07.15.09

The Liberal Sweatshop

The Fund for the Public Interest raises money for all kinds of liberal causes, but a lawsuit has forced it to pay millions of dollars in overtime to its legions of idealistic door-knockers.

The nation’s largest fundraiser for progressive causes issued checks to thousands of former workers in the last several weeks after settling a $2.15 million class-action suit alleging it subjected workers to grueling hours without overtime pay.

The nonprofit Fund for Public Interest Inc. was set up in 1982 as the fundraising arm of the network of Public Interest Research Groups, which was founded by Ralph Nader. It deploys legions of door-to-door and street canvassers—and once counted a young Barack Obama as one of its New York City organizers—to solicit contributions for the Human Rights Campaign, the Sierra Club, Environment America, and other groups that together spend millions of dollars each year lobbying Congress.

"They’re the Wal-Mart of nonprofits in every way imaginable. They basically look at the next generation of social change as the next source of cheap labor."

Those organizations often battle with deep-pocketed corporations; the money raised by canvassers is an important source of funds. In many cases, however, the employees collecting those donations made an hourly rate that worked out to less than minimum wage.

The abrupt shuttering of its Los Angeles office after employees took steps to unionize also brought allegations of illegal union-busting from many, including Christian Miller, an L.A. employee from 2002 to 2006 who filed the suit on behalf of 12,000 canvassers and directors.

The Fund reported collecting $25 million in contributions in 2007—the most recent year for which data is publicly available. The fundraising done by the canvassers makes up the bulk of that money. Indeed, the Fund’s Web site touts the work done by its youthful employees: "If you ask anyone who’s canvassed for the Fund in the last 25 years, they’ll probably give you a thoughtful dissertation on the value of canvassing."

That's probably an understatement. Former canvassers, often college-educated progressives attracted to the Fund for the chance to do good, are all too sensitive to the irony of the situation.

"They're the Wal-Mart of nonprofits in every way imaginable," Miller said. "They basically look at the next generation of social change as the next source of cheap labor."

The Fund did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The idea that their work supported causes they believed in pushed some canvassers to tolerate the often-difficult working conditions. Other would-be world changers had little in the way of real-world experience and assumed all workplaces were run like the Fund.

"I thought it was poorly organized and that it's a pretty crummy job to be standing in New York asking strangers for their bank account info, but I was all of 19 and didn't have any real concept of whether the labor environment was fair," said Mary Murphy, who worked for the Fund for a summer in 2001 and was taken by surprise when she learned she was part of the class-action suit earlier this year. She received her check weeks ago.

The Fund maintained a massive recruiting program and hired new canvassers daily to replace the many who quit or simply stopped showing up after a few weeks; much of the reason the workday was so long was that each day began with a training session, necessary with a perpetually new staff.

"Half the people I started with were also in their first week," said Jarrod Parker, who canvassed for the Fund in New York for three days before quitting when he began suspecting that much of the money he was raising simply covered overhead rather than benefiting the cause. "Both girls I started with quit the first day."

Some said they were never told explicitly what the job entailed until they had already accepted: walking in strange neighborhoods in the sweltering heat, knocking on doors and asking for money for a variety of causes that could change as the Fund, a third-party fundraising group, picked up new clients.

Managers pushed employees to work long hours by repeatedly stressing that they were taking part in a campaign to better the world, not a traditional job. Federal and state labor laws do not recognize the distinction. Some said their experiences led them to give up on activism altogether, which troubled those behind the lawsuit. "I was getting tired of seeing people leave the movement," Miller said.

In the summer of 2005, the activists tried to unionize their Los Angeles office. The canvassers voted to organize with the Teamsters, Miller said.

"Management basically started changing office policies to try to systematically fire all union employees, while stalling the contract," he added. Eventually, Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), now Labor secretary, wrote the Fund pressing it to negotiate with workers, to no avail.

Then suddenly, Miller said, "they changed the locks on the doors and they were gone. We were shut down overnight."

In a separate case in 2006, the office of the Labor Commissioner of the State of California determined that the Fund had denied rest breaks to a worker, awarding a cash payment. The Fund subsequently changed its policies to provide overtime pay. In 2009, it agreed to settle the class-action suit.

Luke Rosiak, an investigative and computer-assisted reporter at the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, D.C., is a former reporter for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics. He has written about money in politics for publications such as Politico.