Canvassing is the financial motor for progressive organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the Sierra Club, which both contract with the Fund for Public Interest Research, and local group Environment Oregon. The Fund itself employed 10,500 people in 2010, bringing in $26.5 million. Meanwhile, in Portland, their workers are paid hourly wages that depend largely on how much they raise and are fired if they don't meet fundraising quota for two weeks.
For years, Portland canvassers have tried to organize for better conditions. With a half dozen canvassing organizations in Portland and unemployment fueling a ready stable of willing workers, they've always failed. But in 2011, phone bankers in the Fund for Public Interest Research's telephone outreach project actually managed to form a union. Workers at the Fund now complain that having a union is doing little good, because the progressive nonprofit will not negotiate with them in good faith and has systematically fired the main union organizers.
After the last of the initial Fund union organizers was fired this month—right before negotiations with leaders of the national organization last week—the fledgling union staged a walkout that drew over 100 supporters to a protest rally outside the nonprofit's local office in SE Morrison and Grand last Wednesday, November 14.
"They've been firing us left and right," says David Neel, a single father of two who worked as a phone canvasser for a year and a half, helping spearhead the union, before he was accused of cheating his fundraising numbers this month and summarily fired.
The main demands of the union are a process to appeal firings, along with upping the time workers can be under quota from two weeks to four, and making wages more stable. The departure of all the workers involved in the initial union drive is in some ways not entirely surprising because canvassing has a lot of turnover. But Neel and others say they are being specifically targeted for trying to organize a union. The Fund has previously been accused of union busting in Los Angeles.
At the protest, the president of
Portland Oregon's AFL-CIO, Tom Chamberlain, said the union would no longer be working with OSPIRG or Environment Oregon on state political issues until the Fund changed its ways. The progressive groups have collaborated in the past on fronts like affordable healthcare. Over the summer, the AFL-CIO filed a complaint on behalf of Portland's Fund workers with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that the nonprofit violated the law by threatening to shut down the Portland operation entirely if the workers kept engaging in union activities. A hearing before a judge on the issue is now set for January.
Meanwhile, the telephone canvassers' union is still hoping to work out a deal with their employers. But Neel was not happy about how negotiations proceeded last week with the group's national representatives, who Neel says presented worse proposals than the union saw during their last round of talks in September. "It was a slap in the face," says Neel.
The Fund has not yet responded to a request for comment.