Why the Fund/PIRG and Grassroots Campaigns Inc went so wrong for so long

It has been more than six months since I last wrote about this subject. Recent events warrant an epilogue of sorts. This was cross-posted from Future Majority.

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.

The Fund is also being sued by a class of its former employees for systemic labor infractions.

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.

There's more...

The Canvassers Union (conclusion): Toward the Reform of the Fund/PIRG

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 - through the entire PIRG/Fund world, thousands of would-be progressive leaders pass every year.

Part Two of the series introduced the Los Angeles door canvassers who "broke the Fund/PIRG model" by staying with their jobs for the long-term.

Part Three traced the path that led them to petition and vote for a union.

Part Four introduced the Los Angeles Telephone Outreach Project employees, who raise the "real money" in the Fund/PIRG model, and who followed the callers' lead toward a union.

Part Five is about how each of these unions was busted by the Fund management.

Part Six is about a series of questions raised by the callers and canvassers about the viability of the PIRG/Fund corporate complex.

Lockse, an 8 year PIRG/Fund veteran, wrote a compelling "tough love" response to these incidences here.

This post reports on the conclusion of the LA callers and canvassers' saga. It reflects upon the broader possibility for change that is revealed and made urgent by the stories of the LA Fund offices.

I realize that this issue is not quite at the top of MyDD readers' must-read lists, perhaps because it is about a group of people who are not in the media, not in office or fighting for office, and not online. But think of it this way: if the blogosphere is the intelligentsia of the nascent progressive movement, these fundraisers are its toiling proletariat. Vital, but nearly invisible; in dire need of empowerment. This issue might not be as glamorous as setting the progressive agenda for the next two years, but it shapes the generation of our activists and affects the health of our grassroots for the decades to come...

There's more...

The Canvassers Union (p6): the Questions

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 - through the entire PIRG/Fund world, thousands of would-be progressive leaders pass every year.

Part Two of the series introduced the Los Angeles door canvassers who "broke the Fund/PIRG model" by staying with their jobs for the long-term.

Part Three traced the path that led them to petition and vote for a union.

Part Four introduced the Los Angeles Telephone Outreach Project employees, who raise the "real money" in the Fund/PIRG model, and who followed the callers' lead toward a union.

Part Five is about how each of these unions was busted by the Fund management.

Lockse, an 8 year PIRG/Fund veteran, wrote a compelling "tough love" response to these incidences here.

This post is about the questions that the callers and canvassers are asking about the PIRG/Fund network. It is a long list of questions, some of which are answered -- many of which are not.

I realize that this issue is not quite at the top of MyDD readers' must-read lists, perhaps because it is about a group of people who are not in the media, not in office or fighting for office, and not online. But think of it this way: if the blogosphere is the intelligentsia of the nascent progressive movement, these fundraisers are its toiling proletariat. Vital, but nearly invisible; in dire need of empowerment. This issue might not be as glamorous as setting the progressive agenda for the next two years, but it shapes the generation of our activists and affects the health of our grassroots for the decades to come...

There's more...

The Canvassers' Union (p5): The Fund Busts the Unions

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 - through the entire PIRG/Fund world, thousands of would-be progressive leaders pass every year.

Part Two of the series introduced the Los Angeles door canvassers who "broke the Fund/PIRG model" by staying with their jobs for the long-term.
Part Three traced the path that led them to petition and vote for a union.
Part Four introduced the Los Angeles Telephone Outreach Project employees, who raise the "real money" in the Fund/PIRG model, and who followed the callers' lead toward a union.

This post is about how each of these unions died before being born.

I realize that this issue is not quite at the top of MyDD readers' must-read lists, perhaps because it is about a group of people who are not in the media, not in office or fighting for office, and not online. But think of it this way: if the blogosphere is the intelligentsia of the nascent progressive movement, these fundraisers are its toiling proletariat. Vital, but nearly invisible; in dire need of empowerment. This issue might not be as glamorous as setting the progressive agenda for the next two years, but it shapes the generation of our activists and affects the health of our grassroots for the decades to come...

There's more...

The Canvassers Union (p4): the Calling Room

Last summer, I reported on the saga of two Los Angeles offices of the Fund for Public Interest Research ("the Fund") that voted to unionize and were subsequently shut down -- In These Times magazine published the story (August 18th, "Do You Have a Minute For...?") and I expanded upon it here (P1, P2, P3). Then someotherthingshappened, and the second half of "The Canvassers Union" was delayed.

But, now we're back! I will finish the story this week, with one post a day.

As I noted in the first post of the series, the Fund/PIRG network is perhaps the single largest employer of young progressive activists in the country. The FFPIRG model of activism has recently been the subject of deep criticism, under the charge that it is "strangling progressive politics in America." I realize that this issue is not quite at the top of MyDD readers' must-read lists, perhaps because it is about a group of people who are not in the media, not in office or fighting for office, and not online. But think of it this way: if the blogosphere is the intelligentsia of the nascent progressive movement, these fundraisers are its toiling proletariat. Vital, but nearly invisible; in dire need of empowerment. This issue might not be as glamorous as setting the agenda for the next two years, but it shapes the generation of our activists and affects the health of our grassroots for the decades to come...

 -/-

Los Angeles has been problematic for the Fund for Public Interest Research.

With its wealthy, green communities and temperate climate, Los Angeles attracted a group of Fund canvassers who lasted from summer to winter and back--unlike most other cities in which the Fund runs canvass offices, where staff turnover in the course of year is almost total. These canvassers became friends; they learned their jobs inside and out; they also opted not to take higher positions in the Fund, for which they would have to work 80-hour weeks and ultimately be transferred out of the city. They just wanted to canvass. (See the second post in this series for this story in full.) And soon enough, for the second time in three years, the Fund's L.A. canvassers decided that they wanted to form a union. (See the third post in this series for that story in full.)

For the Fund, this was a problem--and this time, the problem had another problem, a much bigger problem, stacked right on top.

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Fund/PIRG/GCI: the Incorporation of the Progressive Grassroots

So, the Right has the money, and the Left has the People Power. We all know that's how the game is stacked. And ever since that whole shake-up in the 60s, when both sides got their boats rocked, the Right's been building this big machine and throwing money into it. Turns out they're pretty good at it! And the Left? We've been out knockin' doors, talkin' to the People, givin' them the Power--that's how we do. That's how the story goes.

And that's why this little book released last month is a big deal. In Activism, Inc., Dana Fisher of Columbia University traces the history of the canvass--from a vital grassroots GOTV tool of local politicians, to an innovative tactic for burgeoning advocacy/lobbying groups in the 70s, to the big-box fundraising industry that sprawled out through the 90s and continues to grow today. Fisher's book is billed as the first formal study of the modern fundraising canvass ever published. (She recently published a piece in the American Prospect that more or less summarizes her argument.)

Mike Connery interviewed Fisher over at Future Majority last week about the canvasses described in her book. "This is not what democracy looks like, and it is not what progressive politics should look like either," he wrote in a post accompanying the podcast. But how can door-knocking to drum up People Power look like anything other than democracy?

Well, Fisher's book starts from the fact much of the progressive canvass world has been consolidated under one roof -- acronymically speaking, that would be FFPIRG/GCI -- the Fund for Public Interest Research and its network, including most of the PIRGs, Telefund, and Grassroots Campaigns Inc (GCI), a conglomerate that altogether is the single largest employer of "progressive activists" in the country.* (I wrote about Fund/PIRG/GCI's shared campaign model here in the "Strip-Mining the Grassroots" series.) Fisher then takes the time to do what no one has bothered to do in decades: ask these canvassers about their work. Fisher's conclusion is announced rather boldly right there in the book's subtitle:

How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America

There's more...

Operation Democracy: MoveOn/GCI's Crisis of Leadership Continues

"We must give ourselves the permission to fail."

That is the lesson that my dearest college professor most indelibly imparted to me: you're gonna get it wrong before you get it right. (I said it to myself every morning for a year, as I learned the lesson the hard way...) But eventually, that permission must expire--or the wrong lessons are learned.

In 2004, MoveOn ran its first massive field campaign, Leave No Voter Behind; the campaign was subcontracted to Grassroots Campaigns Inc. Things went wrong, as things always will on a campaign -- and then things got worse, as things often will on a campaign. But after the initial setbacks, we found ourselves pinned under a crisis of leadership in which GCI betrayed the good faith of its employees, and MoveOn's members, in order to protect its contract. This move apparently worked: MoveOn rehired GCI to relaunch a field campaign.

I only began writing the series on Leave No Voter Behind when I had good reason to believe that GCI and MoveOn had simply learned the wrong lessons from the failure of that campaign. I had heard that the damage that GCI wrought in 2004 -- through mismanagement and unprofessional standards -- seemed to be continuing; however, these accounts were still second-hand. That soon changed. For the last two months, I've received a steady stream of emails from veterans of MoveOn/GCI's second and third failed campaign attempts. As far as investigative reporting gigs go, this one was rather easy.

There's more...

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.

There's more...

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.

There's more...

The Canvasser's Union (part 1)

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.


There's more...

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