The Canvassers' Union (pt3): The Long Road to Union

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 - in the entire PIRG/Fund world, thousands of would-be progressive leaders pass through every year. There is a new book that argues that 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...

The Fund for Public Interest Research launched its first nationwide street canvass in the summer of 2001. It was a campaign for Greenpeace.

"The Los Angeles Greenpeace fundraising office was among the highest grossing and most efficient ... offices in the country. [Its directors] had received high-ranking reviews and praise by both superiors and staff." But in January of 2002, that office was closed down.

Christian Miller was hired just six months later onto the L.A. door office. All of his co-workers were as new as him. In the spring of 2003, the Fund re-opened the street office, across town from the door office; in the course of his first year, Christian had never known the street office existed in the first place. Shortly thereafter, a friend pointed him to a January 2002 LA Weekly article entitled "Busting Unions." It reported that the 2002 Greenpeace canvassers had filed for a union petition, citing "consistent failure to reimburse staffers for out-of-pocket expenses... and its denial of promised health benefits."

"That made some sense of the things I had seen in the last year-and-a-half," says Miller.

He was referring to a pattern of office policies, managerial logics, and administrative mistakes that always seemed to disadvantage the canvassers.
"But I still thought that [unionizing] was a drastic step," he says.

He calls this period "the excuse mode."

"Like ok -- they're a non-profit, they'll come up short a few cents here [on reimbursements], or maybe the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing [on health insurance]. And I could see how a union drive would be unbecoming for a non-profit." 

Over the course of the next two years, as a sizable group of long-term canvassers came to work in the LA office from season to season, Christian's excuse mode would soon come to an end. (Please read "How Los Angeles Broke the PIRG/Fund Model" for more detail.) Ultimately, he and the other door canvassers would return their attention to the story of the short-lived L.A. street office union drive - to learn from their mistakes.

    - / -

When I asked Christian ... for specific issues that drove them, they were either simple complaints -- missed paychecks for extra work days, improperly-calculated reimbursements -- or very complicated plunges into the [Fund's] elaborate system of quota levels and attendance requirements.

Christian always chose his co-workers' struggles as examples. Most prominently, there was Mike, who started a year after Christian in summer '03 (and who would ultimately be the only other canvasser to make it all the way to summer '06, when the Fund closed the office down).

"Mike was 31 -- not young, but when he started he was the most enthusiastic canvasser I'd seen all year." He took a "leadership position" as a Field Manager, and was soon the best trainer in the office, always showing up to work well before the day began. "So excited to be meeting new people and training new people -- even if they didn't stick around for long, they went away with a positive idea of what it means to work at a non-profit."

To set the scene for Mike's "tipping point," Christian gave me approximately eight hundred words of explication of the Fund's sick day pay policy - I still can't really parse it myself, so I'll spare you all the brunt of it. Let's see if this final bit of the transcript can distill the issue:

CM: So your base pay is say 65 dollars for the day -- that's what you get for sick pay. If you're sick one day, but you raise over quota on the other days, [your bonus] gets deducted from your sick pay. So if you raise 180, and bonus 65 dollars, you lose your sick day pay completely. ... Now, to get paid for a holiday, you've gotta work the day before and the day after the holiday. So on Memorial Day [2004], Mike worked the Friday before, and the following Tuesday he was sick. So the director said that's ok, he can use that as a sick day. In the few days after that, he bonused enough to basically take all the pay out of his sick day - and apparently that meant he lost the pay for Memorial Day.
GJB: What?!
CM: Yeah. So it's like blam - you lose. No one explained that to him, no one ever explains. They wait until your check comes and see if you notice. And of course he notices, he's not stupid, plus at our wages - that's money he needs.

Mike spent weeks waiting for a response in regards to what he assumed to be missing pay. Eventually, he called high enough into the Fund management to get an answer: the foregone vacation day pay was not missing, but actually claimed as office policy. Mike almost quit on the spot; Christian and the office's director for that season (who also thought this policy was "bullshit") convinced him to stay.

"But it was never the same after that. In a year, Mike went from being a huge asset to the office to someone who came into work just on time and did the bare minimum necessary to hold onto his job."

Playing PIRGer's advocate, I do my best Stephen Colbert: "But come on, wasn't Mike just grinding his axe on a bunch of small beans? He's saving the environment - he should be happy to get paid at all!"

Christian snorts - he's actually heard that one before.
"We're not talking about a lot of money, that's for sure. A couple days pay here, some gas money there--but if they'd just follow through on promises, they'd make people know that they're respected and wanted. If they'd invest a little into their canvassers, they'd get such a huge return. Instead they make it clear that canvassers are just like toilet paper, use `em up and discard `em."

Toilet paper is an image that Christian often employs to describe the Fund's conception of its employees, and to great effect. The basic skills needed for a worker to run an effective canvass are acquirable in a few hours of training, if that. This means that the organization has little incentive to care whether its workers stick around. Canvassers can be used up and discarded with ease - and if the only ones who do stick around are willing to be (pardon the image) shat upon consistently... well, that just helps keep the shit flowing, doesn't it?

    - / -

In the fall of 2004, a large majority of the Fund for Public Interest Research management staff took "leaves of absence" from the non-profit organization, and went to work for Grassroots Campaigns Inc's MoveOn PAC Leave No Voter Behind campaign.

"It was like a ghost town in the administrative office," Christian says. "The entire organization was on autopilot." The remaining directors pressured Christian's close friend Tiff to take on the role of "Lead Field Manager," a position that no one had heard of before. They insisted that no one else could fill the role, and that the office needed her.

Tiff was already burnt out from a year of FMing, and now she was expected to chip in another 10 to 20 more hours a week. She was put on a salary that was no higher than before, sometimes even less. But the group of canvassers who had worked together for six months or more was now seven strong. Christian and Tiff were on the verge of a romantic relationship. Working together, the canvassers helped pull the office through to winter. Their frustration with the management grew all along, and tension escalated into 2005.

In April 2005, the L.A. door canvassers received their 8th director in twelve months. Before he'd even fully started in his job, he switched the office over to a new canvass for the Human Rights Campaign.

"The first day, Tiff came in below quota. Second day she came in below quota again," Christian says, shrugging. "It happens." Normally, there are a number of ways that canvassers (especially long-term ones) can buffer themselves against bad weeks - other canvassers can share their over-quota take, or management can offer to change the canvasser to a different campaign.

"But [the new director] takes her aside and says, `if you miss quota again, we're gonna have to figure out what to do with you.'" The canvassers had been in the job long enough to know that this was a veiled threat that she would be fired.

Tiff pulled it off that week - but a line had been crossed between management and canvassers. After months of being pressured to "step up for the team," a couple bad days on an unfamiliar campaign had threatened Tiff's job.

Christian says, noting that this was the first time the canvassers showed open solidarity. "They realized from our reaction it would have been a bad idea to get rid of her that week, and we realized that if they were that anxious to get rid of Tiff, then that only meant bad things for the rest of us."

If we wanted to hold onto our jobs, not unionizing was not an option.

    - / -

In 2002, the L.A. street office had made two major mistakes, Christian explained to me. First off, the primary force behind the drive was the two directors; they were easily disposable. Second of all, they alerted the Fund to their intentions immediately, and almost as immediately the Fund simply closed shop.

The L.A. door office wasn't going to make that mistake again. The canvassers met with the Local Teamsters 848 and a petition was signed on the spot.  

The Fund fought the petition with a series of weak feints (first saying that it was invalid because it didn't include the street office, which was located across town and staffed with people who had a different job; then arguing that it was invalid because it didn't include the summer canvass recruits who hadn't even begun working yet) but the vote was scheduled for June 9th. Despite the intense efforts of management to convince the new recruits to vote against the union, the office voted 13-2 in favor.

After their near-unanimous votes to unionize, the L.A. Fund employees thought they'd done the hardest part.

"We thought that's it, it's a done deal," Christian says, shaking his head. Hardly. The Fund delayed all summer on agreeing to a contract negotiation meeting, and in the meantime instituted stricter work policies. Tiff was fired abruptly in July; the canvassers immediately filed charges; Tiff was rehired six hours later. Three weeks later, the Fund successfully fired her on a complication that is even more complex and nonsensical than the sick pay policy; I will spare the reader entirely. Suffice it for Christian to say that they'd mistaken Tiff for the ringleader; the other canvassers' resolve was strengthened.

Soon, the office was placed under a hiring freeze - "They said there were reports that we were discouraging new recruits to work here. Which doesn't make any sense -- in order for us to have a union, we need workers. Why would we be discouraging people from working here?"

The line repeated by management was: "Because you have no trust in the Fund, you can no longer be trusted."

    - / -

"My life would not have really been changed if we'd gotten a contract," Christian told me. "I would have gotten real sick days - that's about it. It's not because we wanted more pay, we realize we're not going to get rich working here. And in a way, we needed a union the least of any other office out there, because we had enough age and experience to know when we're being taken advantage of, and how to stand up for ourselves. We just wanted some, you know..."

"Accountability," I suggested.
Christian nodded, but then paused.

"Actually, 'accountability' was originally a strong word. Originally, the word was 'consistency.' At the time we thought: for all the good work our employer does, they need to learn how to treat their employees. And it needed to happen if for no other reason than to set an example for other offices to follow, so they could be a better place to work in following summer or winters."

In the course of the next year, through a prolonged and doomed struggle, their cause would deepen from consistency to accountability.

Tags: Fundraising, GCI, grassroots, Labor, master/slave, PIRG, TheFund, union-busting (all tags)

Comments

4 Comments

Is it just me...

...or does this stuff read like the script of a soap opera?

You could package it all up in book form and call it, "How Not To Run A Business"

by KB 2006-08-23 11:51AM | 0 recs
Re: The Canvassers' Union (pt3): The Long Road to

Good post. We chatted over email about an experience I had with a similiar non-profit organization. These stories are unfortunate. It is horrible how these organizations use and abuse idealistic young people.

by jiacinto 2006-08-23 04:08PM | 0 recs
Great post yet again

Will there be future segments, or is this a 3-part series?

by Pitin 2006-08-24 07:34PM | 0 recs
Re: Great post yet again

Yes, two to three more segments. I had meant to have one ready for today, but at the last minute I've made plans to cover next week's New Organizing Institute for Personal Democracy Forum so this series will have to stretch into late next week.

by greg bloom 2006-08-25 04:01AM | 0 recs

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