Street Canvassing for Good Causes: The Worst Job in Town?

Shane Burley

Grassroots Campaigns Inc. canvassers rally in front of the local office declaring the formation of their union and announcing their demands.

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 tells In These Times 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.

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 canvassers have said they will continue escalating actions until management negotiates with them as a bargaining unit.

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Shane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Fascism Today: What It IS and How to End It (AK Press). His work has appeared in Jacobin, Alternet, Political Research Associates, Waging Nonviolence, Labor Notes, ThinkProgress, ROAR Magazine and Upping the Anti. Follow him on Twitter: @shane_burley1.
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