  :P

by dansomone 2006-08-22 07:09PM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvassers' Union (pt2): How Los Angeles B

As a former canvass director I can tell you that NO director at the Fund started out with a salary above $21,000, and furthermore "yearly salary" includes the extra three months of training before you begin working. When I was a director, I made a "salary" of $19,000 over a 15 month period for 70+ hours of work per week. My canvassers made much less. On average a good canvasser would make about $1000-1400 monthly depending on the campaign and the state wage laws.

I worked for the Fund because I believed in what I was doing, and I liked informing people about important issues. There were a number of reasons why I discontinued working for the Fund, one of which was that I had no life outside of it. Working 6 days a week (usually) 8am-10pm is not only exhausting but it then leaves no time for a (sometimes neccessary) extra job. I couldn't live on less than $20,000 and pay my bills, and student loans. At the time, I was preparing to go to grad school, which wasn't supported and actually looked down upon because once you work for the Fund as a director they try to keep you forever. This would be nice if it was a job with a salary I could actually afford to live on as an adult.

You are also assuming in your comments above that most people/canvassers are two person earners per household. Most people that work for the fund are young and single and therefore will come no where close to having a household income near 45k.

Money was definitely an issue, and unless you come from money, or are content eating crap for food and living in a run-down apartment, or having 10 roommates to help pay the bills I would not say that we were living a "middle class" life.
I loved the work I did, but I didn't want it to be my whole life, which it was. The canvassers at the Fund are the most hardworking people I know. Hard work for little pay, and lots of stress. They are the heart of the organization. The fund has become an excellent fund raising machine, and I admire many things about it, but in order to sustain itself, and it's reputation the organization needs to start practicing what it preaches and take care of the employees.

by adamterando 2006-08-22 05:25PM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvassers' Union (pt2): How Los Angeles B

What is your email? I have a story that I'd like to share with you. Mine is

by jiacinto 2006-08-22 09:14PM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvassers' Union (pt2): How Los Angeles B

From the Fund web site it says that canvass directors earn $25,250 per year, staff are elgibile for college loan assistance, and those in their second year get a 401K.  

Maybe this is all new since you left, but it either suggests that we are not getting all the information here or that things are changing.

by Orlando 2006-08-23 04:58AM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvassers' Union (pt2): How Los Angeles B
A former Fund director sends this my way:
take 3k out of the 25k for health care, and then tick off whatever it was for the 401k-basically you have no money left over. outside of senior staff, few directors were about to do this.
This director quit about a year ago; but there's no indication that anything has changed.
by greg bloom 2006-08-23 05:53AM | 0 recs
Thank you for posting this

I just cancelled my $15 Monthly "membership" to PIRG, and upped my Democracy Bond by the same amount.  Glad I took the time to read this.

by Pitin 2006-08-22 10:06PM | 0 recs
Re: Thank you for posting this

I think we are getting off topic here by going off on a PIRG bashing tangent. First of all, The FUND is not PIRG, it is a separate organization that was created by the pirgs so that it could expand out and help other non profits raise awareness and money. Secondly, The PIRGs and the FUND are great organizations that do SO MANY good things for the public interest and the environment. Although I was unhappy with the hours and the pay, I don't regret a minute of the work I did for the FUND. I'm proud of all that I and my office accomplished. The problem is that the FUND is such a well run funraising machine, and so good at putting the money where it needs to go that it underpays the people that make it run. I would never say it is a bad organization that treats its workers like crap. I would say that the FUND is run so tightly that it is difficult to be a content employee unless you have little or no bills to pay. I would never tell people not to continue supporting them. I still give money to PIRG and other canvassers that come to my door, and I always will because they are working hard for a good cause and they make things happen. The FUND just needs to find a way to better pay the employees. It's also difficult because people (that canvassers come across while canvassing) often expect them to work for free or are less likely to donate if they think their donation is going to someone's salary rather than directly to a cause. Withdrawing support for the cause is no solution. We have so many things to thank the PIRGs for.

by adamterando 2006-08-23 05:52PM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvassers' Union (pt2): How Los Angeles B

The FUND is the organization that was created to handle the monetary side of the PIRGs. As anyone who has worked with the PIRGs can tell you, the paycheck comes from the FUND. Mine sure did.

Checks were regularly late. I worked for weeks before I finally got my paycheck. And that was because we were Boston for a training and it was hard to make an excuse when we were just blocks away from their office. We arrived in Boston having worked for several weeks with no pay. Some, like myself, had been paying for child care without receiving a check yet. That means when we got to Boston, we had no money. No money for a cab/subway ride to the place we were staying, no money for food, etc.

Getting reimbursements was a nightmare. I'd been working somewhere else for months before I finally got my reimbursements.

I was salaried, which meant they wanted to milk you for every hour possible. They wanted you there from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Leaving to get my daughter from day care was a nightmare.

I was a member of the professional staff, which means I made about $23K/year. That was more than many made, as they paid me more because I didn't use the insurance (who needed their crappy insurance when I had excellent benefits through my husband's retail job).

The people they hired to supervise us were for the most part a joke. The good ones left after a short time there.

I told them if things didn't get better with the troubles I was having with them, I was going to quit. I was told shortly after that I was fired.

I waited and waited for my paycheck, which didn't arrive for 2 weeks. I then contacted them and quoted labor laws showing they were in violation by waiting so long to get me my paycheck. The law stated they owed me pay for each of the days between the day I was should have received the check and when I did. They finally cut me another check, although it was not for the correct amount. Since I was happily busy with my new job (which also meant 60-70 hours per week, but was paid hourly with overtime), I didn't have the chance to pursue the last of the money.

I would definitely never work for the FUND or any of its groups (PIRGs, New Voters Project, etc.).

by horsetail 2006-09-22 11:00PM | 0 recs


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