United Campaign Workers Challenge the Predatory Tactics of Grassroots Campaigns Inc. and the Nature Conservancy

The United Campaign Workers, a project of the Portland IWW, showed the depth of its campaigns as it organized at Grassroots Campaign Inc., where workers are raising money for "progressive" organizations like Planned Parenthood and The Nature Conservancy. The shocking working conditions were matched by union busting tactics against a workplace that saw 100% IWW membership.

Submitted by Eviction Free Zone on October 12, 2014

Outside of coffee shops and bookstores, crowded Whole Foods stores and worker-run co-ops nationwide, you‘re bound to find canvassers asking for donations or signatures in support of a host of causes. They’re often young people shaking the can for high-profile nonprofits. But as we get deeper into the post-crash precarious economy, the image of canvassers as idealistic college students making a few extra bucks on summer break quickly disintegrates. People are turning to this occupation as their primary source of income, according to many active campaigners. They are hired by independently contracted companies to canvas for nonprofits. The quotas are demanding, making the work one of the most difficult low-wage jobs to hold on to.

In Portland, Oregon, one union local as formed precisely to take on this precarious world of street canvassing, and they are growing at a pace no one could have predicted.

Last week, the United Campaign Workers union, an affiliate of the Portland Industrial Workers of the World, announced its second organized workplace in its less than two months of existence. (The first was the Campaign for the Restoration and Regulation of Hemp.)

Canvassers working for Grassroots Campaigns Inc. (GCI), a third-party contractor that does street canvassing and fundraising for progressive nonprofit organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the Southern Poverty Law Center, informed management of their unionization drive two weeks ago. The union drive began in response to what workers say were unsustainable turnover rates from firings and overly complicated pay scales.

According to workers, GCI’s strict quota system means many workers don’t last past first few days of canvassing. New hires must bring in $130 in donations during at least one of their first three days on the job; otherwise, their probationary period ends in termination. After that, workers must average $130 per day each week. Workers say the policy causes such a high turnover rate that few canvassers or supervisors have more than a few weeks’ experience. (GCI regional director Elise Stuewe said via email that this turnover rate and the difficulty of meeting quotas are “vastly overstated … though it’s true this is a challenging job that’s not for everyone.”)

After GCI workers informed management of their organizing campaign, they asked to sit down and negotiate terms. Management refused, and instead, workers say, instituted a hiring freeze, which they believe was intended to keep new workers from being recruited by the union—previously, they say, hiring was a constant process at the Portland GCI office, with field managers reporting six to 10 new hires weekly. The hiring freeze was set to be lifted this week.

The case is different from most unionization efforts, as UCW workers have chosen not to seek a contract or file for a National Labor Relations Board election. Because of the high turnover rate and workers’ lack of confidence that GCI would maintain neutrality during card check, the workers are instead using the old-school tactic of solidarity unionism. A form of organizing that dominated before unions had institutional recognition through the NLRB, solidarity unionism means the demands of workers are enforced only through the actions workers can take in response to management, rather than NLRB sanctions. (Although their right to organize as a union is still legally protected.) As a result, workers have fewer limitations on direct action than in a traditional organizing drive: They can legally strike and take other actions at any point.
Right now, the union is leveraging public pressure. On Saturday, August 2, workers and community supporters of the organizing drive rallied in front of the GCI headquarters in Portland, calling for the company to be held accountable for its labor practices.

“I’m out here [rallying in front of GCI] because I have worked with GCI for over a year, and the turnover is absolutely unacceptable,” said union member and GCI canvasser Haley Boyd. “People are undertrained for their jobs and they are disrespected. The result is that when we go out there to talk to people about organizations like the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, ACLU, the Nature Conservancy, we are giving a bad impression on the whole.”

Workers allege that, despite company policy mandating 90 minutes of training for new hires during the probationary period, new employees are given only about 30 minutes of in-office training about canvassing—often without sufficient information about individual campaigns—before going out into the field, which means they cannot fully represent the organizations they are raising funds for. (Management maintains that the stated policy is enforced, and that new employees receive an hour of training each day after the first.)
Uncertain wages, too, are a major sticking point for canvassers. Workers say they’re unsure what wages they can expect in a given week. GCI offers a base pay of minimum wage in addition to financial incentives for reaching a quota of $130 in donations per day, on average, over the course of a five-day week—which the vast majority of workers do not.

Workers say that about a third of the fluctuating workforce in their Portland location is older than 25, and many canvassers rely on the job as their sole source of household income.

Additionally, workers say that healthcare and sick leave are not always available, even when they should be. “We have had people in our union canvassing on the street through very serious medical conditions because our employer never informed any of its employees we’ve been accruing paid sick leave since January 1,” notes canvasser Andrew Lee. “We also have several members of our union [say] that upon applying, they were required to refuse the healthcare that the company offered as a condition of employment.”
“No one's employment has ever been conditioned on refusing healthcare,” says Stuewe. “There may be confusion over notices handed out to newly hired staff as part of complying with the Affordable Care Act.”
Workers confirm that they received packets about the Affordable Care Act, but maintain that they were instructed to check the refusal of healthcare box.

In addition, former employee Mandie Gavitt claims that workers were promised promotions they never received and that she and several coworkers were terminated after trying to raise the issues with management. “[GCI] needs to be held accountable … because when I complained to them, they didn’t do anything,” she says.

Canvassers say they are galled by the irony of advocating for nonprofits when they themselves don’t receive fair treatment.

“We are campaigning for sustainability, but we don’t have sustainable jobs,” says Lee. “We are campaigning for women’s healthcare, but we are lied to about healthcare in our own workplace.”

At the August 2 action, workers and allies entered the GCI campaign office and read a list of demands to their manager: healthcare, overtime, sick leave, a $15 hourly base pay for workers, an exemption from quotas for the first two weeks of employment, a revised quota system, adequate training for new hires, proper training for field managers, terminations only for just cause, and regular meetings between management and the union.

Workers had hoped the August 2 community action would be enough to coax management to deal with the union directly, but the instability that has marked their tenure at GCI has extended to the talks as well. They have also matched this with collective call-ins from supporters from around the country, and even a solidarity action from IWW members at GCI’s Boston headquarters.

“The way that a lot of us look at it is that we have no job security already,” says Lee. “I’ve been in the office about three weeks; I’m one of the longest-term employees there now. I have seen over 70 [to] 80 percent of the people working there when I was hired be fired since then. Of course, there’s always the risk that our employer will retaliate against us illegally, but I think a lot of us have been so supportive of this organizing and so involved.”

Management told the workers that GCI’s regional director would be meeting with the workers on August 6 to begin negotiations, but have since refused to recognize the union without an NLRB election. Workers responded to the decision with a community rally in front of the local GCI office at the close of business on August 7. They had planned to meet with GCI staff as they left for the day. The managers in question, however, refused to leave the building with the workers present.

The workers came together and organized a follow up action, now claiming 100% of the current non-managerial staff at GCI being with the union. The vast majority of these workers are new to the union and labor issues broadly, but taking a lead as the campaign continues. On Wednesday, August 13th, a rally formed in front of GCI with almost forty workers and community supporters. They rallied with chants directed at management and waited for workers to get off for the day, all of which joined the rally and spoke out about their conditions.

One worker, a single parent, discussed how she was forced to work with a concussion and damaged eye because GCI did not inform her about her legally mandated sick leave. “Because it is obviously difficult to fundraise with a bloody eye I did not do so well, and did not meet quota that week,” she said. “The following week management put me on review. I nearly lost my job.” This is her primary income that she uses to raise her daughter, and her ability to do so was put into question as a direct result of management’s withholding of sick leave information.

Workers then led the attendees up the stairs into the office where they banged on the door, demanding that management open up and listen to their demands. Management refused and instead hid while workers chanted and continued knocking aggressively. After it became clear that they were not going to be allowed in to discuss terms, the rally went outside and waited for management to leave for the day. For the next four hours, management continued to cower inside instead of heading to their cars. Workers led IWW songs, played games, and did a limbo competition to keep up people’s spirits as they attempted to wait out the bosses. Afterwards, several Unfair Labor Practices complaints were filed, most citing intimidation.

Showing that there was complete unity with the union amongst staff, they staged a personal vote to show that the union had complete worker support. The vote was held anonomously and a third-party participated in the vote count to ensure neutrality, though it was not done through the NLRB process. Management refused to discuss the conditions or recognize the union even after this process and, in a move that illustrates the pettiness of the union busting tactics, had workers clock off for the fifteen minutes it took for the union ballots to be cast and counted.

Once the Field Manager returned from her surprise vacation, workers surprised her with another rally that brought out dozens of supporters. On August 27th a large mobilization attempted to again enter the office to negotiate with management, and the assistant manager refused to allow anyone into the office.

Workers have stated the repression continued as management began using the complicated quota system to threaten specific worker’s jobs, which has been interpreted as retaliation for union activity. One worker organizer, Laryssa, who had been incredibly active during the campaign, had her job put into a precarious place. Like many workers, when her numbers drifted downward she was put on review. As they returned to normal, she got taken off review, but later management recanted this and said that the review period had never ended. The union organized an emergency call in, where supporters and fellow union members called into GCI and the Nature Conservancy to declare disgust at the alleged retalitation.

As the Nature Conservancy became the sole contract with the Portland office of GCI, attention began to be paid to them and their relationship with their fundraising wing. An action was organized on September 9th where canvass workers and supporters entered the Nature Conservancy to read a letter to the key manager in charge of fundraising. In the letter, workers discussed their working conditions and pay, as well as asking the Nature Conservancy to put pressure on GCI to negotiate with the union. The manager that was present listened intently and noted that the workers had completely valid concerns, and that this information is going to the correct channels internal to the Nature Conservancy. This was the most receptive response that UCW members have received since the beginning of the campaign, and workers made it clear that they did not want the Nature Conservancy to cut its contract with GCI and to instead force them to negotiate in good faith with the union constituency. Management also noted that it sounded like GCI was not even living up to the contracts that it had signed with the Nature Conservancy, not to mention violating basic labor laws.

Though claiming that their hiring freeze was over, GCI has failed to add staff at any comparable rate as before. Many workers are interpreting this as the beginning of GCI closing up shop in their Portland office, which is a common union busting tactic that other canvassing ships have used in the past.

Even against what the workers asked of the Nature Conservancy, they decided to pull their contract with GCI in response to their treatment of the workers. GCI, in response, did exactly what workers feared they would: they closed up the Portland location entirely. Workers came in on September 17th for a regular work day and were let know that they would all be fired immediately, and only received pay for the week. Workers decided to confront the Nature Conservancy about their turn of face by marching into their offices on the same day as the mass termination.

Over several actions at the Nature Conservancy, workers demanded a clear answer to why the contract was pulled even though they explicitly asked for it to be maintained. On September 25th workers entered their location to demand that upper management at TNC call their former employer and put pressure on them to give the workers a fair severance pay. Though the staff on site said that they were sympathetic, as workers challenged them and refused to leave the management would not take any actions and passed the responsibility to other staff people. Workers returned the following day, hoping to confront the person who pulled the plug on the contract directly.

As the workers entered the building the relevant management and campaign directors were ready and waiting, with a letter written by Kaie Valvo, the Conservancy’s Director of Canvassing Programs. In the letter she fained interested in the workers’ plight, yet repeatedly stressed that nothing would be done about it. “We understand your position but the TNC does not have the ability to solve your issues,” she wrote. “Protest at TNC will not result in pressure on GCI to agree to your demands.”

Workers decided to call her while in the office, putting her on speaker phone to confront her and the staff in the office simultaneously. Both repeated their stance of non-involvement, and said that they would be prohibited from making a call to GCI and stating that they supported severance pay for the workers. They persisted that pulling the contract from GCI in Portland was not due to union activity, but instead because of a decline of donations coming in and because of recruitment practices GCI had that annoyed some larger donors.

Even though the workers at the GCI Portland may have lost their jobs permanently, they are refusing to back down from what has become a substantial fight for a union in the canvassing industry. They are going to continue to put pressure on GCI, and their contracting clients, nationally, and putting a call out for other IWW locals to prioritize canvassing work, and GCI specifically, when creating organizing priorities. Because of the nature of this canvassing work, and the political nature of many of the existing IWW membership, it serves to reason that many IWW members are already intersecting with these predatory canvassing shops. This makes the IWW a perfect candidate to take the UCW campaign national and to look at organizing GCI shops in different cities simultaneously. Unlike many campaign-specific canvassing projects, GCI is contracted for fundraising consistently throughout the year and can be a company that is an ongoing target for union agitation.

A shorter version of this article was originally published at In These Times.