In Response to the Canvassers' Union

One of these days I'm going to write a post that's all my own, and not a "Response," but right now, I need to respond to the Canvassers' Union series, about the Fund for Public Interest Research and its offices in Los Angeles.

Almost every year in the last five or six years, a group of new recruits somewhere in PIRG/Fund/GCI has tried to organize in demand of better working conditions. We recruit an awful lot of bright kids, and many of them can sense right off the bat: this is not a system in which I can have a say at determining how things run. They think they know how things should be run; management, of course, knows better. So when management hears about the unionizing (and we almost always do) we have our ways of isolating these agitators, dispersing the group, even humiliating their leaders.

It's happened throughout PIRG history. It seems to be happening a lot more these days.
This is different.

First of all, the Los Angeles canvassers and callers were not new recruits. They were long-standing successful employees who, at the very least, understood quite well how things do run.

And that is only the start of the difference.

I heard about the original Los Angeles union drive when I was a campus organizer PIRG in New Jersey. That group in LA was, in fact, new recruits. Their office got shut down, my boss told me it was happening, and I didn't ask her any questions--I didn't sympathize at all with the union organizers. At the time, it was shocking to me that someone would even think about unionizing in this organization.

By the time I heard the rumors about this second union organizing attempt in Los Angeles, I was winding down my career with GCI--and I was no longer shocked.

And now, having read about it in more detail, I'm deeply disappointed. And angry.

But first let me try to explain, from my eight years of experience, the Fund management's mindset on this. (It will not make them happy that I am speaking on their behalf, but hey, they've opted-out of discussing the matter, and I think this should resemble a conversation!) The first thing you need to know to understand the situation is that we, PIRGers, do not think of ourselves as managers - we are organizers. (Even though, once you get down to it, we are precisely managers.) 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.

I write this to explain--but not to justify--the behavior you see here:

"The minute after the firings," Marcy recalls, "the supervisors turned on music in their office and cranked the volume up ... they invited in their friends and opened a box of chocolates to share among them. One of them was bouncing up and down on a yoga ball--this was while we were supposed to be working--and another came in and stuck her tongue out at one of the people who had just been fired."

Frankly, that scene might seem pretty goddamn inexplicable to someone who knows that these are idealistic young liberals working for progressive causes. But I can believe that it happened. (Though the LA canvassers and callers clearly have an axe to grind, it also seems clear that the Fund handed the axe right to them.)

So let me further explain how a Fund manager can rationalize what happened in Los Angeles:

Union-busting is illegal.

We don't bust unions.

After all, the work we're doing isn't really "labor"--it's a campaign, and the campaign is more important than the people who work in it.

People who want to spend their time worrying about 'little things' just shouldn't be on our campaign.

Those people 'don't fit,' and we need to de-recruit them.

And if those people refuse to leave, they have become part of the problem--almost indistinguishable from our enemies.

The "union drive" is really an illegitimate tactic that we must defend against by any means necessary.

Behind this rationalization is a raging pride. The directors are all working as hard and as long as they possibly can, in a model that is 'simple and effective,' and they're doing it all for the greater good--when someone questions that work, or that model, the question is taken as a personal assault. This is a problem in all non-profits, which are notoriously difficult places to unionize. But in PIRG/Fund, it's a big problem. And PIRG/Fund is arguably the largest employer on the Left. So this is a big problem for the Left.

Personally, I actually don't know if a union would be a positive development, for a number of reasons--but every drive that's popped up in the last few years is a huge red flag that something is wrong. And a bigger red flag is the the way the Fund seems to have reacted to the situation it created in Los Angeles. Regardless of whether or not we think canvass offices should have unions, this is unacceptable.

If these canvassers and callers are telling the truth--and I have not yet seen a reason to think they are lying--then the Fund went far beyond de-recruiting.

The Fund used its own members, the very people we are supposedly organizing, against its employees.

The Fund punished those employees by having them call people who they shouldn't have been calling.

And then the Fund cheated those employees out of the wages that they still managed to earn.

There should be a committee formed and audits commenced--better to deal with this seriously than risk the all-too-conceivable alternative, which is to see a similar situation resolved in court. It would jeopardize everything that we've worked for. If these reports are true, people should be fired--and thankful that they are not being charged criminally. And even if it's determined that there was no malicious intent, there is still no justification for such systematic failures. Recklessness or incompetence--both need to be taken seriously.

But I don't think that anyone inside is dealing with this seriously. The company line is that "sites like" are full of distortions and fabrications. There is no serious effort to consider whether the decision rendered by the California State Labor Commission--which held that the Fund was violating labor law by forcing its callers to take unpaid breaks--might be the first of many similar decisions in states across the country. From what I can tell, Fund/PIRG is in a state of denial. Let this be a tough-love attempt to snap them out of it.

In the comments, Chrisdarling suggested that the Fund's clients should be pressured to hold the Fund accountable. Well, Greenpeace (the client that the LA street office was canvassing for in 2002) has already dropped the Fund. And maybe the Sierra Club and the Human Rights Campaign should have to answer for the actions of their subcontractor, but in the end the Fund works primarily with PIRG groups. Of course, PIRG organizations also get funding from major foundations that would certainly disapprove of this sort of behavior...but look, I want to see PIRG de-funded less than anyone writing these blog posts. One would hope that such a measure wouldn't be necessary--that the organization would try to fix itself, because it is committed to progressive values and a professional working environment. But since I've seen no sign of that commitment, I'll be the first one to bring up the funders--if only to demonstrate how serious the stakes are here.

I probably just made a lot of people even more unhappy with me than they were before. Even if they can accept that this happened once, they'd like to think that the problem was contained within Los Angeles. It is so very hard to think critically within the organization about the organization--there really aren't ways to ask "how" or "why?," there is little time to question--because we are at war. It's us vs. them, and you're either with us or against us. In war you follow orders and work hard or you're done--and yes, mistakes are made in war, and people are lost. Just showing up the next day is a victory. Those people who quit just couldn't take it, those people who had ideas for how to make it better just didn't have the experience to know what they're talking about.

In my last post, I quoted Ralph Nader's seminal PIRG manifesto, Action For A Change. Here's more of what he wrote:

When large organizations dictate to their employees, and when their employees, in turn, put ethical standards aside and perform their work like minions--that is a classic prescription for institutional irresponsibility.

I need to make one last point, and it's a really, really important distinction that needs to be made if this discussion is going to be fair and lucid. These sorts of union-busting tactics might sound like WalMart, but Walmart is not the correct analogy to make here. WalMart is a corporation with a clearly defined bottom line, which it is exceptionally good at pursuing, and WalMart's union-busting is done protect that bottom line; fifty cents more per hour per worker means millions of dollars less for WalMart's shareholders. The Fund is not quite the same. The Fund is exceptionally good at pursuing the bottom-line, in terms of people recruited and money raised, yes--but (and this is what confuses people so much about what is going on here) greed is obviously not the motivation.

So much for WalMart.
But we are very much talking about corporate irresponsibility, and there is a prime example that fits perfectly: Enron.

Greed was actually only a secondary motivation for Enron--and that imbalance of priorities is what led to its downfall. (WalMart will never be so foolish.) No, the primary characteristic of Enron was narcissism. Arrogance. The primary motivation was ego, and Enron got so big and so bad-ass because of a very clever idea. And at a certain point, it didn't matter whether Enron employees failed or did things that were unethical or even illegal--as long as they were being clever and totally bad-ass about it. And as long as they could get away with it.

Replace 'clever' with 'scrappy' and make bad-ass mean "working 100 hours a week," and you have a good description of the working environment of Fund/PIRG/GCI. "In it to win it."

And once we start thinking about Fund/PIRG in terms of Enron, the scary thing is that this union bust is just the tip of the iceberg.

Tags: canvassing, FFPIR, Fund, Fundraising, grassroots, Labor, PIRG, telefundraising, union-busting (all tags)



Re: In Response to the Canvassers' Union

The irony is that HRC's staff is actually union.  They are a SEIU shop.  They rely very heavily on the Fund to fill their membership rolls.

At this point I am not sure how much leverage the blogosphere has with HRC.  They have been completely ridiculed.

by juls 2006-11-30 09:21AM | 0 recs
Re: In Response to the Canvassers' Union

I worked for a unionized fundraising vendor, and it worked just fine until it was sold to a bigger corporation looking to weaken the union, the Share Group is still unionized, but the union is much weaker then it once was.

BTW, the bottom line is important to a fundraising vendor, all the other crap is just hype to keep the fundraisers feeling good and motivated to do what they do.

by jbou 2006-11-30 11:23AM | 0 recs
Re: In Response to the Canvassers' Union

Is this for real?

The first thing you need to know to understand the situation is that we, PIRGers, do not think of ourselves as managers - we are organizers. (Even though, once you get down to it, we are precisely managers.) 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.

Because that sure sounds uncomfortably like PIRG has a lot of the signifying markers of a cult (e.g. communal and totalistic in organization, aggressive in proselytizing, systematic program of indoctrination).

by The Cunctator 2006-11-30 11:34AM | 0 recs
Fund/PIRG/GCI is a cult!

You got it! Have you ever actually tried to argue with one of the "true believers" of the PIRG model. As with "conversations" of the divine with a fundementalist, you might as well save yourself the aggravation and go argue with a rock or tree.

by Alex Urevick 2006-12-01 04:04AM | 0 recs
Re: Cult!
This is essentially correct.  The important thing to note is that at the bottom of the organizations, it's more like being a soldier: marching and fighting (arguing) for six hours without a break, wearing your PIRG-issue (shoulder-bag) pack, carrying your weapon (clipboard) under your arm; you go where the mission takes you, and you do what the Corporal (AFM) and the Sergeant (FM) tell you to do.  If you're calling those people 'true believers,' you're wrong--they generally don't know much about who they're fundraising for, asking questions is discouraged.
But there are specific points of doctrine you must profess in order to advance.  Above all, you must believe that the current model is the best of all possible models, and to this conviction there are many corollaries: that the gross fundraising of employees is the only measure of their worth; that new workers are too inexperienced and experienced workers are too burned-out; that poor results are always the fault of the lowest-ranked canvasser involved (and so there is no 'bad turf' for the FM to assign, only 'bad days' or even 'laziness' on the CC's part); that it is a virtue to justify the actions of the organization, no matter how incomprehensible, unsustainable, or vile; that the exploitation of idealism is a necessary evil (a virtue at the highest levels).  
The more strictly you adhere to the principle of a 'divine mission,' the more job security you have, and because the culture of the organization demands that you spend an ever-increasing proprtion of your free time at work, the job becomes the sole factor in determining your sense of self, so you have to cling to the organization because without it you have nothing.  There are some near the top, as in any cult, who understand that it's all a scam, but they get paid.  The Fund model, and especially the more virulent GCI style, eats passion and shits resentment.  The favored prey of these beasts are liberal youth, and for too long now they have been gnawing at the foundation of a progressive majority.
by Endymion 2006-12-02 05:22PM | 0 recs
Re: In Response to the Canvassers' Union

Just a thought here..

It seems to me that progressive activist groups of any kind should welcome unionization as a matter of course.  This includes outfits whose primary role is fundraising.  As a start, this would mean setting firm policies that unions will be recognized on a card check basis.

This should be a litmus test for whether a group is really progressive or not.  I'd like to see some research into which groups are unionized and which aren't - and which have union-friendly policies in place.  PIRG, MoveOn, Working Assets, NARAL, environmental groups?  Is there a good resource listing which groups are and aren't unionized?

On a related note I'm getting tired of seeing the membership giveaways from many of these groups (umbrellas, tote bags, t-shirts and so on) arriving with "Made in China" labels.  If a group is really progressive they would go out of their way to make sure their giveaways and fundraising items are union made.

This issue is important enough to me that I'm in the process of drastically scaling back which groups I support.

by Old Yeller 2006-11-30 11:40AM | 0 recs

This should be a litmus test for whether a group is really progressive or not.  I'd like to see some research into which groups are unionized and which aren't - and which have union-friendly policies in place.  PIRG, MoveOn, Working Assets, NARAL, environmental groups?

Lets not forget our friends over at the DNC who, despite the change in direction we see in actions like the 50 State Strategy, continue to employ Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. (Want to see where that money you donated to the DNC ended up? In the pockets of the FOR PROFIT Grassroots Campaigns, Inc to the tune of well over $1.5 million)

But you are right, we should hold these organizations to account- if they want to be members of the progressive community/movement, they have to play by the damned rules. That said, I've never seen Working Assets' name dropped in connection with the Fund- say it aint so (I love WA and would be supremely dissapointed if I found that they were working with a Union busting cultish operation)!

Is there a good resource listing which groups are and aren't unionized?

Well, you can start by looking at the client lists of the big players:

Grassroots Campaigns, Inc's client list includes:
    * The Democratic National Committee
    * Political Action
    * The Sierra Club
    * Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee
    * The Center for American Progress
    * Working America
    * People For The American Way
    * Yes on C&D (Colorado Referenda)
    * Forests Forever
    * The Media Fund
    * Common Cause
    * ACORN
    * Pennsylvania Coordinated Campaign (this had to be the MOST INEPT campaign I have ever witnessed, and now I know why)
    * Washington Coordinated Campaign
    * Amnesty International

The Fund for Public Interest Research's client list includes:
    * Sierra Club   
    * Human Rights Campaign
    * U.S. PIRG
    * Environment California
    * Community Voters Project

Neither of these groups (obviously) is unionized, and both are doing extreme harm to the left. Is it any woner we find ourselves in such a bad place today (well, slightly less bad then a month ago)? The Fund/GCI may not have caused the collapse of the left between the 80s and today, but they certainly played a part!

by Alex Urevick 2006-12-01 04:41AM | 0 recs
Re: BINGO!!!!

Thanks for this list - very helpful.

Actually I listed Working Assets and the others not just questioning whether they hire PIRG and GCI..but also whether those outfits are, themselves, unionized.  I don't believe Working Assets is union - while most of the old-line long distance companies are - which makes me wonder how they can claim more progressive credentials than, say, Cingular.  I'll go with the unionized company over the non-union one any day.  Even worse is Working Assets' primary competitor in the "progressive" feel-good long ditance market, Earth Tones.  Earth Tones is not only non-union, but looking at the list of environmental groups they fund, every single one of them is part of PIRG or closely associated with PIRG.

Back to PIRG and GCI.  The PIRG fundraising model is unsustainable to begin with and, in fact, is a close cousin to pyramid schemes like Amway.  Since half or more of the funds raised go to pay canvassers, and the canvassers in many cases aren't even making minimum wage, it follows that if canvassers were actually paid livable wages and given decent benefits, little to no money collected would actually wind up going to the causes supposedly being collected for.  

I ran into canvassers repeatedly over the past several months claiming to be collecting money for the DNC with the come-on question "would you like to help support the Democrats"?  My response: "I give my donations directly to Democratic candidates, not to canvassers."  That shut them up.  But I don't think the DNC, Sierra Club, MoveOn and others using these anti-union groups as fundraisers have gotten the message.

by Old Yeller 2006-12-01 07:16AM | 0 recs
Re: BINGO!!!!

You can crituque a fair amount about canvassing, but it is pretty sustainable. You break even with the canvassing so offices can stay open year round in many cases. Callers can raise $300 or so in one hour while getting paid something like $9. The money then made from those lists is rather large. Donors identified from canvassing tend to do a lot better than from other forms of prospecting.

PIRG has survived when many other groups have failed  many due to lack of money.

If you do not agree with canvassing or GCI/FUND that is fine just do not take it out on canvassers. Just say not interested. I am sure you are polite about. Blame their bosses not them, they are perhaps the most dedicated young people that we all say that "we need to cultivate", right?

by gobears 2006-12-01 08:41AM | 0 recs
Re: BINGO!!!!

I want to respond to this with a clarification of an above point in Lockse's post. It seems like Greenpeace did not drop the Fund because of the union-busting incident in 2002. It dropped the Fund because the donors that the Fund canvassers signed up were dropping off at attrition rates that were unacceptably high.

In other words, you get what you pay for, and from the Fund you get shoddy product.

by greg bloom 2006-12-01 09:07AM | 0 recs
Re: BINGO!!!!

Oh, I was polite.  The reason I gave directly to candidates, or through ActBlue, rather than donating via canvassers is I want all the money I donate to go to the campaigns, not around half of it.  

I did canvassing about 15 years ago, for about a week.  You had to meet a daily quota - $100 back then, presumably much higher now - in order to make minimum wage.  If you didn't meet the quota you didn't even make minimum wage, and every day you didn't make the quota you had to go to a counseling session in which you were variously talked down to and accused of not being a team player or not trying hard enough, and tutored in high pressure sales techniques to squeeze more money out of people who were themselves for all I know broke and living paycheck to paycheck.  Canvassing involved disturbing people during dinner, disturbing people who were getting dressed up to go out for a date or for their birthday, being expected to get into apartment buildings that were locked or clearly had "no soliciting" signs, and being told point blank by our supervisors that anyone who said they couldn't spare any money was lying and should be pressed harder until they give.  Anyone who doesn't feel filthy inside after a few evenings of that either doesn't have a heart or should take up panhandling as a profession.

$9 an hour is not a decent wage.  It may very well be a decent wage in Grand Forks, Altoona, or Winslow, which I doubt have active canvassing operations.  It is not a decent wage in San Diego, Seattle, New York, Boston, or Washington D.C., which do.  I know from experience that a basic barely-scrape-by wage in the Washington, D.C. area is about $16/hour and you have to make well over $20/hr to be able to start putting any significant amount of money away into savings.

Would any of these canvassing outfits be able to pay all their canvassers a guaranteed $20 an hour whether or not they meet a quota?  No?  Then this particular fundraising model is unjust and unsustainable.

by Old Yeller 2006-12-01 10:08AM | 0 recs
Re: BINGO!!!!

As you kind probably tell I canvassed at one point in my life it was for about 2 1/2 years.

"Anyone who doesn't feel filthy inside after a few evenings of that either doesn't have a heart or should take up panhandling as a profession?"

Maybe we should meet because I think that I would change your mind on that one. I loved taking money from people with fixed incomes, oh wait I never did I was just go to the next door. I loved panhandling those monthly contributions, countless $100 checks, and those couple of times I panhandled $500 checks as well. Some of my coworkers got $1000 cons, sometimes even more. Even more important was the thousands of people I got to give $10-$30, which is not panhandling either.

Oh, I interputed people during their dinner time. Honestly, so what if I think Global Warming is more important than dinner time. I respect the fact that people have lives, but being interputed 4 or 5 times a year is not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. BTW I never once get in a fight at a door, if someone did not want me there I was gone faster than they could blink after thanking them for their time and wishing them a good night.

I averaged about $200 a night, which is pretty good. I would just say the rap and maybe use the responses 6 or 7 times a night for people that we just "there" or just wanted to know more. I will admit that some canvassers or more importantly directors did not have that approach, but I actually canvassed just like our national director taught us too. I think I had a better mindset than most. I knew people had good reasons for not giving and I respected that. I got the people that could give and wanted to give, to give. Most canvassers just do not get that even when you tell them that they have it backwards.

I would guess that about 90% of the shifts are done by college kids in the summer, $9 an hour is not so bad no matter where you live. It is just as good as or better than caddying, being a server, or working at a camp (and for the most part do not have unions). The other 10% raises so many problems I will admit, so maybe they should just pay those people more that do it year round, give them health care, and let them form a union.

Also the FUND figured out a way to deal with attrition, not thrive on it. A fair amount of time at director trainings are spent on staff management and canvassing, which are the keys to keeping canvassers on staff. My number one objective as a director was to not have people quit, but it will happen no matter what with some people for a variety of reasons. Many time it is because they were not cut out for it, but other time it was not.

I know this got a tab bit off topic, I just take it a little personal when people attack canvassing in and of itself as so how low or dirty. It is not at all. The other stuff people are commenting on I may not agree with all the time, but I understand their point and where they are coming from.

by gobears 2006-12-01 11:15AM | 0 recs
Re: BINGO!!!!

There are also people who think the Book of Mormon is more important than dinner time.  There are people who think showing people the Amway business plan is more important than dinner time.

I would never make it as an Amway salesman or Mormon missionary, I know.  PIRG wasn't any better.

by Old Yeller 2006-12-01 12:15PM | 0 recs
Re: BINGO!!!!

Great logic.

So calling voters during dinner time is okay or even knocking on their doors, right. I guess all those volunteers that do that are just as bad as those pesky Mormon's (who do not fundraise at the door to my knowledge) and Amway people.

So canvassers use the same means at Mormons and Amway salespeople. That is pretty meaningless to whether canvassers of all people have a heart. You may disagree with the methods, but most of the people I canvass with had big hearts in fact bigger than most people I ever met.

Just cause it was not for you and/or you could not hack it does not mean that you have to take it out on those how think that canvassing was for them and/or could hack it.

Think what ever you want, but they are not heartless and ther are hardly panhandlers.

by gobears 2006-12-01 01:08PM | 0 recs
Re: BINGO!!!!

But, Mormons never ask for money. They're proselytizing (attempting to spread the Gospel as they understand it). They are not asking others to give up the ability to keep bread on the table, unlike some PIRG canvassers I've seen snarling at college kids for "squandering" money on food when they "should" be giving it to PIRG.

Any employer who rakes in millions of dollars a year, while protesting that he "can't afford" to pay a living wage, is no better or different than the corporations that have destroyed America's manufacturing base by outsourcing factories to the Third World. The end result is the same. By impoverishing one's employees, one guarantees that they (and their kids) will not HAVE the luxury of worrying about the environment. They'll be too busy trying to survive. Unlike Mormons, who are famous for their sense of social responsibility, and the fact that they rarely cheat anyone on a business deal.

by Joseph the Egyptian 2007-04-26 01:21PM | 0 recs
Re: BINGO!!!!

First of all, I agree with Gobears that disturbing people at dinner isn't a good reason not to engage in political activism.   I mean, I understand if you were not personally comfortable doing that.  I also understand why people get irritated when they are disturbed in the middle of dinner. But as a method, knocking on doors a basic part of any grassroots campaign.      

Furthemore, as someone who did street canvassing for the Fund (i.e. canvassing on college campuses or other public areas), I can tell you that people make excuses for not wanting to engage in politics no matter where or when you engage them.

Lastly, although I agree that the Fund exploits its workers, $20 an hour is a bit of a high bar to set for a canvass to be "just."  In the Bay Area, one of the most expensive places to live in the country, living-wage ordinances are far lower than $20/hr.  The real lack of justice comes from a) the lack of meaningful benefits, b)the lack of job security, and c) the fact that a bad day means you go home having made less than peanuts.    

by Matt Lockshin 2006-12-01 05:26PM | 0 recs
Re: BINGO!!!!

Most fundraising systems that work to generate new members end up barely breaking even or losing money.  The payoff is when they go back to those donors for future support.

For example, most of the big advocacy groups these days use direct mail as the primary way to build their membership (NRDC, WWF, ACLU, etc.).  They buy a giant mailing list from somebody, send out a million letters, then if they're lucky 1% of those people will send a donation.  With the low response rate, and the high expense of the materials and postage, groups are lucky if they break even.  However, once a person has given once, they're much more likely to give in the future, so groups then aggressively follow up with those new donors to get them to become repeat donors.  Because that fundraising is much more targeted, that's where groups net their money.

Some groups also do the same sort of prospecting over the phone, with the same basic result.  They buy a list, spend a lot of money to call those people, and get a very low response.  But the donors they do manage to generate end up making it worthwhile.

The canvass actually tends to do better than direct mail or phone prospecting in terms of raising money immediately.  The response rate is much better for canvassing (often 10% or more of the people you talk to make a donation, compared to maybe 1% for direct mail), so a larger chunk of that first donation actually goes to program work than if the donor was recruited through other means.

The other thing that's useful about canvassing is that it identifies new donors, not just the people who already give to every other group.  In the direct mail world, the big enviro groups sell their donor lists back and forth, so everyone ends up mailing out to the same few million people.  Same goes for the DNC, which keeps mailing out to the same list of known Democratic donors.  With canvassing, you don't work off a list.  Instead, you talk to everyone who's home, so you have the potential to raise money from new people who've never given or who rarely give to groups or campaigns.  This seems useful from the perspective of bringing new people into the movement.

The bottom line is that identifying new donors is typically an expensive process, no matter how you do it.

Now, the internet might be slowly changing how all this works.  Since email is cheap, it gives groups a low-cost way to prospect new members.  For a few groups and political candidates, this has been a very successful way to fundraise.  Lots of groups are trying out different ways to fundraise online, but so far most still make the vast majority of their money through offline means.  There are a lot of people who still aren't comfortable giving online, or who don't respond to email fundraising appeals but who will respond to a letter or phone call or person at their door.

by jamesad 2006-12-03 12:04PM | 0 recs
Re: BINGO!!!!
Hi James. Thanks for the explanation.
Hey, are you planning to come on back and answer my question?
by Lockse 2006-12-03 12:56PM | 0 recs
Re: BINGO!!!!

I bet you five bucks he's not.

by greg bloom 2006-12-03 04:54PM | 0 recs
Re: BINGO!!!!

Union or non-union should only be a starting point.  There may be non-union shops that treat their employees well, illuminating a need for the workers to be organized.

That said Common Cause is non-union and probably could benefit from organizing.  It isn't that management is horrible.  They are decent but the employees could use some leverage.  For example, my position and about 1/4 of the DC staff was eliminated in 2004 due to severe budgetary problems.  There were no negotiations, just cuts.  The org is in better fiscal health now, but workers need some protection in case that happens again.

by juls 2006-12-01 07:40AM | 0 recs
Re: BINGO!!!!

I worked on the Pennsylvania Coordinated Campaign and GCI had a few staff people maybe 3 or 4 if I recall correctly working on it.

So it is a bit of a stretch to blame them for it being inept.

Alex, looking at your commments on these threads I am not not all shocked that you would jump to such conclusions.  

by gobears 2006-12-01 08:48AM | 0 recs
Re: BINGO!!!!

Alex, looking at your commments on these threads I am not not all shocked that you would jump to such conclusions.  

And why is that? Because I worked on the ground in Philly for three months and was appaulled at the "coordinated campaign" (an Orwellian term if there ever was one)? Because I saw the CC not only fail to do any youth outreach, but actively worked against efforts of people like myself (mostly, as far as I could tell, for the most petty and non-ideological of reasons)? Because the campaign was staffed like the government of a bananna republic? Because it was completely, 100%, inflexible and inaccesable to people not working for it?

But- if what you are saying is that GCI cannot be blamed for the ineptitude of the PA State Party, nor for the Rendell and Casey campaigns who were equally terrible (despite the victory), than I guess I agree. I can't blame GCI for the petty bullshit Dem politics in PA- their shennanegans have been going on, as far as I can tell, for longer than GCI has been around.

Anyway, if you really want to get into a discussion about the  PA "coordinated" campaign, then by all means start another diary...

by Alex Urevick 2006-12-01 09:24AM | 0 recs
Re: In Response to the Canvassers' Union

Great diary. Recommended.

by MBNYC 2006-11-30 01:16PM | 0 recs
Re: In Response to the Canvassers' Union

Long time PIRGER here - from a canvass director all the way to senior professional staff:

I will say two things:

1) Yes, PIRG has a very cultish environment. It is not even "us" vs "them" as in public versus private interests.  It is PIRG against all comers including other enviro groups etc etc.  Additionally the top leaders of PIRG make very good money while requiring a vow of poverty from everyone else.  Doug Phelps is a millionaire.

2) The big problem with PIRG is that it is dominated by a very small group of individuals at the top who zelously guard their image of PIRG and will destroy anyone who comes in the way of that.  For PIRG to really change they will need to remove those folks and I am happy to name names cause I believe in what PIRG is trying to do and I do not believe in those individuals

by FinneganOregon 2006-11-30 02:25PM | 0 recs

By all means, please do start naming names! Who are the people behind the curtain that I, for one, and chomping at the bit to take out to the tool shed.

We need to rid the left of these people, but who are they?

by Alex Urevick 2006-12-01 04:07AM | 0 recs
Re: In Response to the Canvassers' Union

Oh ahisma, where art thou?!

by esteban 2006-11-30 03:06PM | 0 recs
Re: In Response to the Canvassers' Union

FinneganOregon (and any other concerned PIRG/Fund veterns) -  please be in touch with me at lockse(at)gmail.  We would like to be in touch with you.

by Lockse 2006-11-30 03:07PM | 0 recs
Re: In Response to the Canvassers' Union

I was a very brief canvasser out of that same L.A. office, and was identified as a "problem worker" when I came back one day on my first week with a credit card donation. The canvass director preferred to throw that $100 (for the Sierra Club) away rather than have it go through online or through the telephone office.

Some might be zealous for the cause, but in my experience personal payoff was a bit more of a motivator for the L.A. canvass office.

by scvmws 2006-11-30 06:29PM | 0 recs
My Experience

WOrked for PIRG for 7 years, from canvasser, to canvass director, to Press and lobbying...

BUT i worked for NYPIRG, which is seperate and doesn't use the traditional PIRG model from other states.  I never heard much about any of these issues there, we worked crazy hours for little money but we all loved the causes and the people.

by epv72 2006-12-01 08:31AM | 0 recs
Re: In Response to the Canvassers' Union

Why don't we just get going with the MyDD Party? See, we just tell everyone we started in the Joe Lieberman Party, but then Joe refused to endorse our anti-Wal-Mart plank? Let's take a page from Alex Jones, just to make it all wild and woolly as can be. So we pay people with little gold ingots! This nasty old PIRG thing has been continuing for 120 years. Enough already. The PIRG people think they are God's gift to progressivism? Maybe they need to go to Iraq. I went through this whole goofy mill 30 years ago. The times, they are a-changing. They didn't do squat about Bush. That was our job, and we did it, dammit.

by blues 2006-12-02 07:49PM | 0 recs
Re: In Response to the Canvassers' Union


I have worked with canvasses or an org who that has a canvass for many years until recently.

I think that some of the comments here are on target, but many are uninformed. To me, the bottom-line most important point that should be made is that all employers should pay minimum wage. To me, the idea that an org can argue that they not pay min wage because people should care so much about the campaign that the money isnt important, is wrong. I have heard that argument made in the past -- especially when I was a field canvasser.

As far as the rest of the arguements -- you should start off deciding whether paid canvasses should exist at all or not. Every business -- for profit or non-profit has to have a model that works.

You cant complain that the canvassers arent being paid $20/ hr and arent unionized and then complain that too much money goes to the canvassers. Its simple math. They should be paid min wage with some commission, understand the difficulty of the job, and be treated with respect.

Also, some of you may not know this but just about every form of fundraising for non-profits has a huge amount of initial overhead. For example, with direct mail fundraising about 1% or less is returned meaning that a whole lot of money goes into putting together large amounts of mail that never comes back. Thats expensive too. Also, good canvassing is much more than fundraising -- its getting an important message out to thousands of citizens a year and hopefully generating political support as well.

I dont get the "cult" thing either. I think the reason why it might seem that way is that often canvassers are very young and wind up making friends with their co-workers and make that their social scene. They can of course quit whenever they want. In all my experience in canvass orgs, people came and went all the time with very little "cult-like" pressure to stay.
If someone has no sense of self without their job, I think they might have bigger issues.

Anyway, if you care enough about this issue, focus on the minimum wage part. If a business cant pay min wage, they have a model that is not fair to its employees.

by dougfunk 2007-01-13 11:51PM | 0 recs
What are your thoughts on canvasser safety?

I'm a former assistant director for the door canvass and I have some serious concerns regarding the safety of canvassers going solo, at night in unfamiliar neighborhoods.  I remember bringing this up during "mindset meetings" (remember those!) with senior staff, and the answers I got were basically a) most incidents are of the dog bite variety, b) canvassers aren't encouraged to go to houses that make them uncomfortable, and c) canvassers shouldn't go inside a house.

One night I walked up to the door of a nice, well-lit, suburban house that did not make me feel at all uncomfortable.  Unfortunately though, the man who answered the door was disturbed enough to threaten to rape me... yes, these people are out there.  Luckily it was only a verbal threat and I walked away from it.  But I knew then that the issue isn't the appearance of the house, it's the fact that the canvasser doesn't know what type of person will answer the door.  And even if a canvasser doesn't walk inside, they could still be yanked inside right?  

Needless to say, my supervisor did not encourage me to discuss this incident with my canvassers.  Although I was disappointed with this response, I was definitely still in "excuse mode".  I quit a few months later and I am very, very grateful that nothing else happened to me or to any of my staff while I was still there.  I know it would have rest heavy on my conscience if any of my canvassers had been hurt and I had failed to keep them fully informed and safe.

Has anyone either personally experienced or heard about other scary incidents like this?  I think that anyone considering a canvassing job should be reminded that they're not protected by some sort of invisible PIRG safety shield, and should know that there are risks far more serious than a dog bite.

by Former AD 2007-02-04 01:02AM | 0 recs
Re: In Response to the Canvassers' Union

I posted this in Greg Bloom's diary, but I thought it was appropriate for here as well.

I worked for the PIRGs for well over a decade, and after reading various blogs and stories regarding how they treat their employees for several months, I thought I would add my comments. I had many good years at PIRG and think the staff has done and continues to do some great work, but I think it's important to give some insight to not just how unfairly PIRG treats its employees, but also the hypocrisy of Doug Phelps and his senior management team, who act like a 1970's Soviet politburo by enforcing numerous rules to control staff while not applying those same rules to themselves.

Here are some examples:

PIRG staff in major cities are expected to house (without compensation) out of town staff who come in for meetings to save the organization from having to put them up in hotels. If you live in a city like Boston, Denver, or Santa Barbara, you could end up having to house 2 or 3 people up to 2 months out of the year. In the 1990's, PIRG paid Susan Rakov, one of Doug Phelp's prized assistants at the time, $300 a month to compensate her for housing staff throughout the year. That's $3600 a year, and she only got it because she was Doug's primary loyalists and enforcers.

For many years, staff were expected to pay for their hotel rooms at PIRGs December meetings in December. But Doug Phelps never had to pay for HIS room. PIRG always paid for it.

PIRG paid for Phelps' cell phone throughout the 1990's when other staff had to foot their own cell phone bills.
When Phelps rented a house in Santa Barbara, PIRG paid for part of his rent because he sometimes worked from home. No other staff enjoyed that luxury even though many of us worked from home. And up until very recently PIRG staff had to pay for ALL their cell phone calls, and many still due because of PIRG's confusing and bureaucratic reimbursement rules.

PIRG staff have had to pay for their own gas when they drive to regional meetings and retreats for many years. Phelps always got reimbursed for his own gas.

Any PIRG staffer can tell you of the bureaucratic BS they had to wallow through to get approval to get a new fax machine or copier for the office. The battle for the $300 to buy the equipment could last for months, and more often than not, the request would be rejected. But when Phelps wanted $3 MILLION in 1996 to buy ads for his pet campaign finance reform initiative, he got the money instantly. And the initiative got creamed at the polls anyway.

Everyone both in and out of PIRG knows that PIRG pays much lower salaries than anyone in the nonprofit movement. A key cornerstone of PIRG philosophy that everyone is supposed to blindly follow is that PIRG pays lower salaries so it can hire more people to more work to bring about social change - you can do more with 2 people making $20,000 a year than 1 person making $40,000 a year. PIRG also prides itself on the fact that it has strict pay ranges that keep everyone within a particular range so people with the same level of experience will always make the relatively same amount of money. It also gives management a convenient excuse if someone wants more money. Anyone who has asked for more money in PIRG has heard the familiar line "we can't give you more money - that wouldn't be fair to all the other people who have the same level of experience". But PIRG conveniently overlooks this policy when it is to its advantage. When I worked there, I saw many examples of people who asked for more money paid much more money than others with the same level of experience because PIRG management didn't want them to leave staff. The best recent example of this occurred when Doug Phelps offered an advocate a $20,000 raise to match an offer that she got from another organization. The advocate ended up leaving anyway, but if she had stayed, she would have been paid WAY more than anyone other advocates with her experience. Phelps has also used payoffs from Grassroots Campaign Incorporated (GCI), the for profit canvassing group he started, to pay off PIRG staff to keep them from leaving while allowing him to keep salaries artificially low. A few years ago, when a talented regional canvass director was going to leave staff over more money, Phelps authorized GCI to pay him a $3000 "bonus" to compensate him for work he did to help train GCI's canvassers. PIRG didn't have to change its salary structure, and since GCI is a private company, no one would see the payment in its books. How convenient.

Another example of PIRG's hypocrisy is its annual subsidized staff retreat in Aspen. Every year, PIRG pays for virtually all the costs of a week long Aspen ski vacation for any staff who want to attend. When I worked at PIRG, people in the financial department told me that PIRG spent between $200,000 and $300,000 on the event, and that was decade ago when PIRG had about half the staff it does now. Since the Aspen vacation has been going on for over 20 years now, it is reasonable to say the PIRG has spent several million dollars paying for lots of staff to get drunk, ski, and have sex. If PIRG truly followed its salary policy, wouldn't you think it should be using those millions of dollars to hire more activists and bring about more social change? I'm not saying that saying for the Aspen vacation is wrong but it certainly not consistent with the PIRG mantra of spending money meagerly so that it can hire more activists. You can't be righteous about how little you pay staff and then spend millions on vacations.

Another PIRG irony - long known for being one of the stingiest organizations with regard to giving money to many local campaigns with other groups, PIRG is actually one of the richest nonprofits in the country. Many PIRGs, including those in California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Washington, and Oregon has literally millions of dollars in the bank. Some of these PIRGs along have in excess of $5 million. But local PIRG staff directors have no control over this money. In fact, you will never see it in their bank accounts. That's because most of the money has been generated by years of canvassing, which most people know is done for the PIRGs by the Fund for Public Interest Research (started and controlled by Doug Phelps), and as the Fund collects the money from canvassing, it puts it in Fund banks accounts, not PIRG bank accounts. So if you look at MassPIRG's financial statement, you may see a few hundred thousand dollars, but you won't see the millions of dollars that is in the Fund canvassing account for MassPIRG. MassPIRG will never get any of this money without the approval of Doug and key senior staff. And if you work for a foundation, you will never know how many millions a PIRG has because it will not show up in its financial information.

I think the most disingenuous thing the Doug Phelps has done was to pimp PIRG member names for his two for profit organizations - Telefund Inc. and Grassroots Campaigns Incorporated. By using the names, as well as many of the fundraising techniques, of the PIRGs, Phelps has become extremely wealthy. He owns 2 multi-million dollar houses in Santa Barbara, CA as well as a very expensive loft in Denver. Meanwhile, while Phelps is making millions from his private fundraising operations, he is manically determined to keep staff salaries as low as possible and continues to make staff wait up to two years to wait for salary increases. Ironically, PIRG uses the fact that it doesn't sell its member list to other organizations as a selling point to potential donors, but I guess that rule didn't apply to Doug. The funny thing is, for years, Phelps has made it well known to PIRG staff that he doesn't take a salary from PIRG, but the only reason he quit taking a salary was to prevent any conflict of interest from him running GCI, a private companies that runs political campaigns, and PIRG, which is nonpartisan.  Of course, while he gallantly refused to take a salary from PIRG, the money from his 2 private companies kept pouring in.

I get the point of this essay is to give some more insight as to how hypocritical Doug Phelps and PIRG upper management actually are. And even though most of the examples that I have noted are about Phelps, his senior staff cabal are just as guilty as they know what goes on yet continue to ignore it. They righteously spout that one of the key things that makes PIRG different from other groups is that PIRG staff hold itself to rules and higher standards than other groups, but they don't hold themselves to the same standards that they expect staff to follow. This has to change. Clearly, there is a lot of impetus for change coming from outside PIRG, but nothing will change unless PIRG staff force it.

by doonesbury 2007-02-24 07:39AM | 0 recs
Re: In Response to the Canvassers' Union
I just quit a summer job at Campaign to Save the Environment (which has merged with PIRG in my town ) after realizing that the office managers and staff were no better or different than the staff of a used-car lot, or a Wal-Mart. They were worse, really, because they had no norms governing their behavior toward employees.
The second day on the job, my boss panhandled me for bus fare back to the office. Nice.
Our job was to guilt people into giving money to lobby our state government to pass a law forcing car makers to do...what they're already doing. Total bunk, a waste of time and money.
There was other nonsense I won't bore you with, but I'll say that it's difficult working with a bunch of self-righteous, poorly-educated drug addicts who think they're sooo much better than everyone else. Don't get me wrong; I used to follow the Dead, and gave up dope and booze a decade ago. But working even briefly for Campaign to Save the Environment/PIRG reminded me of why I'd given all my tie-dyes away to Goodwill and cut off my hair: because it was self-deluded bullshit, a gigantic exercise in group drug addiction coupled with a black market economy. If you want to change the economic model, then behaving just like Wal-Mart is hardly the way to go about it.
Anyone who could stick it out, doing high-pressure sales with no product, deserves a union, and a pension. It wasn't for me.
by Joseph the Egyptian 2007-04-26 12:57PM | 0 recs
Re: In Response to the Canvassers' Union


I am a recent ex-fund director and would be very interested in having the sources for the claims you made about Doug Phelps.  I have seen the finacial statement of his Mutual Fund Company, and know about the Aspen trip and a few other hypocritical stances you mentioned in your post, but some I had not heard before and would love to know your resources.  You can email me at mattmason1307(at)gmail(dot)com if you have time.  Thanks!

by dolphannut1313 2007-07-21 07:23PM | 0 recs


Advertise Blogads