Why the Fund/PIRG and Grassroots Campaigns Inc went so wrong for so long
by greg bloom, Tue Jun 26, 2007 at 08:34:58 AM EDT
The Fund for Public Interest Research (FFPIR, or 'the Fund,' as it is commonly known) deploys thousands of canvassers each year onto streets and at doors to raise money for dozens of liberal non-profit organizations. Its 'sister' company, Grassroots Campaigns Inc (GCI), has major contracts with the DNC, the ACLU, MoveOn, and the League of Conservation Voters.
Now before we really dive in here, it's important to establish two more facts.
1. FFPIR has already been found in violation of labor law by the California State Labor Commission. You can find the Commission's ruling here (in PDF).
2. Soon after the canvasser class action suit was filed, the Fund changed its labor policies. Reportedly, the policies now ensure that all canvassers get paid at least minimum wage, plus overtime for all hours of work over 40 a week. The policies now ensure its employees have a half hour lunch break, and short breaks during the day. All additional "campaign work" is now made explicitly clear to be volunteer. (Maggie Mead broke this news yesterday, but as they say, she buried the lede.)
It is good to know that the largest direct fundraising apparatus on the Left now adheres to fundamental labor laws. Of course, the sudden and explicit establishment of these policies is also a tacit admission that for many years--up to two decades or more--the largest employer on the Left has been breaking these laws.
How could this have happened for so long?
Why did it change now?
What does it mean for the future of these organizations?
In this piece, I am going to posit some answers to those questions. If you want to learn more about the Fund's operation, about the story of the canvassers who demanded change to it and ultimately filed suit, or about the for-profit sister Grassroots Campaigns Inc, please look to the reporting I did last year on MyDD and DailyKos.
This is a major development, and not just because hundreds of young activists will now be paid a few more dollars an hour. Now a significant part of the Fund/PIRG debate has been settled - won by the people who have been crying foul and calling for change.
But for old times' sake, let's revisit one of the countless instances of this debate - an obscure skirmish on a now-defunct site called the "Student Underground." (Note: this piece was originally assigned by an editor at the new incarnation of the Student Underground, but that incarnation now appears to be defunct as well.)
In 2002, this radical left publication ran a piece called "Practice What You Preach," which focused on the poor working conditions and anti-labor practices of the progressive activist industry. A primary focus of the piece was on the Fund and its PIRG operations.
"The PIRGs go through canvassers like water," wrote Valerie Costa. "They put up signs everywhere advertising the job so there's a constant supply of new and good intentioned workers. Instead of keeping a steady, dedicated workforce by ensuring decent working conditions and benefits, they rely upon misleading advertising...[then] they manipulate the job and the method of compensation so that people will stay and work for at least a week."
Costa added that in Los Angeles a canvass staff had recently tried to unionize, only to be shut down by the Fund.
The comments on this article got hot. People posted reports of working for weeks at below minimum wage; reports of not even receiving these pittance paychecks; reports of misleading recruitment practices and vague, shifting termination policies; reports that the Fund managers "take joy in the failures" of the vast majority of the canvassers who get fired or who quit. A former director reported that "we were trained to, essentially, lie to people," and others confirmed that the working environment was wholly intolerant of dissent. The stories were long, detailed, and filled with that special kind of anger: outrage at hypocrisy.
And then the tone of the discussion changed. New commenters, apparently current or former Fund employees, accused these posters of complaining. Of whining. Of not having the cause truly "in their hearts." Even of being "ideologically motivated,""vengeful whack jobs" seeking to damage the organization and the progressive movement itself.
Several lawyers eventually commented on the thread. They broke down pay stubs and sorted through legal statutes and ultimately confirmed that the canvassers had a solid case, a valid legal basis for filing charges. They expressed surprise that the Fund had been operating this way for so long. They encouraged the canvassers to organize.
Then these lawyers were accused by Fund defenders of being Republican agents "coordinating [an attack] against progressive activists across the U.S."
By the end of the discussion, after hashing and rehashing of official policies and cross-accusations of deception and lies, it's clear that the Fund can often be a frustrating place to work. Beyond that, the issue get murky. And most readers probably limp away with a sour taste in their mouths and a pounding ache in their heads, the light of their good progressive souls having been dimmed a bit.
- / -
What a mess.
Here we have two groups, both comprised of young, progressive activists who want to affect liberal change on a country that they believe sorely needs it. But one group is accusing a major progressive organization of exploitation; essentially, of polluting the progressive environment. The organization's defenders respond that the accusers are weak, whiny--or even worse, saboteurs.
First, let's note the striking and sad parallel between these two groups and, say, a "public interest" activist organization and the major industry that it seeks to regulate. The activists call for reform of the industry, in the name of the public good. The industry can be expected to respond with assertions that everything is fine, that the activist organization is just a radicalized, marginalized few with illegitimate claims and possibly even subversive intentions.
But we've now reached a new point in this discourse. There is no longer a question of whether this is just really hard work that rubs some people the wrong way, or whether something has been wrong with the work itself. The protests have been validated, and the organization has been found to be at significant fault -- first by the California State Labor Commission, and now by the Fund's own new policies enacted in reaction to the lawsuit. (Grassroots Campaigns had nearly identical employment policies as it worked for the DNC and the DCCC, among others; it changed those policies when canvassers protested loudly enough attract attention.)
This having been established, consider the second group - the Fund/PIRG/GCI defenders. Why were progressive activists standing up for an organization that was, in fact, breaking the law? These are not bad people; they too have good, progressive souls. But they felt compelled to demean those who called for change--and in doing so, they unwittingly gave cover to corporate wrongdoing. They became agents of repression.
It is important that we understand what went wrong here.
- / -
Tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of people have been recruited by organizations in the Fund/PIRG/GCI family and the vast majority decided after a few days that this work is not for them. The Fund/PIRG model is built to anticipate this attrition--and as Valerie Costa noted, it casts its net as wide as possible, expecting a very small yield. That small yield consists of people who are looking for more than just an easy job - progressively minded people who want to work for their ideals.
Within a couple of months, most of those people quit too.
Those who do stay on typically have two main traits: a) they are willing to accept without question the premise that the Fund/PIRG/GCI campaigns are overall for the greater good of "the movement," and b) they are willing to submerge their personal interests within the organization for the sake of that greater good. The resulting compound of a) and b) is a potent belief that this enterprise is the vanguard of a social movement to protect the environment, advance human rights, save the world. Those who stay pride themselves on the 'hardness' of their work: their position is not just a job but a lifestyle, in which long work hours for little pay is not only tolerated but glorified.
These organizations are often called "cults," and I find that word to be unhelpful to the discussion -- it distracts, and it alienates. But at a certain point, the similarities become unavoidable. Lockse, an eight year veteran of PIRG/Fund who launched the first American street canvass and helped build GCI, explained it like this on MyDD:
[W]e, PIRGers, do not think of ourselves as managers - we are organizers... And we don't really think of the canvassing and the fundraising as "labor"--it's honorable sacrifice for which we happen to get paid a little bit. And it's great that we get paid--we're doing work that truly good people would volunteer to do out of the true goodness of their hearts. Since we're getting to do it full time and getting paid for it, these jobs are almost a privilege. And there's no more important work than the work that we do, so we have to do it all the time.
By this internal logic, the idea that employees could care about the conditions in which they work as much as the cause for which they are working simply doesn't make sense (and a labor law suit is simply incomprehensible) because the work is not for an employer but for a campaign. A good campaigner does whatever it takes to "win," and those who "can't handle the campaign lifestyle" are expected, even encouraged, to opt themselves out of the campaign.
When this premise is called into doubt (whether it happens in a canvass office, on web sites like Student Underground or MyDD, or on social networks like Facebook where former employees have been organizing) the questioners are accused of being spiteful losers ("pissy whiny bitches," in the colorful parlance of one recent Facebook group) who have way too much time on their hands, time that could be used toward being "part of the solution." Even worse, they are accused of being saboteurs.
This line of attack attempts to rule out the possibility that the critics have the best interests of the progressive movement at heart. It attempts to distract from the conclusion that, if these critics are right, Fund/PIRG/GCI is betraying the progressive movement for the sake of its own collective ego.
In fact, this very reputation has dogged the PIRG campaigns for decades.
But finally, the model has budged.
- / -
"What we're doing isn't extraordinary at all," says Christian Miller. Miller was one of the stewards in the second LA Fund canvasser union, and who has been a driving force in the class action law suit. "In fact," he adds, "it's pretty basic common sense to press this law suit. What's extraordinary is that no one has done this before."
It's not clear what the chances are that the canvassers will win their law suit. Doug Phelps, lord of the PIRG empire, graduate of Harvard Law, is notoriously meticulous--even paranoid--about ensuring that the proper loopholes and runarounds are in place. And as Christian acknowledges, this country's labor laws are not designed to protect workers from an employer that is so willing to compromise its own bottom line in order to maintain power. (Hell, these days they're not designed to protect workers from much at all.)
Even if the class does win -- and in doing so, sets a precedent by which PIRG/Fund/GCI will be more careful to walk the legal line -- this will remain an undemocratic system that is still largely unaccountable to its employees and donors. It is not likely to undertake deeper reforms any time soon.
And yet, in spite of everything, I am optimistic for the future of Fund/PIRG. You can be too!
First remember that this system is not inherently bad -- like most any entity, its prerogative is first and foremost to justify and perpetuate itself. And like many entities, this draws it away from the path of the good. The system has evolved sophisticated mechanisms to expel any elements that threaten this justification and perpetuation, and these mechanisms have been effective for decades. Its crucial resource--the young, inexperienced idealists that respond to its recruitment--are not yet old enough to know what a workplace (or a "grassroots campaign") should be like, and they are too green to know about the bad reputation that these organizations have spread across the progressive movement. PIRG/Fund's status quo has been preserved for years because those who object just opt-out (or are forced out) and they take their objections with them.
But the conditions have changed.
PIRG/Fund doesn't understand the internet all that much - in fact it seems scared of it, and for good reason. The posts on the Student Underground, the Fund for Public Interest Is Lying to You, Non-Profit Watch and many other sites were the opening salvos on a new field in which the participants of Fund/PIRG/GCI operations have common spaces in which to share information and deliberate among themselves. In other words, there's a true grassroots that's growing under these "grassroots campaigns" -- and this growth is increasingly disruptive.
The last two years--with all of the extended online discussions about a series of disastrous campaigns, an egregious union-busting incident and all the damning information that burst out from it--have precipitated the first major change in the PIRG/Fund model in decades. And even beyond minor adjustments to the payscale and canvass schedule, I've been told by employees from many different branches of Fund/PIRG/GCI that they have a newfound ability to "draw boundaries," to go home at 7pm, to get properly reimbursed for campaign expenses, to have their questions answered. If such anecdotes indicate a real trend, and if the trend continues, someday these employees might gain enough institutional respect to be able to have a say in how the institution works.
This ownership is theirs for the taking. Right now, a group of canvassers is turning to the courts in an attempt to forcefully take hold of it. And as long as people keep sharing their experiences, and sustaining an interest in the truth, this window will remain forcibly open. Let the light shine in.