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.

SOME BACKGROUND!

The Fund, PIRGs, and GCI are interconnected organizations that run fundraising canvasses for a huge chunk of the progressive world. Veterans of these organizations have taken to the internet before to call for change to their notorious labor conditions, and there were a number of groups on Facebook that had already been started in protest of their policies. But these were just scattered outbursts of frutration leading nowhere. The organizers needed organizing.

If I may say so myself, I was good at organizing my fellow veterans. I have many years of experience as an "organizer" for the Fund and GCI; I'd worked in every town, I'd worked on every campaign. I'd trained hundreds of people and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, lied to my staff about how our campaigns worked, fired people for any old reason just to get rid of them, and taught young idealists to think about grassroots activism in terms of cold, inhuman numbers. And when the situations arose, I busted up the early formations of what could have become a...shhh...union.  Eventually it all reached a certain point when I stopped to think about it all and decided that no, this isn't how a progressive movement is built, and yes, I was finally pissed off.

Yes, I announced on my new Facebook profile, I am still pissed off. There's a lot to be pissed off about.

See, over the course of the second half of 2006, I'd watched with budding interest as some of these GCI and Fund veterans turned to the blogosphere to expose these practices and explain how they are harmful to the progressive movement. I'd watched with even more interest as they were dismissed, derided, and demeaned by defenders of the Fund and GCI. But the defenders always lost the argument. Many of them even ended up agreeing with the protesters in the end. I did as well. The point was very much made: these organizations, the ones I'd sacrificed years of my life for, were hurting the progressive grassroots. Not because they were staffed by bad people; but because they were being led by a handful of prideful, fearful, haughty leaders who retain power under the dangerous condition of being simultaneously out of touch and wholly unaccountable.

Almost every single person I knew, inside the organization and out, had been personally burned by this crisis of leadership - whether they were willing to admit to it or not.  Now that it was all being blogged about in public, people openly wondered whether anything could ever be done to fix the system.

Eventually, the blog posts died down. My friends in PIRG and GCI pretended they didn't exist any more. If the posts were ever brought up, they were quickly dismissed as the delusional rantings of a rabid few losers in pajamas.

And yet,  the unrest continued to brew. People kept reading the blog posts and spreading the word among themselves. This year, a group of canvassers from the Fund filed a class action lawsuit seeking to recover unpaid wages. A group from GCI sought to do the same thing. They needed to spread the word and recruit others.

And so I was selected to go to the place where the people were: Facebook.

ORGANIZING THE ORGANIZERS!

At the beginning of May, I put up a profile. It stated my experience and said: "Don't be shy if this matters to you."

People weren't. Within a day I had 40 friends; within a week I was approaching 100. At first I went through all the forums - sympathetic to the Fund or otherwise - and added everyone. People started sharing me with their fellow Fund/PIRG/GCI buddies.  I started a group, Changing Grassroots Campaigns (CGCI) as an extension of a long-running Yahoo group listserv devoted to spreading information about GCI's labor policies.

"These organizations could be a really powerful force for positive political action," the group's mission statement read, "but first they need to learn how to do right by the people who place their trust in them."

And then I started posting the link to the lawsuit and the blog series in those forums.

People came posting  messages of support on my wall. People sent me messages expressing their gratitude that someone was "finally" doing something.

Of course, I expected that sooner than later, my efforts would elicit a response from the other side.

First I was accused by GCI directors of being a Republican agent, or even "LaRouchian agent." (It wasn't clear which was worse.) Then GCI admins kicked me out of their groups. They denied this, claiming instead that Facebook had expelled me for posting "hatespeech" about Fund and GCI employees. Now, I literally wrote the manual on how to suppress discussion of campaign mismanagement--but "hatespeech" was a new one even to me!

Soon enough the eminently witty recruitment director at GCI started a group called "I used to/currently work for GCI and I'm not a pissy, whiny bitch." "Pissy, whiny bitch" does roll off the tongue in a delightful little way, but regardless, this move was shockingly juvenile. "Dissenters will not be allowed to join," the group's description announced. They were getting desperate.

By the end, my friend list was at 180. The CGCI group was at 80 members. People were posting about their experiences on the wall. People were joining the law suit.  

One morning, a Fund director joined the CGCI group and left this post:

As a current director for the FUND I thought I'd let all of you know that staff policies nationally have changed. All canvassers work 40 hrs a week and are paid their hourly earnings time and a half over 8 hours per day. There is a half hour no work lunch break and 10 min breaks twice during canvassing are suggested. All campaign work is made explicitly clear is volunteer. So congratulations on having won on this issue.

Whoa. We'd won! Well, it was really just a start, there is so much more progress to be made - but this was the first major positive change to the PIRG model that anyone could remember.  

And we'd done it just by getting organized a little bit.

BANNED!
AND!: MAGGIE UNMASKED!

Later that day, I went to log in to Facebook to start spreading the word about our victory.
And then my heart sunk.  My account had been disabled.
In hindsight, it was probably only a matter of time.

Here's the thing: Facebook says in its Terms of Service that user profiles must be registered to real people who provide their real names.

But my profile was in blatant violation of this clause: I am not an actual person, but rather an amalgamation of many different veterans, an avatar for the very class of all the Fund/GCI ex-employees who feel that their commitment to the progressive movement was betrayed. At different times I was given direction by former GCI directors and administrative staff, Fund canvassers and directors, PIRG campus organizers and even some who still work in these organizations. Not all of them were known to each other, but they all shared the same interest: to see these organizations held accountable. They logged in through me on lunch breaks and late at night and went through groups adding friends one by one.  My words spoke for all of them.  (And I was careful to ensure that every factual reference I made was accompanied by a link to blog post or article that sourced an actual person.)

I didn't hide this on Facebook any more than I'm hiding it now: my profile implied as much, and if anyone asked me point blank, I was quick to make it even more explicit. And that's what did me in: I was approached by several PIRG and GCI staffers ("bots," to use a term I used to hate with a fierceness) who demanded to know who I was. One or more of them probably reported my response to Facebook.

When I asked them what happened to my account, Dennis at Facebook replied that they do not allow 'fake' profiles: "This decision is final."

I don't blame Facebook, really - I respect their policies, and I was breaking them.  I believe social network sites could be a great tool for movement building and social change... but that doesn't mean Facebook should be expected to make things easy.

And this isn't over yet, although who knows what the future holds for me. The lesson to learn is that PIRG/Fund/GCI have a problem that's not going away: the waste and harm that they cause no longer vanishes into the ether, like pollutant emissions. Their employees are no longer isolated from each other, as they have been for decades. They now have their own ways of finding information about their own campaigns. CGCI is still up, and people are still posting to it.

And yeah, there's always MySpace.
Blech.
I hate MySpace.

Postscript!
If you or someone you know worked for the Fund as a canvasser in the last four years, you might be eligible to join the class action suit: please contact me at my gmail address ('higgledeebiggledy') or just go to the law suit's web site and sign up there!

Tags: canvassing, Facebook, Fund for Public Interest Research, GCI, Labor, organizing, PIRG (all tags)

Comments

21 Comments

Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and

That's geat.  The next step should be organizing unpaid interns as a violation of wage laws.

by Marylander 2007-06-25 08:42AM | 0 recs
Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and

Umm..... yeah, those two things are related... or not.

by JDF 2007-06-25 09:29AM | 0 recs
Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and

Actually, the broad problem of an exploited, non-Union entry class in progressive politics does exist.  Both the unpaid-internship system and the Fund/GCI system feed on the same pool of idealistic youth hoping to make a difference and break in to a career saving the world, sort of thing.  The interns are kids with savings/scholarships/parental subsidies, and the bots are kids who need the cash, but it's all the same and it all leads to a burnout clearcut of future progressive talent.  One of the big problems with organizing the Fund is the fluid, high turnover employee roster, and coupling that with the (slightly) more stable intern field could lead to a viable Union with a homogeneous mission.  The link is there, and vitally important.  If we don't stop the predatory exploitation of the Millennial Generation, than all this good news we keep hearing about 'Millennial Progressivism' will be crushed under the weight of hard-learned cynicism.  

by Endymion 2007-06-25 02:54PM | 0 recs
Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and

This is true.  The piece to read is When College Ends, So Does Activism.

by Mike Connery 2007-06-25 03:33PM | 0 recs
Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and

I've read it, it's good.  There's also a series of articles on The Consumerist that detail the workings of a private sales company eerily similar to the way GCI operates, not perfect but good for getting an idea of the way things are for canvassers.  

by Endymion 2007-06-25 05:37PM | 0 recs
Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and

I'm now fully behind the idea of canvassers unionizing.

But I will say that the internship model is something that works, and works well.  In pretty much any field, be it progressive politics or otherwise, interns gain a wealth of experience (although it depends on the individual internship) that give them not only the benefits of that experience (and talents, skills, etc) but also a good piece on their resume.

I know tons of former PIRG interns from all different walks of life that say that their PIRG interning experience was of tremendous benefit to them - and perhaps as importantly, say that it helped politicize them and catalyze further activism.

by Peter from WI 2007-06-25 03:35PM | 0 recs
Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and

Yeah, but since most internships (until very recently, but even still today for many) dont cover lodging, food, or pay more than a tiny stipend (if that!) only wealthy and well-to-do young people get the opportunity to participate.  That seriously diminishes diversity in the movement and the ability of low-income people and frequently youth of color to gain the necessary experience to climb up in teh progressive movement.

Additionally, since there are so few internship relative to the number of potential applicants, folks who already have inside connections tend to get those internships, creating a legacy class of professional political workers.

Individual internships may be good in and of themselves and the experience they impart, but the system itself is in pretty bad shape.  

by Mike Connery 2007-06-25 04:27PM | 0 recs
Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and

The internships to which the original poster speaks, which I assumed to be with the PIRGs, are not summer internships - they're on-campus during the school year.  

by Peter from WI 2007-06-26 05:36AM | 0 recs
Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and

Also, I've never heard of a person denied a PIRG internship that wanted one.

by Peter from WI 2007-06-26 05:39AM | 0 recs
Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and

Interesting coincidence, I once was fired from the Fund in WI by a guy named Peter(well, not directly, but that's how that works).  But I agree with your points, generally.  Internships, when paid, often lead to a lucrative and fulfilling political career, because the paid intern can afford to eat and politic at the same time.  Without money, an idealist has to sell out to the private sector in order to survive.  Experience, connections, resume notes; all that comes with any job, but some jobs enable living and others don't.  As for former PIRGers benefiting from the experience, absolutely--everyone benefits from suffering.  But that doesn't mean that people should be made to suffer.  My personal sense of activism was catalyzed tremendously; for the first time I really understood why Democrats lose elections, that there are real problems within the infrastructure of the progressive movement that need to be dealt with.  It's not bitterness that leads me to agitate against the Fund/GCI model, but rather a profound sadness that the engine which most supports my views is in need of repair.

by Endymion 2007-06-25 05:27PM | 0 recs
Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and

What's your name and when/where did you canvass in WI?

by Peter from WI 2007-06-26 05:37AM | 0 recs
Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and

Madison, WI.  I worked for Grassroots in the spring of 2005, and moved to the Fund at the start of summer '05.  I was fired after about a month(I then went to work as a bar/banquet temp).  By winter of '05, a new Director had been installed.  In fact, none of the people that I had worked with were there anymore, although there were a couple people who worked directly for WISPIRG out of the same suite that I recognized.  The new head was named Peter and he contacted me about returning to the Fund, which I did, in December '05.  The week I was fired, between Christmas and New Years, Peter was out of town, but when I asked the Assistant Director who's decision it was, she passed the buck up, specifically stating that it was Peter.  Now, I've done some looking, and your most recent diary entry here is cross-posted on another blog under a username which is identical to the last name of the Fund Director I was talking about, and so I have reason to suspect that you are in fact him.  If it's just a coincidence, or you no longer work for the Fund, then I apologize, but if you are actively defending an organization that pays you without saying so from the start, I think that damages your credibility.  I don't want to give you my name here because that would expose me much the same way your cross-posts have exposed you.  And, it's always possible you remember my name, anyway.

by Endymion 2007-06-26 09:19AM | 0 recs
Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and

Is your name Ed?  If so, I remember vaguely.  You weren't making quota, if it's the case I remember.  

I actually left there not long after then for a number of different reasons.  I am not defending the Fund or its practices, but I do think there is a lot of good that comes from PIRG's internship programs.

by Peter from WI 2007-06-26 11:50AM | 0 recs
Alternative

Why not just sign up under your real name, and found a GCI/PIRG Veterans group? Seems to accomplish the exact same thing. Unless you're trying to keep you identity under wraps, which would make that kind of counterproductive.

by ripzaw 2007-06-25 02:44PM | 0 recs
Re: Alternative

As the post indicates, many people were using my profile to organize - the purpose wasn't to mask an identity, but rather to give form to an entire class of people who share similar experiences and the same beliefs.

But Facebook requires that each profile be "owned" by a real person using their real name - so, when GCI staff reported me, Facebook shut down my profile.

by maggiemead 2007-06-25 04:22PM | 0 recs
Re: Alternative

Right, I get that's what happened. All I'm suggesting is that it would be possible to get back on and do the exact same thing within the rules by getting your own account and starting a Facebook group that serves the exact same purpose as your old group account. You personally haven't been banned, just the group account, right?

Just a thought.

by ripzaw 2007-06-25 05:56PM | 0 recs
Re: Alternative

Ah, oops - I meant to link to the group page that I started, and which still is growing. It's not growing as much, though, because having a personal profile offers a number of advantages to spreading the word.

In the meantime, a number of people have been active, posting in the group and spreading links around. It will continue, although it does seem to lack some of the energy created by an account that was explicitly devoted to this organizing.

by maggiemead 2007-06-25 06:18PM | 0 recs
Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund,

So in other words you getting kicked of Facebook had nothing to do with organizing against PIRG, Fund and GCI?

by js noble 2007-06-25 03:08PM | 0 recs
Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and

Yes.  Does seem like the headline is a totally misleading accusation.  

by Orlando 2007-06-26 04:50AM | 0 recs
Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and

People have some legit complaints about GCI/FUND, but yes this title is pretty misleading. GCI and the FUND did not create Facebooks rules. In some people's minds not matter what these orgs do (in this case nothing) they are some how still at fault in some way.

by gobears 2007-06-26 06:21AM | 0 recs
Re: Banned: How Organizing Against PIRG, Fund, and

I am "Facebook friends" with Richard Nixon and a turtle. Facebook hasn't shut down those accounts -- probably because nobody has tried to get Facebook to shut them down.

Where, exactly, have you been misled? Or is it just that you'd rather look for any way to dismiss the subject at hand?

by greg bloom 2007-06-26 07:54AM | 0 recs

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