Grassroots Campaigns Inc. sued over abusive labor practices: Critics say outsourced activism can be exploitative

A campaign against hate? Save our wilderness in a summer? A job for an international charity? Name an issue on the progressive buffet, and there’s probably an advertisement on Craigslist to join the good fight with organizations like The Fund for Public Interest, Dialogue Direct or Grassroots Campaigns, Inc.

With a promised compensation of $1400-$2200 per month, no one seems to be promising limitless riches. But to be paid anything to advocate for a personal passion might seem, on the surface, like a dream job for an idealistic student with limited employment prospects.

Unfortunately, the reality of working for these organizations often falls short of expectations. Recruitment information is long on idealism and distressingly thin on the details, avoiding the topic of quota-based pay systems and the ugly hours spent going door-to-door or accosting strangers on the street for money. When a Grassroots Campaigns recruiter came to visit Puget Sound students a few weeks ago, her classroom spiel highlighted the importance of of “winning the war” on hot-button political topics such as gay marriage and the Keystone XL pipeline.

Grassoots Campaigns is part of a larger system of for-profit progressive campaign organizations which constitute the on-the-street fundraising activities of the political left. Grassroots has contracted with the ACLU, the Sierra Club, Amnesty International and the Democratic National Committee, who rely on Grassroots and similar groups to fundraise and build a network of contacts through street canvassing.  The practice was criticized in Dana Fisher’s 2006 book Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns is Strangling Progressive Politics in America. Fisher saw the increasing popularity of “outsourced” political campaigns as problematic due to high rates of activist burnout and the potential for paid canvassing to replace more traditional sites of democratic dialogue, which focus on community and local politics rather than on national issues.

While the harms of a wider strategy of paid activism are still debated, even by Fisher’s supporters, Grassroots Campaigns specifically has a disturbing history of questionable labor practices. The group has settled multiple lawsuits in recent years for failing to pay employees minimum wage in San Fransisco, compensate employees  for overtime in Oregon, and for unjustly firing three Illinois employees who attempted to form a union. Although the most recent cases date from 2009, the sums involved in the settlements are arresting: $2 million in the San Francisco class-action suit and $18,000 divided among the three Oregon employees.

With few prospects for summer employment, and the voracious recruiting techniques of Grassroots Campaigns (I received three phone calls within a week of volunteering my information as a potential candidate), students might be tempted by the certainty of a paycheck, if nothing else. Even the wage, though, isn’t guaranteed. Canvassers have to meet a minimum quota of donations each week to be payed anything above minimum wage, and continued poor performance can result in termination.

As one commentator on the online California message board Indybay.org explained, “I’ve canvassed before, and it sucks. Your idealism is commodified and then squeezed for everything it’s worth.”