Summer employment ads are everywhere.
“Grassroots Campaigns is immediately hiring progressive activists in San Francisco to educate the public and identify new supporters to protect reproductive health. We are working right now to: Keep birth affordable; oppose attacks on women’s health; ensure healthcare access for all; and expand global reproductive rights! Earn $400–600 weekly.”
Pulled straight from online classifieds giant Craigslist.org, this ad is meant to attract workers who are excited about a cause and ready to work. With the June primary election upon us and the November general election looming, canvassing organizations and political campaigns are mobilizing.
That means hiring. Lindsay Clarida, Northern California director of the Fund for the Public Interest, Inc., said that while canvasser turnover varies among offices during the academic year, the coming season is the time when most people sign on.
“In the summer, we get a lot of growth,” she said.
Founded in December 2003, Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. (GCI) has been coordinating fundraising efforts across the country for just under a decade.
Modeling its business after the fundraising techniques of the non-profit Fund for the Public Interest, Inc., which is just over 30 years old, GCI quickly became successful. The Fund and GCI are hired by progressive non-profits like Environment California, the Sierra Club, the Human Rights Campaign, and the American Civil Liberties Union to raise funds and outreach on their behalf.
While the California Attorney General’s Office considers GCI a commercial fundraising organization and the Fund for Public Interest, Inc. a charity, the organizations have a lot in common. Both take in more money than they pass on to advocacy organizations and have been challenged by former employees for labor rights violations.
GCI and the Fund can be considered national canvassing organizations, as they are both paid to increase membership and raise awareness for charities across the country.
In its history, GCI has raised over $500 million for progressive organizations, according to its website. Clients pay GCI for their services over time. For instance, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) paid GCI over $11.6 million in 2008 for telemarketing services, freight charges, and design and printing, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
During the 2008–09 fiscal year, the Fund for Public Interest, Inc. employed 21,217 people, many of them students. Clarida said the Fund aims to build a support base for the organizations it is contracted with.
“Our main goals are to help progressive organizations win change for the environment, human rights and other progressive causes,” Clarida said.
While national fundraisers contribute to progressive organizations that advocate on behalf of marginalized communities and environmental causes, whether or not they fulfill their duties as employers has been called into question. The Fund and GCI have been found in violation of workers’ rights several times in recent years.
Many who accept jobs with national canvassers are unaware of that history. Massimo De Maria, a UC Santa Cruz fourth-year student, worked for GCI in October 2008 as a canvasser for the DNC. He remembers the preparation GCI gave him before he went out into the field.
“They trained me by having me review a ‘rap,’ as it is called,” De Maria said in an email. “The rap is a prepared dialogue and can be modified and adapted to better fit certain conversations. The rap includes follow-up questions and information based on certain ‘canvasee’ responses.”
The rap is used in door-to-door and street interactions with potential supporters. Grant England, a recent UCSC politics graduate, worked for GCI briefly in the summer of 2010. He remembers the same system of training.
“I did my own research in addition to the page they gave us,” England said. “So I had a better understanding than most people. But the progressive organization [we were canvassing for] wasn’t very important. It was clear that money was the goal.”
Several inquiries to set up interviews with GCI national leadership staff went unanswered.
Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. is an “independent consulting firm,” according to its website. While its clients are non-profit organizations, it is not one itself. The organization prides itself on contributing 100 percent of its donations to charity.
In an email from GCI vice president Wes Jones to SF Weekly, the executive explained how this is possible in the operations of a for-profit company.
“We turn over 100 percent of the money raised on the streets and at the door to the organizations we are representing,” Jones said. “In turn, the organizations pay Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. a fee for the services we’re providing, which are inclusive of, but not limited to, signing on donors.”
By presenting the firm’s contribution as 100 percent with little emphasis on the millions of dollars billed back, Jones and Grassroots Campaigns have projected a public image that does not reflect the magnitude of fees collected from progressive organizations. Clarida provided a similar explanation for how the Fund for Public Interest, Inc. operates.
“All of the money [raised] goes to the organizations that we work with,” Clarida said, “and then the cost of the campaign.”
Funds are necessary for non-profit organizations and campaigns to maintain a voice in the over-funded world of political media. But framing national canvassing groups as grassroots organizing is a stretch, according to former Attorney General (and current Governor) Jerry Brown’s 2008 Summary of Results of Charitable Solicitations by Commercial Fundraisers.
“Historical figures show that a campaign conducted by a commercial fundraiser returns to the charity, on average, less than 50 percent of the contributions it raises on a charity’s behalf,” according to the report. “The remainder is retained by the commercial fundraiser as a fundraising fee.”
Charities pocketed only 42 percent of the total funds raised by commercial fundraisers on average, according to the state’s data from 2009.
In December 2004, a group of students canvassing on behalf of the DNC claimed Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. paid them the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour rather than Oregon’s minimum wage of $7.05 an hour. The issue was ultimately settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money.
GCI has also been entangled in more serious labor law infringements. In 2008, a GCI office in Chicago, Ill. was in violation of the National Labor Relations Act when it fired three workers after they attempted to form a union.
UCSC graduate England said the office he worked for had little accountability when it came to providing the job he agreed to. The recruiting employee said he could work part-time while he attended summer school and hired him. But when he got to the office, the manager told him he had to work full-time.
“She said it was company policy that students work full-time in the summer,” England said. “Conveniently, the guy who hired me was promoted to another office. I quit working after two or three days of eight-hour shifts because on top of summer school, it was just too much.”
In 2006, former canvassers and field managers filed Rich Prentice, et al. v. The Fund for Public Interest Research, Inc., a class-action lawsuit that claimed the Fund for the Public Interest, Inc. violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. In May 2009, the Northern District of California approved a $2.15 million settlement to compensate plaintiffs for their unpaid training days and overtime.
San Francisco attorney David Lowe represented plaintiffs in the case. He said canvassers were trained to say they were not selling anything if they were told soliciting was not allowed in a certain area.
“At the time the lawsuit was filed, the Fund classified canvassers as exempt from the Federal Labor Standards Act and the Minimum Wage Protection Act, claiming that canvassers were outside salespeople,” Lowe said. “We pointed out they were not consistent.”
Some jobs are exempt from standard overtime pay requirements, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Exempted jobs include commissioned salespeople, computer professionals who make at least $27.63 per hour and farm workers on small farms.
Lowe said the Fund ultimately corrected its illegal behavior by compensating former employees and making policy changes.
“At the end of the day, the Fund did the right thing by changing their classification of canvassers from salespeople to employees eligible for all federal rights and overtime pay,” he said.
The nature and conditions of national campaigns can be detrimental to workers. Long hours, unreasonable quotas and the constant threat of being fired create a high-stress environment that leaves many feeling jaded. Fourth-year UCSC student De Maria said his experience dealing with the public was often negative.
“The responses by some people [I approached] were horrendous,” De Maria said. “I learned that this kind of job is not in my best interest. I don’t like trying to get people’s attention that way, because I don’t like when people try to get my attention that way.”
De Maria worked two shifts over the span of two weeks. Like many canvassers, he quit due to the demanding nature of the job.
“I’d been skipping an important core class to work for the DNC, and their schedule for shifts was such that I would have to continue skipping class,” De Maria said. “I wasn’t ready to do that.”
National canvassing organizations often pit canvassers against one another by focusing on profits rather than raising awareness.
England said he secured a $5 donation a senior member of the canvassing organization felt entitled to. Because canvassers are expected to raise at least $100 per day, every increment helps them keep their jobs.
“The guy was bitter about it all day because he had a wife and kid to support,” England said. “I took a donation that he thought he deserved [to get credit for].”
A national canvasser is the middleman between communities and progressive organizations. England said the goal of GCI canvassing was clearly to get donors to go through them. Benefiting the clients is secondary, he said.
“I was specifically instructed not to give details online right away,” he said. “When I looked and saw that it was free and easy to donate online, I was bothered a bit in the back of my mind, but it didn’t hit me until later.”
Generations past have formed coalitions and taken on policy change voluntarily rather than gathering money to filter into another organization. Now thousands of activists solicit for private organizations.
Still, activists spearhead campaigns to address local issues in more traditional ways. On June 5, Santa Cruz voters will consider whether to renew expiring funding for the Santa Cruz City Elementary School District and the Santa Cruz High School District.
Liz Marcus, a fourth-year UCSC politics major, is the campaign coordinator for Yes on I and J — an initiative to renew the parcel taxes that supplement federal and state funding in local schools. The parcel taxes, if renewed, are expected to bring in $2 million in revenue to Santa Cruz schools.
“The biggest thing we’re working on is getting people to the polls,” she said. “It’s a primary, so a lot of people forget about it.”
Marcus was hired in April and receives weekly salary checks from the campaign. She works 50 to 60 hours per week and is finishing her last class at UCSC.
As the only paid worker on the campaign, Marcus coordinates the efforts of dozens of volunteers who walk the precincts, participate in phone banking, and raise awareness about Measures I and J.
“Can I count on your ‘yes’ vote?” Marcus asks repeatedly, as she walks the precincts herself.
The Yes on I and J campaign is comprised of a coalition of local parents, students, Board of Education members, and community volunteers who participate in regular meetings and initiatives. The coalition comes together every eight years to put a parcel tax on the ballot to supplement dwindling federal and state funding.
Santa Cruz City Schools Board of Education president Ken Wagman helps lead coordination meetings. He said the campaign director position has led to valuable employment for workers in the past.
“All three of our campaign directors have been either UCSC students or graduates,” Wagman said. “The job is great for someone looking to get their feet wet and see what it’s like to organize.”
One former campaign director is a schoolteacher, while the other has continued as a political consultant for another cause. Marcus is thinking about attending law school in the next few years.
Marcus said she values the networking opportunities that come with the position. She works full-time, but the campaign is mindful of her school responsibilities. She will remain in the position until the June 5 election.
Several volunteers praised her hard work in the campaign.
“Liz is doing a great job,” Wagman said. “We are lucky to have her.”
Coalitions like these operate with a much smaller budget than national organizations. The size of the I and J campaign is manageable, and they have not run into any trouble regarding U.S. labor laws. While every campaign must generate enough money to sustain itself, Yes on I and J does only that — a contrast to GCI, which turns a profit, and the Fund, which, according to their 2008 tax records, holds millions of dollars in assets.
For former GCI employee England, it’s the motive behind campaigning that makes all the difference.
“The focus was on money and the quota rather than the issues,” he said. “It made it competitive among people to get donations, which is not really what grassroots [organizing] is about.”