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...

Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and GCI got me kicked off Facebook

This is cross-posted at Future Majority where Mike Connery asked me to help fill in for him - but I'm bringing it here too since so much of this issue was discussed on this site.

It took me a while to pick up on this whole Facebook business, but when I finally did... WOO what a blast!  While it lasted anyway.

See, not so long after I logged on for the first time, Facebook shut down my account.
But I don't hold it against them. I wasn't playing by their rules -- it's fair, and it's square.  
So I got some explaining to do.

Now, I was virtually dragged into Facebook--and when I finally joined it, it wasn't just to post silly pictures and update my status. I joined to organize.

I was organizing a group of people who have been institutionally exploited for years, but who have not previously had any viable way to speak up for themselves. This group is comprised of young, progressive activists--fellow veterans of the Fund for Public Interest Research, Public Interest Research Groups, and Grassroots Campaigns Incorporated.

There's more...

In Response to Activism Inc and CanvassingWorks .org

So, a book just came out that trashes the organization for which I worked for eight years. Dana Fisher's Activism Inc argues that the Fund for Public Interest Research--along with the Public Interest Research Groups and Grassroots Campaigns Incorporated--is engaged in a rootless mode of activism that is "strangling progressive politics."

I have some problems with this.

My first problem is that Fisher has made some pretty bold, broad claims--and backed them up with really bad writing. This review by Jim B in Counterpunch is probably the most insightful and generally on-the-mark piece you'll find on the matter, and he says:

"It is an analytically incoherent book... a shallow, muddled, unrewarding account."

But that's just my first problem.  Jim B continues:

For all its weaknesses, Activism, Inc. provides a useful stimulus to debate and reflection... [If] her characterization of the Fund for Public Interest Research's canvass operation is accurate, then the Fund...represents a truly counterproductive force sucking energy out of the progressive movement it purports to strengthen.

This is my second problem. Even though Fisher's arguments are sloppily made, at times vague and at other times shallow, her characterization of the Fund is in fact largely accurate. If anything, it doesn't even fully expose the true problem.

There's more...

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...

GCI's "Call for Change" MoveOn Campaign: Slash-and-Burn organizing

ChangeGCI is a group of veterans from MoveOn's field campaigns run by Grassroots Campaigns Inc (GCI). We have been blogging to expose the ways that GCI is failing its organizers AND the MoveOn members that it recruits. Earlier this week, we posted a set of recommendations of actions that MoveOn can take to begin to resolve this crisis of leadership. If you find our stories compelling, and you agree this issue must be addressed by MoveOn, please send an email to Eli Pariser (eli@moveon.org) and cc us at ChangeGCI@gmail.com (or contact us there directly, and we will update you with further information about how you can send a message to MoveOn).

I accepted a job with GCI during the spring of my senior year of college.  After graduation, I attended a canvass training, but soon after the training I was transferred from the canvass staff to the MoveOn Operation Democracy organizing staff. Throughout my time with GCI, my interactions with management were much better than others I've heard about and read about on this blog. Working for GCI certainly cost me money, due in large part to their incomplete reimbursement for things like cell phone service--but again, my experience was not nearly as bad as what others went through. My superiors were very civil when I told them I was leaving, and they wished me well as I moved on. But I still want to add my voice to the chorus calling for changes in the model being used for organizing volunteers.

There's more...

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