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News ::
Workers exploited at PIRG, ACORN, INFACT
20 Feb 2002
Progressive groups often treat their employees no better than do large corporations.
Last summer, 19 year old Gabriella Cebada-Mora saw a sign advertising a summer job to help save the environment and promote human rights and get paid $4000-6000 while doing it. "It seemed perfect that I could actually get paid to do activist work," she said. At her interview with the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), they told her she had the credentials to be a field organizer, which would put her on the higher end of the pay scale. "I needed to find a job that would pay my rent and help me save money for school," Gabby recalled. "They said they would teach me organizing skills, how to write press releases, do lobbying - they completely underemphasized the canvassing part."

Mike Conti, 19, also got a summer job as a canvasser with PIRG in Albany, New York.

"You literally go from door to door, talking to as many people as you can before the day is done, trying to solicit donations," Mike explains. However, the work lasts quite a bit longer than that.

"Before you go out, you practice your ’rap’ in preparation for the different responses you’ll get. Then there’s a briefing where current events, are discussed," said Mike. "And after returning from canvass, there’s paperwork to deal with. It’s safe to say that ten hour days are the norm."

When Gabby started her job, she quickly learned about the quota system. Meeting quota meant that Gabby would have to collect $600 per week ($120 per day) in order to receive full pay. "They didn’t even mention this during the interview," she said.

Nobody told her about the 10-12 hour days and what would happen if she didn’t meet quota for a week, nor did anyone tell her that being a field organizer meant that she would be responsible for not only her own, but everyone else’s quota.

"During the first week I decided I didn’t want the field organizer position, since they were only giving us $50 more per week and they wanted me to work 65 hours per week. Plus, there were no days off. If I missed a day during the week, no matter what the reason, I had to make it up on the weekend or risk being fired," said Gabby.

"On average, I would make about $275 a week for working at least fifty hours," Gabby noted. "If I reached quota I would get base pay, $275 per week - anything over quota I got 35% of it, but usually I just made quota."

"[PIRG’s] intentions are good but the way they go about trying to recruit people to help them is dishonest - they feed off of young, naive activists who are willing to give lots of time for no pay to bring about what they believe in," Gabby said. "Everyone I met there, all the canvassers, were really cool, smart individuals; great people who decided to do it anyway, despite the pay in the hope it would bring about some good."

Mike noted the positives and the negatives. "It’s tough work. You have to deal with a lot of rejection…On the other hand, it’s also very rewarding. Every day you meet people who really, genuinely care about helping improve everyone’s lives."

The PIRGs go through canvassers like water. They put up signs everyone advertising the job so there’s a constant supply of new and good intentioned workers. Instead of keeping a steady, dedicated workforce by ensuring decent working conditions and benefits, they rely upon misleading advertising to bring in workers. Then they manipulate the job and the method of compensation so that people will stay and work for at least a week.

Recently, workers at the L.A. Greenpeace Project, a California PIRG office, reported to work one day to find the office closed - permanently. The staff there believes the only reason the office was closed was because they were trying to unionize. The two directors at the office had advocated the union because they were having trouble getting reimbursement from the national office for supplies and they hadn’t received the health care they had been promised.

Also, workers felt that they weren’t making a livable wage. When the directors confronted Regional Director Ben Flamm about why they had been fired, he retorted, "Because you have no trust in the Fund, you can no longer be trusted."

Still, some progress is being made. In late January, workers at the Minnesota PIRG office effectively joined the Minnesota Newspaper Guild Typographical Union, but not without opposition. At first, the board of directors did not recognize the card check but finally accepted it so that they could avoid a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing.

"I was kind of surprised. We’ve worked in coalition with unions in the past, and I thought it was a given in the progressive community that you don’t fight unions," said Allison Sharkey, a Minnesota PIRG worker.

When asked about unionizing efforts, Ed Johnson, Assistant National Canvass Director stated, "Of course, I recognize their employees’ right to form a union, as I recognize the right of all employees to do so." He couldn’t comment on the Minnesota office, but he did state that the California office had to be closed because the two directors were fired. The workers were offered jobs in other offices and those who declined were given two weeks severance pay.

Here in Boston, two non-profits, the Mass Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC) and INFACT, a grassroots corporate accountability organization, are currently under attack for poor labor practices.

Employees at the MSPCC voted last April to join Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 509 by an 80% margin. This vote came after a vicious anti-union campaign.

Their victory was short-lived when the MSPCC refused to recognize their vote, which was declared legal and upstanding by the NLRB. This NLRB decision required the MSPCC to bargain with the union. Instead they decided to appeal the decision through the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. According to SEIU 509, the MSPCC has already spent over $50,000 on lawyers trying to fight this decision.

The newest labor struggle is at Infact, whose main campaign is a boycott of Phillip Morris/Kraft boycott. While they claim that they are a grassroots organization, they are not respecting their workers’ right to organize. Since the union there was formed, three of the founding nine workers have been fired and three more were laid off. Of the remaining three, two have been threatened with their jobs. The entire staff was only 20 people, of which five were management.

Florencia Manovil, one of the laid-off workers, commented that this is more than a union-busting issue; it’s a race issue. Florencia was a founding member of the people of color and immigrants caucus, a group of five employees. They felt disenfranchised by the management and wanted their voices to be heard. This caucus supported the unionizing efforts and now only one member still has a job.

"Infact says their priority is to organize in communities most affected by multinationals and that they’re committed to diversity but their actions in the workplace show otherwise," Florencia said.

All Infact employees have to raise funds by doing one-on-one house visits. "They have no racial sensitivity whatsoever," Florencia stated. "Selena, an Asian woman, said it’s weird asking for money culturally." She also mentioned that one of her fellow employees, a black man, had a hard time raising funds in this manner. When she and some other employees tried to suggest other methods of fundraising, they were quickly told that the policy would not change.

"[Infact] call themselves a grassroots organization but they make top-down decisions," Florencia said. "It’s so hypocritical."

Management just announced that they would be laying off three more people soon, cutting their total staff down to nine. They claim it’s due to a budget crisis, but workers like Florencia claim it’s because of their fundraising methods and lack of democracy in the workplace.

Now Florencia is working for Mass Voters for Clean Elections.

Many of these labor practices are not much different than those practiced in other fields and by other companies. What makes them so egregious is the hypocrisy shrouding the allegations. Each of these organizations considers themselves a progressive non-profit, and by that definition they should be upholding basic labor rights.

There are some themes that run throughout all of these accounts. Workers at all of these non-profits work under management that takes advantage of its power and silences the concerns of its workers. In the case of the PIRG and Infact, the disputes revolve around fundraising practices. Many non-profits run effectively within a structure where all workers have a voice, whether they are unionized or not.

This article originally appeared in The Student Underground, an independent publication based at Boston University.
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ACORN is also bad news
20 Feb 2002
Pro-union, anti-union

ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) is a progressive group that organizes residents of low-income neighborhoods. Some of their most successfull and high-profile efforts have been living wage campaigns. And that’s why their labor practices seem so particularly hypocritical.
At some offices, quota systems mean that if organizers don’t sign up enough people in a week, they don’t get paid. Many find that they are expected to work far more than 40 hours a week for little compensation.
Despite their pro-labor politics, ACORN has reacted harshly when employees have tried to unionize. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical union, has led strikes and actions against ACORN in several cities, including Seattle, Philadelphia, and Boston.
“ACORN's People's Platform supports unions, insisting that workers fired for union activity should get five times their back pay,” said IWW General Seceratary-Treasurer Alexis Buss. “Meanwhile, ACORN is firing unionists and engaging in the very activity it claims to oppose.”
Jaime Weiss (COM ‘01) moved to New York after graduating and took a job at the local ACORN office. Although better than some offices, he was paid only $10/hour for the grueling work. Organizers were treated like peons, he said, and quit frequently. This undermines any long-term relationship between organizers and constituents.
“Neighborhoods are neglected becasue the people that organize them are gone so soon,” he said.
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