I am posting a story I began working on for a journalism class in the summer of 2007, about the organizations Grassroots Campaigns, Inc., The Fund for Public Interest Research, and CALPIRG. These groups — organizations whose function is largely canvassing progressives for donations, contact information which is then sold to third parties, or signatures for ballot initiatives — have been trying to recruit canvassers and canvass directors from all over my campus, San Diego State University. My focus here is on the pay and working conditions that students who accept these jobs face.
A shorter, less one-sided version was published in the campus student newspaper, The Daily Aztec, which you can view online here. Full disclosure: I am the opinion editor at The Daily Aztec.
End child poverty. Save Darfur, stop genocide. Campaign to help elect Barack Obama and take back the White House. Help protect the environment, save the rain forests, and prevent pollution.
All while being paid up to $600 a week.
It's a job progressive college students dream of. Fliers advertising jobs advocating for these causes have sprouted up on billboards all across campus. They promote not only the campaigns, but the corresponding earnings, which represent the salary of a full-time job at $12.50 an hour, before taxes. These postings represent a chance to get involved and make a difference without having to sacrifice paying the rent. It sounds too good to be true, and in many ways, it is. Most students who agree to work for these campaigns end up with more work and less money than they bargained for. That is largely due to the misrepresentation and mismanagement within the main company behind the postings, Grassroots Campaigns, Inc.
“I started working for Grassroots Campaigns because I wanted to get involved in the campaign, and I also needed money with a job over the summer,” said Ariane Myers-Turnbull, a junior at UCSD who is majoring in political science. “I would have done the same work as a volunteer, but I was excited to get paid for it. I'm vice-president of the College Democrats at UCSD. I've been very active in campaigns all my life.”
Myers-Turnbull began working for Grassroots Campaigns in June. What quickly became clear was that even though the causes seem noble and inspiring, the related jobs being posted on campus boil down to one thing: collecting money. The entry-level position is as a canvasser, which involves soliciting supporters for donations and collecting contact information. Canvassers memorize short speeches, or "raps," regarding the cause at hand, and are paid a percentage of the donation collected, plus a bonus if they meet set goals. The process seems simple, but the result is not the world-changing impact most of the idealistic applicants imagine. And then the discouraging problems crop up.
The first problem is the pay, which has two elements. First canvassers must meet quotas for the amount of donations they solicit, quotas which are high and ambiguous. After meeting quota, canvassers are paid a percentage of the donations they solicit, usually 30 percent. This means canvassers could earn great money if they get a large amount of donations – or they could make nothing at all.
“The $500-600 a week is definitely slanted, but it's not quite a lie,” said Greg Bloom, who worked as a canvass director for Grassroots Campaigns in 2004. “A canvasser takes home 30 percent of what they raise, and in 2004 in the big cities like San Diego, people could work six days a week and raise a thousand or more in a day. There were usually only one or two people in an office with that kind of canvassing talent; everyone else would scrape to make the advertised range.
“In the meantime, canvassers are forced to 'volunteer' several hours in addition the the time they're paid. Even for the lowest level people, it can be a 60 hour a week job. For the office directors, who are still just 20-24 years old, it can be a 90 hour a week job.”
Grassroots Campaigns runs canvassing operations all across the country. Workers in other states report similar problems. In one article for The Daily Page in Madison, Wis., canvassers reported receiving $130 for 37 hours of work, $281 and $340 each for two 50 hour weeks, and once even $56 for 45 hours of work. That works out to $3.51 an hour for the best paid worker, and $1.25 for the worst paid worker. There's no way to predict how much, or how little, the canvasser may get in a given pay period.
Meyers-Turnbull ran into quota problems quickly. “Even with the poor working conditions I continued to work there because I liked the people I worked with, and I believed in the work,” she said.
“But soon it got harder and harder to make money and I began to see people being fired for not making quota, even when they were really fantastic workers. I really never had a problem with making quota, but every day became a struggle. I would have to basically beg people to give me twenty bucks so I could meet my goal.”
Arwen Hawks, a communication senior at SDSU, canvassed for the Sierra Club in 1998 through The Fund for Public Interest Research, the non-profit alternative of Grassroots Campaigns. The pay scale was no better back then.
“We got a percentage of sales, which was not very much. If you didn't make a sale you didn't make any money.”
For Kate Burke, the pay scale was Grassroots Campaigns' biggest problem.
“I was an assistant director for GCI's canvass for the Democratic National Committee in 2004, in the campaign to 'beat Bush,'” Burke said.
“They sent me to San Diego. It's a hard place to raise money. I found myself in the position of being unable to explain anyone's pay scale. Nobody could explain the pay scale -- it was awful. We had these poor, poor people who worked for us and who just wouldn't get paid on time, or at all, in part because they were unable to raise much money.
“I think they make the pay scale purposely ambiguous,” Burke continued. “It wasn't based on how many hours you worked, and after all their conditions, you would make like $50 per day.”
Once the canvassers make quota, there are still difficulties getting the very little they've managed to rightfully earn.
“GCI was unethical with paychecks and reimbursements,” said Burke. “The canvassers would be asking, 'Can I please just get my $18 check, so that I can put gas in my car?' But we didn't have the checks. I was so severely embarrassed. One director gave someone $300 of her own money, just because she felt so bad because this canvasser's pay hadn't come.”
The second problem is the working conditions. In order to make the money being advertised, canvassers usually end up having to work 10-14 hours per day. Field managers and directors have to complete paperwork, answer phone calls, and coordinate operations, but they're still expected to canvass and make the quota. Canvassers work in unfamiliar neighborhoods, walking up to homes of strangers. These arrangements cause a lot of canvassers to worry about their health and safety.
“Grassroots Campaigns, which ran the DNC canvass, has a history of labor disputes, including several law suits settled out of court,” said Bloom. “And it is linked with the Fund for Public Interest Research, which is known for union-busting.”
“It was really hard and a lot of times it was dangerous,” said Myers-Turnbull. “Once I was locked in some Republican's yard as he ranted at me and wouldn't let me out. I was cursed at numerous times, harassed and told that I was a terrible person on a daily basis. But it was all about making quota, so I just tried to move on when that happened. A lot of times I left crying and shaking because of an experience. I know that happened to a lot of people.”
Arwen Hawks also felt unsafe.
“The next day after I was hired, I had my own route and was on my own. They had a van and would drop us off at different places. I remember feeling really lonely, and I hadn't brought food so I got hungry. There were no breaks, unless you liked sitting on the curb or sidewalk. I felt unsafe because I had to knock on strangers doors, and I was out in the open with no ride home or way out. You never knew who would open the door! They would drop us off for 5 or 6 hours or so.”
Kate Burke also experienced problems with working conditions, both with her canvassers and for herself.
“I'd hired a woman who had monitored elections in Bosnia, and she was getting screamed at on the street,” she said. “It was awful.
“After four months, I told GCI that if was time for me to find another way to help 'beat Bush.' I was so completely exhausted that I was ordered bed rest for 4 days by my doctor. But since GCI was closing down another local office, and there was only one other director, I stayed on for two weeks to help wrap everything up. Then after all that, they called me and told me that I 'wasn't pulling my weight' the last week, and therefore they weren't going to pay me for that week! Their reason was that I had not canvassed during that time. Never mind my four months of success as a canvasser and canvassing trainer. I guess running their office alone with one person while sick doesn't count as actual work.”
Because of the working conditions, pay problems, and quota requirements, Grassroots Campaigns has a lot of difficulty keeping staff members. Workers can be promoted quickly if they're a successful canvasser, and are rewarded with an increase in hours and responsibilities. However, the promotion doesn't come with a significant increase in pay, and little to no training on how to meet those new responsibilities.
“My first week I had the highest average of the entire office so I was promoted to field manager,” said Myers-Turnbull. “However, I didn't have any training for that and was just told to do it. Its a very difficult job and easy to screw up, but I just barely managed to figure it out.
“My main problem with the promotion is that we weren't paid nearly enough for the extra work it entails. Its only five dollars more a day, and any overtime over 40 hours, but we usually don't get that. I ended up getting only about 20 more dollars a week for about two or three extra hours of work a day, and more responsibility.
“We also had to drive to the site. I don't like to drive, but they forced me to. They also only pay 25 cents a mile while the government rate is about 55 cents. So I was losing a lot of money on gas. I lost almost 50 dollars a week to driving people around.
“The old director of the San Diego office, my old boss, was the most gung-ho activist I've ever met, but he had to quit Grassroots because he felt sick having to fire good people who didn't deserve it. He was also working about 12 to 13 hours a day for a very low salary.”
All of this results in burnout and disillusionment of progressive youth. This burnout has been documented extensively by Dr. Dana Fisher in her book, Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America.
“Canvassing does not foster long-term dedication and commitment or develop much local infrastructure,” Fisher wrote in an article for The American Prospect summarizing her conclusions.
“At the end of the campaign, you're left with nothing, basically, because all those canvassers walk out the door. It's not a job that most people do time and time again. So the organizations get members and money out of canvassers, and most of the canvassers go back to their schools or jobs, or move on to an entirely different campaign when it's over. As a result, this type of outsourced politics leaves the grassroots base on the left disconnected and disorganized.”
Arwen Hawks certainly didn't want to repeat her experience. “I would never do that again,” said Hawks. “It was one of the worst jobs I ever had. I would not recommend it to anyone. I think it is totally unsafe and unfair.”
Even though Myers-Turnbull initially thought her sacrifice was for a good cause, she ultimately agreed.
“I left because I felt that the job was too dangerous, I was losing money on gas, I was tired of begging already supportive Democrats for a few dollars just so I could not get fired, I felt that the employees weren't appreciated and that they were firing good people who were also friends. I was tired in general from working 10 hour days and only being paid about 70 dollars a day. I basically lost faith in the organization's ability to truly make a difference.”
This is about more than just overworking some progressive, idealistic college students.
“We're coming up onto another election, and GCI is still operating with highly irresponsible and even immoral practices, still putting the Democratic Party's reputation in danger,” said Burke. “It's not just a matter of hypocrisy with regards to the minimum wage. It's a matter of corporate responsibility. For Democrats, it needs to start here.”
UPDATE: I have received more comments about this story than anything else I have ever written!* Some of the comments were from young people who had been considering taking a job with Grassroots Campaigns and changed their mind after reading this. One comment (only one!) was from a current employee of Grassroots Campaigns. For those of you who have wondered where I got my facts and what I researched, feel free to check out my project notes at http://tinyurl.com/gci-truth. If you can get anyone from Grassroots Campaigns to talk to me (none of them would respond during the research process, despite my numerous attempts to contact an official spokesperson of some kind at some level, through multiple channels, so I have no idea what anyone at GCI thinks of this article), I would gladly do a follow-up with the perspective of the organization and the people in it.
* With the exception of one pro-gun-control opinion column I wrote that was briefly reposted to freerepublic.com. But those comments fizzled out long ago, and these comments are a slow but steady stream that has yet to end.