The Canvassers' Union (pt2): How Los Angeles Broke the PIRG/Fund Model
by greg bloom, Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 08:08:01 AM EDT
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."