Tough times organizing street canvassers

Gavin McAllister, a former street canvasser for Grassroots Campaigns Inc. in Seattle, reflects on a successful NLRB election there in 2018, before the company shuttered the office in retaliation for the union effort.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organized the Seattle office of Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. (GCI) from July 2017 to August 2018. GCI is a company neck-deep in the “nonprofit industrial complex”: it is a fundraising company that contracts with nonprofit organizations to provide high-volume small donor funds. Their business model consists of selling canvassing shifts to organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and Doctors Without Borders. The worker’s job is to stand on a public street wearing the nonprofit’s uniform, flag down passersby, and try to convince them to donate to the nonprofit. GCI would then also collect the donor’s contact information and sell it to third party organizations, primarily the Democratic Party.

The union drive began when disgruntled workers approached the Seattle IWW General Membership Branch (GMB) in 2017. Through the course of the campaign, the union grew from a small committee to a wall-to-wall solidarity union. The drive ended on a difficult note when the employer closed the shop and fled the state in August 2018 to avoid having the union in the workplace. All 15 workers, including me, were laid off.

The campaign ultimately taught the Seattle IWW a few important lessons about the nuts and bolts of organizing in this type of workplace. We learned that it is absolutely possible to organize a fighting union at a small, high-turnover workplace. However, we underestimated how far the bosses would be willing to go to keep a union out, and we overestimated what the Labor Relations Board could do for us.

Working conditions

Working conditions at GCI were generally very poor. The job is very physically draining; canvassers are required to stand on concrete for over five hours a day. Few exceptions are made for weather conditions — in Seattle particularly, GCI workers have to be prepared for wet weather. Repetitive stress injuries were common (shoulder injuries were most frequent because of the constant waving to pedestrians). Verbal, physical, and sexual harassment is a constant danger, especially for the young women and queer workers standing out in public. Political violence was often a threat: alt-right students from the University of Washington would see canvassers on the street and harass them, get in their faces and otherwise make them lose time on the street, missing quota. Planned Parenthood canvassers faced harassment in more conservative areas. Occasionally people had to walk off the job for the day. Rumor had it a previous GCI office was the target of a drive-by shooting around 2015.

GCI pays minimum wage, while benefits, including sick or vacation time, are almost nonexistent. The company does offer health insurance, but only to workers who have 3 months’ tenure — which is a vanishingly small number of workers. This is because of GCI’s draconian quota system: to remain employed, a worker has to reach an arbitrary fundraising quota each week. If a worker falls below quota, they have to meet or exceed quota the following week or be fired. Meeting quota is extremely dependent on the “turf,” or area to be targeted for canvassing. If workers are sent to low-foot-traffic areas for even just one day, it is likely they will miss quota for the week. Thus no worker’s job is secure for more than two weeks, and the shop’s turnover reflects it — the average tenure for a canvasser was about 2 weeks.

Emotional manipulation was one of the most pernicious forms of exploitation in the workplace. The idea was that because the nonprofits we were fundraising for needed to serve more and more people, we needed to raise more and more money while sacrificing our bodies and any financial stability to accomplish that mission. Managers would start every day with news about the nonprofit’s activities fighting poverty or whatnot, and send workers out with some variation of “and that’s why we need to go raise some money for these awesome organizations fighting injustice” — and then probably fire a couple workers later that week. Perhaps the worst way they did this was when workers didn’t make weekly quota; most managers would “allow” workers to work a 6th or 7th day of the week to try to make up the difference and save their jobs. The effect of all this was to make workers feel ashamed of wanting higher wages or more job security. 

Class war on the shop floor

Workers at GCI approached the IWW in July 2017. The Seattle branch hosted IWW Organizer Training 101s and offered advice and an outside organizer to the burgeoning committee, and the workers began to sign union cards and execute small direct actions (such as a successful petition for a refrigerator). After about six months of organizing, the workers filed for an NLRB election, in February 2018.

Filing for an NLRB election opened the floodgates of union-busting. Management used a lot of common tactics: sending an “observer” to the Seattle office who intimidated workers in one-on-ones and captive audience meetings; firing known union supporters; subjecting suspected union supporters to higher scrutiny, and more. The organizing committee really did its homework before filing for the election, though, and almost everyone in the shop had already taken out a red card (an IWW membership card — not an authorization card) before the vote, which meant they were already paying dues. The committee also had some help from the Seattle GMB beforehand as well: in order to prevent scabs or anti-union workers from being hired, Seattle IWW members had call-ins to the shop to put in a bunch of fake job applications. The vote was held in early March 2018 and the union won 14-2. 

With the election under its belt, the shop committee pivoted to grievances and a contract. Nobody in the shop had bargained a contract before, or knew much of anything about labor law. Only a couple of us had taken the basic IWW organizer training or the IWW training on handling grievances. We ended up following the NLRB legal route for many grievances: we filed Unfair Labor Practices over unjust firings, unilateral changes to workplace conditions, stolen sick time, and other issues. 

We backed these up with some direct pressure on the shop floor through direct action. We had many successful one-off actions and a couple longer-term ones that helped scare management and cement some union control over the workplace. For example, the union took over daily “team meetings” and turned them into union propaganda sessions where workers talked about grievances and labor movement history. A popular refrain was how we were raising money for Doctors Without Borders but some of us workers had to enroll in Medicaid for healthcare. 

We took particularly effective action over a harassment grievance brought by a new, young woman worker. She was promoted to a team lead on her third day, and then harassed multiple times by people on the street while on her first shift leading a team. She was basically told to “buck up” by the manager. The following day the union took action with a march on the boss that turned into a 13-hour sit-in. The union demanded the manager hand over a written copy of GCI’s promotion policy to get more clarity on why this worker was being pushed into a team lead position before working there for even a week. The aggrieved worker signed a union membership card on the spot.

The campaign also led to flare-ups at other GCI shops. GCI workers from around the country heard of our campaign through the grapevine or sometimes through an IWW local and reached out to us for advice. This aspect of the campaign was fairly loosely coordinated on our part in Seattle as we were struggling to stay employed. Most of these other campaigns were unsuccessful, but there was an IWW NLRB election victory and some wage increases at GCI in New Orleans. (The IWW no longer has a presence there.)

Unfortunately, we experienced more repression from management than we bargained for. The bosses threw all kinds of things at us: a hiring freeze, a revolving door of managers, interference with tools (handing out locked tablets, refusing to give out paper donation forms, etc.), firings, and other things. We weathered most of them, but then they started the lockouts. The first one was at the end of June 2018 in retaliation for the sit-in. The shop was closed for about two weeks. We went back to work and immediately began reasserting shop floor control with marches on the boss, taking over morning meetings, and generally clashing with the new manager. There was another lockout for a few days in July, and shortly afterward we voted to strike for three days to demand the re-hiring of a fired worker. We picketed the shop for a couple of days and then returned to work around July 29th. Shortly afterward, the central office notified the workers and the union that they were closing the shop on August 5th — we had less than a week’s notice that we were all losing our jobs.

Missteps

One of our biggest issues was a lack of focus and democratically-defined strategy, particularly after the NLRB election. Only one or two of the union members were ever put through the IWW training program throughout the course of the campaign. We did the best we could with the information we had at the time, but ended up primarily focusing on a legalistic strategy of ULPs and a contract.

After the NLRB victory, a bargaining committee was elected that was supposed to start strategizing for a contract. However, most of the bargaining committee quit GCI for better jobs and the one remaining member ended up drafting a contract single-handedly and pressuring the assistant manager to sign it. We also filed a number of Unfair Labor Practices related to the election and later grievances.

The ULPs were a particularly difficult strategy. After filling out the paperwork and submitting them to the Labor Board, we had to basically sit around and wait for the lawyers to build a case and argue it in front of the Board. This process took between six and nine months — which is actually a very rapid turnaround. The ULPs also became the centerpoint of our strategy. Every meeting, we desperately awaited an update from the Board and discussed filing more, when we should have been developing strategies to deal with grievances through our own power.

Much of our time was devoted to getting workers to testify at the NLRB. We fundamentally took our grievances out of our hands and put them in the hands of the Labor Board — and our shop floor strategy suffered as a result. While we did have some wins on the shop floor, the big things always hinged on the Labor Board — and we lost big time. After filing a first round of ULPs in March and a second in early summer, we got decisions in December — four months after the shop was closed. And we lost all but one.

Shop floor action also tended to be very reactionary, unfocused, and exhausting. Many of these actions did not build or wield power; they were more symbolic actions typical of activist groups. For instance, the union went public with a Valentine’s Day card to management and a social media page. Actions like these felt like we were doing them for a Facebook/social media audience or emotional catharsis instead of any strategic reason. It also felt like we were in constant war mode; every action by the boss had to be fought with a stronger action. Sometimes this was good, as in the case of the worker suffering harassment, but often it had little effect but draining our energy and making it easier to steamroll us, as in the case of our strike action. The boss’s repression absolutely wore us down, but we didn’t do ourselves any favors by overextending ourselves with actions that were unfocused and often not attached to demand or any strategic plan.

Positives

The GCI union did a fantastic job of waging a concerted union campaign in an extremely high-turnover workplace. Almost every new worker who came through the door took out a union card at some point, and it was a very diverse cast of characters: students on break from school from a range of backgrounds, workers of color, workers ranging in age from 18 through their early 60s. 

We established a “Welcoming Committee” that targeted new workers for conversations about the campaign before the bosses could get to new workers. This way, new workers would be exposed to the reasons behind the unrest they were seeing every day.

We did have some successes in spreading the IWW union fervor to other offices, though we did not have a concerted campaign for it and most of the campaigns fizzled relatively early on. 

Looking ahead

It was devastating that the GCI bosses closed our shop before we could establish a more entrenched union there or elsewhere. Fundraising and the broader politics-for-hire industry that GCI is a part of require extremely low capital investment. All they need to start up an operation is iPads/tablets, uniforms, space to rent an office, a manager or two, and desperate workers — which are available almost literally anywhere. This all made it very easy for the bosses to pick up and run. In hindsight, we should have built up slower and avoided the Labor Board and Unfair Labor Practice route while reaching out and getting established in other GCI offices.

The campaign also gave some helpful experience to Seattle IWW organizers on running strikes and pickets, strike funds, and general campaign strategy. The biggest takeaway was that we needed to branch out to other offices before going public, and really get as many people as possible trained in the IWW training program, so they could systematically conduct one-on-ones, build a democratic committee, and gradually escalate from smaller demands to bigger ones, slowly and sustainably.

Gavin McAllister

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