They are everywhere. Outside New Seasons. On Hawthorne. Outside your door. Clipboard-bearing canvassers are the bedrock of America's major progressive organizations, and Portland brings in millions of dollars annually for groups like the Sierra Club and the American Civil Liberties Union. During the summer, canvassing organizations' bright "Jobs to Save the Environment!" posters plaster Portland's streets. But two weeks ago, a small group of canvassers for Working America, the community organizing wing of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), put up posters of their own around town: "Canvassers Unite!"
Fed up with preaching about living wages and health care issues while they're barely scraping by—and with their jobs imperiled by the recession—Working America canvassers are pushing for more representation within their own organization. Forming a strong, cohesive canvassing union is an infamously difficult task.
"Canvassers across the city are struggling, but each office is struggling in its own way," says Robby Kunkle, a Working America canvasser who helped organize the "Canvassers Unite!" meeting.
Canvassing organizations find plenty of willing employees in Portland, thanks to the city's tight job market and abundance of idealistic young liberals. In the month before the election, Working America alone sent out 120-150 people a day, hitting 250,000 doors in the Portland area, says Regional Director Dan Mahr.
According to many career canvassers, the vast majority of new hires don't last two weeks. This model of high, rapid turnover is part of the problem, say canvassers who stick around long enough to earn health benefits and raises.
"The longer you work with the organization, the more it makes you feel like cheap labor," says a canvasser who has worked for the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) for six months and is afraid she will be fired for speaking out publicly.
"It sort of breaks your spirit sometimes," she continues, describing the feeling of stuffing envelopes with fliers saying PIRG is fighting for state-mandated paid sick days while not receiving any paid sick days herself. "They call it a grassroots organization, but when you see all the numbers and how much they're bringing in, you see it's an elite lobbying group," says the PIRG canvasser, who raises $2,500 every two weeks to earn her $750 paycheck.
Canvassers' jobs and salaries depend on raising a certain amount of money—"quota," in canvasser jargon—every week. Quotas have stayed the same despite the recession and high unemployment, placing even career canvassers under stress.
"I've gotten really hardcore about it. I'll ask people four times [for a donation]," says Kunkle. Out of the dozens of houses he canvassed one night last week, Kunkle says he talked to only four employed people. "Everyone else was retired or unemployed."
One canvasser at the PIRG office says workers have recently passed around the Rose City Resource Guide—the city's guide to social services like food stamps—and brought in donated food baskets to share.
"It doesn't matter how good you are at convincing people to give you money. If they don't have it, they don't have it," says the PIRG canvasser.
At the "Canvassers Unite!" meeting on Saturday, February 21, Working America doorknockers discussed their options. They could try to work within their existing union, Office and Professional Employees International Union, Local 2—which at the time they agreed was unresponsive, since it's based in Maryland—or withdraw from the union and start their own here in Portland.
At the meeting, Kunkle was adamant that the issue is not so much about higher wages than wanting more fundraising tools to help meet quota—like membership lists. "What's exciting about this is that it's a positive thing," he says. "We're fighting for our own jobs and we love doing this."
Previous attempts to unionize canvassing organizations have ended in failure.
"These organizations have really high turnover rates, which makes it really hard to sustain any union effort," says Christian Miller, who led a union effort at a Los Angeles-based PIRG office in 2006. He says the PIRG found excuses to fire the union organizers over the course of a year and then shut down the office.
For now, the Working America canvassers decided not to break off and start their own union. Instead, they hope that meeting weekly with their existing union reps will change the organization from within.
Working America's Mahr says that while canvassing isn't the job for everyone, "We've been doing this for four years successfully now, and we're certainly open for discussions with staff."
PIRG did not return the Mercury's repeated requests for comment by press time.