Oregon Canvassers Workers Push for Unionization at Union-Funded Workplace

Shane Burley November 4, 2014

Canvassers for Oregon's Fieldworks say they have experienced wage theft and arbitrary firings. (Courtesy of UCW)

Sev­en work­ers and union activists head toward the office on Sep­tem­ber 17, just before the morn­ing shift begins, debat­ing how to enter. Should they all parade in togeth­er? What if low­er man­age­ment is out front smok­ing before the shift begins? Should they go in ear­ly, or wait until the day’s can­vassers are already inside?

They agree to head in togeth­er in a show of sol­i­dar­i­ty, a few min­utes before the bell rings. As the work­ers file in the front door, their union rep­re­sen­ta­tives in tow, man­age­ment declares that out­side peo­ple are not allowed to enter dur­ing busi­ness hours.

Don’t wor­ry, we won’t be long,” says Jonathan Stein­er, a rep for the Unit­ed Cam­paign Work­ers, a project of the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World Work­ers. The work­ers and their union rep­re­sen­ta­tives enter and declare there is announce­ment to be made: They have joined a union and are invit­ing oth­er work­ers to join them.

They work at Field­works, a get-out-the-vote shop that, with thir­ty to forty can­vassers at a time, is one of the largest polit­i­cal can­vass­ing busi­ness­es in Port­land, Ore­gon, and the nation as a whole. They are the lat­est in a slew of Port­land cam­paign work­ers to orga­nize with UCW in recent months, from can­vassers for mar­i­jua­na legal­iza­tion to fundrais­ers for orga­ni­za­tions like the Planned Par­ent­hood Action Fund and The Nature Conservancy.

The com­plaints of can­vassers at Field­works sound famil­iar: A lack of trans­paren­cy when it comes to deci­sions about can­vass­ing loca­tions and the orga­ni­za­tions they are fund­ed by., min­i­mal say in work­place deci­sions. reports of wage-theft and labor law non-com­pli­ance and a lack of a liv­ing wage.

Work­ers have come out pub­licly as a minor­i­ty union, mean­ing that the union is hold­ing mem­ber­ship of less than half of the work­place and are not cur­rent­ly attempt­ing an elec­tion through the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board. Like with oth­er recent UCW can­vass­ing shops, the high turnover rate and tem­po­rary nature of the work means that con­ven­tion­al union elec­tions may not be viable. Instead, they chose to come out pub­licly and begin putting pres­sure on man­age­ment with the hope that new recruits would see the pow­er that this orga­ni­za­tion has in their work­place and would join the fight.

But the minor­i­ty union stands out in one impor­tant respect: Their work­place is fund­ed by unions.

One of Field­works’ major fun­ders is Our Ore­gon, a pro­gres­sive 501©4 that receives its fund­ing from local unions and pro­gres­sive non-prof­its, such as the LGBT lob­by­ing orga­ni­za­tion Basic Rights Ore­gon. The state’s pub­lic employ­ee unions are the main force behind Our Ore­gon. They do not pub­licly dis­close their donors, yet the par­tic­i­pa­tion of cer­tain unions and non-prof­its are no secret. Their board of direc­tors includes staff from SEIU503, AFSCME, the Ore­gon Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion and the Ore­gon AFL-CIO.

The group’s mis­sion is to pass leg­is­la­tion such as mar­riage equal­i­ty, increas­ing tax­es on the wealthy and cor­po­ra­tions, and defeat­ing anti-union right to work” laws. To this end, they hope to increase vot­er turnout in pro­gres­sive and work­ing-class areas of Port­land. The most recent tax fil­ings that are avail­able for Our Ore­gon lists them as hav­ing spent around $1.4 mil­lion on their var­i­ous projects in 2012, which shows their rel­a­tive size and the invest­ment that Oregon’s pub­lic sec­tor unions have made in joint leg­isla­tive lobbying.

Many of the can­vassers say they were drawn to this work because they share these pro­gres­sive val­ues and saw it as a way to make a difference.

Vot­ing on local ini­tia­tives does change things,” says Field­works can­vass­er Elliot Cheifetz. Hav­ing peo­ple out there talk­ing to strangers on these issues builds civ­il soci­ety, and it does edu­cate people.”

Yet Field­works’ get-out-the-vote work­ers report some of the same work­place issues that plague street can­vassers. Turnover is a pri­ma­ry com­plaint. Field­works does not have a for­mal quo­ta sys­tem like many of its fundrais­ing coun­ter­parts, but many of its work­ers report an unof­fi­cial quo­ta” of 21 vot­er reg­is­tra­tions per day. Those who fall short, they say, are typ­i­cal­ly fired with no explanation.

The fact that there are no offi­cial stan­dards, or you are not told what the stan­dards are going to be each indi­vid­ual day means you can always imag­ine your­self as behind regard­less of your num­bers,” says Cheifetz. So it’s always in the back on your mind. There are peo­ple who don’t even take their lunch break, because they are wor­ried about meet­ing this unde­fined quota.”

In addi­tion, sev­er­al work­ers have also alleged that their wages were stolen or that legal­ly required sick pay was with­held. Cheifetz says his pay­check for a pay peri­od was short.

I was just shocked when I real­ized I was being under­paid,” he says. When he com­plained about the pay dis­crep­an­cy he said, their response was basi­cal­ly to con­de­scend to me and to tell me I must be con­fused. That I just didn’t know how tax­es work.” He per­sist­ed, show­ing proof of hours, and even­tu­al­ly had his wages returned, but he says his trust in his employ­er had been damaged.

Low pay is anoth­er com­plaint. The $10.50 per hour wage Field­works can­vassers receive — plus a $10 gas card and a $10 bonus for those who dri­ve — is above the $9.42 an hour that MIT’s Liv­ing Wage Cal­cu­la­tor esti­mates to be the liv­ing wage in Port­land for a sin­gle adult, but below the $19.57 an hour for an adult with one depen­dent. Though the stereo­type of can­vass work­ers is often one of stu­dents with­out many expens­es, work­ers say that many are par­ents try­ing to sup­port fam­i­lies on this income.

After announc­ing the union cam­paign at the Field­works office on Sep­tem­ber 17, work­ers stat­ed their demands. First, they asked Field­works to com­ply with all labor laws, espe­cial­ly the paid sick-leave ordi­nance of the City of Portland.

They also demand­ed an end to retal­i­a­tion against union­iz­ing work­ers — UCW has filed Unfair Labor Prac­tices com­plaints with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board against Field­works over the fir­ings of sev­er­al work­ers who had sta­ble vot­er-reg­is­tra­tion num­bers and were involved in the union cam­paign. Last, they asked for a nego­ti­at­ing meet­ing with the union after 72 hours.

In response, one of the own­ers, Lewis Gra­nof­sky, said that he had not heard any of these com­plaints before, but was will­ing to hear the work­ers and set up a meet­ing with­in three days. He not­ed that he had already been in talks with unions, includ­ing AFSCME, about orga­niz­ing the field can­vassers in Field­works nation­al­ly, though he said that any more in-depth infor­ma­tion about this effort was con­fi­den­tial.”

Work­ers imme­di­ate­ly reflect­ed on this pos­si­ble part­ner­ship” between AFSCME and Field­works as a prob­lem, both because of its lack of trans­paren­cy and because of AFSCME’s busi­ness rela­tion­ship with Fieldworks.

As a major fun­der of the Our Ore­gon project, which in turn hires Field­works to reg­is­ter peo­ple to vote in key areas that are like­ly to vote for their impor­tant ini­tia­tives. AFSCME could have a con­flict of inter­est. AFSCME is also list­ed as a reg­u­lar client on Field­works’ web­site, along with dozens of major unions and pro­gres­sive non-profits.

We’re the work­ers here,” says recent­ly fired Field­works can­vass­er Joseph Keesler. Who’s talked to us from AFSCME? Who’s talked to us from any­where else? I haven’t seen these peo­ple. Who said you could rep­re­sent me?”

The same work­ers and union rep­re­sen­ta­tives allege that in anoth­er con­ver­sa­tion with Gra­nof­sky lat­er that day, he not­ed that he want­ed to keep the labor-man­age­ment rela­tion­ship smooth since the elec­tion was only six weeks away. UCW iden­ti­fied this as an impor­tant pres­sure point for the orga­ni­za­tion, since it ties direct­ly to abil­i­ty for work­ers to con­tin­u­ing to get out the vote” in key areas that are impor­tant for Our Oregon.

Field­works marks the third busi­ness to go pub­lic with the Unit­ed Cam­paign Work­ers since it’s found­ing in June. Many of the work­ers that were involved with the orga­niz­ing effort at the two pre­vi­ous loca­tions have con­tin­ued to stay active in union affairs, and sev­er­al work­ers joined the staff of Field­works with the goal of unionizing.

As promised, man­age­ment met with work­ers with­in 72 hours at the Labor­ers’ Union Hall. They pledged to both pro­vide cor­rect and clear infor­ma­tion to indi­vid­ual work­ers about the sick-pay ordi­nance and to ban any retal­i­a­tion against the work­ers for union activ­i­ty. Gra­nof­sky also pub­licly declared that no work­er would be fired for not meet­ing a quo­ta. This tan­gi­ble com­mit­ment caused a stir among work­ers pre­vi­ous­ly unaf­fil­i­at­ed with the orga­niz­ing effort, who began to speak out about their sit­u­a­tion and sign union cards, not­ed Steiner.

A ball of excite­ment came over the room,” said Stein­er. These were real­ly big gains that the union was able to get at the table.”

The own­ers also agreed to return to the nego­ti­at­ing table with counter-pro­pos­als to oth­er demands from the union, name­ly the $15 per hour base pay, incen­tive pay, and some sort of pro­tec­tion for can­vassers from assault or harass­ment when in the field.

When man­age­ment did return with their for­mal respons­es to the rest of the union’s demands, they did not even acknowl­edge them as pos­si­ble, accord­ing to work­ers present. They did not budge on pay and would not acknowl­edge the alleged vio­la­tions of wage and labor laws. UCW mem­bers also say that man­age­ment addi­tion­al­ly refused to rec­og­nize a union rep­re­sen­ta­tive on-site for any work­er dis­ci­pli­nary process or for morn­ing announce­ments, cit­ing that it is a moot point” until the union is certified. 

This would require the union to go through a reg­u­lar NLRB elec­tion process, which would not allow for even enough time for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion before work­ers are laid off at the end of the elec­tion sea­son. Their posi­tion as a minor­i­ty union does not guar­an­tee them the right to nego­ti­ate as the exclu­sive bar­gain­ing unit of the busi­ness, which means that man­age­ment is under less legal require­ment to nego­ti­ate. The deci­sion to do so is instead insti­gat­ed by the amount of action and pres­sure the work­ers orga­niz­ing on the job can push, which can often force man­age­ment into nego­ti­a­tions with­out any legal mandate.

The can­vass­ing jobs were only avail­able up until the mid-term elec­tions. Work­ers hoped to see some of their demands met before the end of this term, but man­age­ment may hold off on these until lay­offs become manda­to­ry. This makes long-term orga­niz­ing at Field­works dif­fi­cult, but it may lend to the long-term vision of UCW in gen­er­al that sees cam­paign work­ers as a sec­tor worth tar­get­ing broadly.

As work­ers got out the final push towards Elec­tion Day, many were informed of a pos­si­ble con­tin­ued employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ty with Field­works. These work­ers were to be bussed to Reno, Neva­da to work towards crim­i­nal back­ground checks for gun sales. When the work­ers arrived after their long shifts the night before most of the peo­ple who were promised a seat on the bus were denied, with man­age­ment alleged­ly per­form­ing elab­o­rate selec­tion games to nar­row the crowd down. 

Accord­ing to Deshawn Blakey, a Field­works employ­ee who had been hired in the last few days for the final vot­er push, the scene was one of out­right chaos as work­ers lined up out­side the bus and were cho­sen . It felt like they had a cage full of new pup­pies and they were pick­ing them out straight from the pen,” describes Blakey. It was not how an orga­ni­za­tion should be run.” Work­ers allege that a few of the last peo­ple crowd­ed were offered $50 for los­ing their jobs, though this was not dis­trib­uted to the entire group of work­ers who were denied. 

Our Ore­gon has a strong rep­u­ta­tion in Oregon’s pro­gres­sive com­mu­ni­ty and have a series of impor­tant bat­tles ahead to main­tain pay equi­ty and col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing in the state. The work­ers at Field­works say they want to sup­port that effort, and the efforts of the pub­lic sec­tor unions fund­ing it, as much as they can.

This sto­ry has been updat­ed to reflect new developments.

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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