In Response to the Canvassers' Union
by Lockse, Thu Nov 30, 2006 at 09:00:08 AM EST
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 ffpir.us" 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.