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Fundraising Hell

Canvassers Accuse Progressive Nonprofit of Union-Busting

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CLIPBOARD-WIELDING canvassers are part of Portland's social fabric. You can't miss them—try though you might—fundraising for progressive causes on street corners, door to door, and over the phone.

The tough job has high turnover and long hours. But the local office of one of the country's biggest canvassing nonprofits, the Fund for the Public Interest, managed to unionize last year. Now, workers say, it's done them little good—they say that the progressive Fund has fired pro-union workers and failed to negotiate with the group in good faith.

A pro-union protest outside the Fund's phone-banking office last Wednesday, November 14, brought more than 100 people—many of them veterans of liberal causes, now out to rally against a group that provides the cash for progressive lobbying causes. Signs and chants lambasted the Fund for allegedly undermining workers who toil on campaigns for issues like affordable health care.

Canvassing, and the donations it brings, is the financial lifeblood of progressive nonprofits like the Human Rights Campaign, Sierra Club, and Environment Oregon, all of which contract with the Fund to do their outreach and draft new members. The Fund was founded in 1982 to serve as the fundraising wing of numerous public-interest groups and when it comes to making money, the Fund is very successful: In 2010—the most recent tax forms available—the Fund employed more than 10,500 people nationwide to knock on doors and make calls, raising $26.5 million.

Portland's unionizing efforts could have implications for all those workers, especially the ones employed in the Fund's two other permanent "telephone outreach project" offices.

Forming the union was a hardscrabble effort itself—canvassers have high turnover rates but also often stick beside their employer because they support the progressive causes the Fund backs. ["Hard Knocks," News, March 2009] But after various stalled efforts, the Fund's Portland phone-bank office voted to unionize a year ago.

The union is demanding better job security (workers are immediately fired if they don't meet a fundraising quota two weeks in a row; the union wants that upped to four weeks), a process to appeal firings, and wage stability (calculating hourly wages based on a lifetime fundraising rate, rather than on their performance over the past two weeks).

This is not the first allegation of union-busting the Fund has weathered. In 2005, Los Angeles Fund canvassers voted to unionize and claim to have been systematically fired over the next year, until their office was closed. One of the leaders of the union filed a class-action lawsuit alleging canvassers were not paid minimum wage, eventually winning $2.15 million for 12,000 workers.

That's exactly the pattern Portland telephone canvassers say is happening here. Since the union vote last year, all six original members of the union negotiating team have been fired. That's not entirely surprising, given that canvassing often sees immediate firings when workers fail to meet fundraising quotas. But the workers say the Fund managers are finding trumped-up reasons to fire union leaders. Then, over the summer, the canvassers' union—an affiliate of the AFL-CIO's Communication Workers of America—complained to the National Labor Relations Board that a Fund representative had verbally threatened to shut down the office if canvassers kept working with the union. The issue goes before a judge this January.

"They've been firing us left and right. We're done with that," says David Neel, a union organizer who supported two kids on Fund paychecks for a year and a half before he was fired this month, allegedly for cheating on his fundraising numbers. Seventeen of the Portland telephone office's current 20 workers joined the walkout, according to organizers.

Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain says the union no longer will work as political allies with the Fund's local partners, Environment Oregon and the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group, until union negotiations improve.

"This is total hypocrisy," Chamberlain said at the protest last week.

The Fund denies union-busting and says it is negotiating in good faith with the workers.

"We recognize the right of all employees to form or join a union, and would not retaliate against them for doing so," says Fund spokesperson Caitlin Seeley, who adds that the Fund is considering various union proposals.

After last week's protest, union leaders met with Pat Wood, the Fund's national telephone outreach project director for negotiations. Things did not go well, according to former canvasser Neel, who says the Fund presented a proposal worse than the one union leaders had seen at negotiations this fall.

"It was the biggest slap in the face," says Neel. "Things are not moving forward."

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Full disclosure: Author Sarah Mirk worked in the Portland Fund for the Public Interest office as a door-to-door canvasser in the summer of 2006. She was neither fired nor involved in any union efforts.

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