BOOK REVIEW: “Activism, Inc.” and the sin of ideals procrastinated

There’s never a good time to tell people about how their sausages are made, but Dana R. Fisher’s “Activism, Inc.” came out at just about the worst time possible for its message to be heard.

Part research, part hunchy anecdote, this short work is largely a post-mortem on the failures of paid, third-party canvassing operations, especially as connected to the Democratic Party and progressive Left that used them during the 2004 Presidential Election between John Kerry and George W. Bush.

Democrats relied on paid—but still highly intrinsically motivated—mostly young canvassers working out of temporary offices around the country to mobilize voters quickly. Meanwhile, Republicans tapped more permanent civic institutions for mobilizations, such as white evangelical churches.

For Democrats, Fisher concludes, “very few enduring connections remain at the local level after campaigns are concluded that can be used in the next campaign cycle”. Unlike volunteers, people who rely on wages to do election work can’t be expected to show up when the money isn’t there.

But this message came out in 2006, right ahead of two of the greatest Democratic wave elections in a quarter century, so these flaws wouldn’t bear fruit till 2010, and since that was a census year, the rot has lingered at the state and national level in gerrymandered election maps since. Having become accustomed to GOP trifectas throughout the country, we finally got one again at the national level in 2016, so while this book is no more relevant now than it’s always been, emotionally, it certainly feels much more important.

The bulk of it, though, is describing what for-profit canvassing offices actually are like for an audience whose experience has probably only been limited to having to say, “Not today” or pretend not to see someone in a neon vest standing in front of them on the sidewalk.

Fisher’s personal recollection of how she first caught the fever for canvassing while on a summer program at Princeton-in-France is… narrowly relatable. At that time, 1990, canvassers may actually have been more commonly Ivy League students visiting Europe. It’s clear that Fisher’s social circle would more tend that way because the first interview she gives is of an Ivy League student of hers, this time from Columbia, who tried to do real, meaningful work canvassing in 2004 for Kerry in Minnesota, doing long hours and little pay.

She talks also of how poor the training was before people were sent out the first time, how little job security existed for everyone, and how people who’d invested deeply in a certain campaign like gay rights would have to switch overnight to something completely different like environmental activism, which soured many who might otherwise have stayed on that path.

This is where most of her empathy stays and the viewpoint that she has: college students and recent graduates who want to do something meaningful and instead choose the more lucrative, non-political or directly for-profit career options they had after burning out or sacrificing for no apparent benefit.

If this is snide, it’s only because it varies so greatly from my own experiences with canvassing offices, as both a street fundraiser in Seattle and a recruiter for offices across the United States between 2012 and 2015. The summer canvassing season indeed involved growing the office and getting the equivalent of “summer camp” youngs, bright-eyed and joy-filled. But the dreary-or-worse autumns, afternoon-dark winters, and unpredictable-weather springs tended, naturally, to be restricted to people for whom no better, easier job was available.

That’s the main viewpoint the book misses. The tragedy I witnessed was not so much that people with better options decide to take advantage of those opportunities instead of continuing in a career path of civic-minded service. No, the tragedy is that canvassing is one of the few open occupations that a kid who is homeless can actually be hired to do and have a chance to get their feet under them. A nonbinary person or a person of color or a woman still faces discrimination cis white men don’t when fundraising face-to-face, but the barriers to hiring and proving yourself are much lower, and they’re always hiring. Shut out of other occupations, vulnerable people still can fundraise for worthwhile causes and pay the bills to establish a sense of security.

Not everyone can canvass; in fact, three out of four people fail or quit within the first couple of days. But in the Ratatouille sense, anyone can cook: all sorts of different people and backgrounds are capable of success if they’re willing to work at it.

So it’s a tragedy that fundraising companies know this and choose to take advantage of vulnerable people as much as they can, presumably while justifying the direct harm they’re doing with all of the hypothetical, direct good that the money they’re raising for nonprofits will do.

They probably think that by fundraising for the ACLU (“The ACLU continues to support the rights of employees, both public and private, to organize unions and bargain collectively”) and Democratic National Committee (most recent platform: “We believe that Americans should earn at least $15 an hour and have the right to form or join a union”) they outdo the harm of repeatedly busting unions and shutting down unionized offices. Between GCI and PIRG, they shut down the unionized Seattle office in recent weeks, Ann Arbor in 2017, Portland offices in 2014 and 2012, Chicago in 2008, Los Angeles in 2005. Progressive organizations who pride themselves on printing every mailer in a union shop still hire canvassing companies that rely on paying settlements and fines instead of workers.

Eighteen years into the new millennium, GCI still doesn’t have direct deposit as a payment option. While its cousin The Fund for the Public interest was sued in 2006 for making people work without pay as part of “training”, that apparently still goes on somewhat. If all of your checks are delivered by mail, and your pay period is sometimes more than two weeks after the worker’s last day, a not-insignificant amount of people can be expected to not ever get their $80 or $200 pay for a couple day’s work.

Canvassing directors in every office have a file drawer full of checks no one ever did or ever will pick up, so GCI still gets their free labor. Similarly, rather than having pre-paid transit cards managers can use for their shift, or applying it to a paycheck automatically based on the turf they already keep track of, GCI made every worker fill out a reimbursement sheet for each day of transit. Do that every day to a few dozen people in a few dozen cities and some people will be too new or too tired or forget to do it, and then GCI has passed their cost of doing business onto employees. Or maybe the reimbursement checks just bounce.

While I worked there, they even tried to reduce people’s hourly pay to balance out the overtime some supervisors earned by virtue of having to check the money count and do other paperwork after the normal fundraising shift. We only spotted this because payroll got too obvious and cut the person’s wages below the supervisor standard rate.

You see, some pay was based on doing better than 80 percent of the office, but also there were sometimes bonuses for gifts above a certain amount, and none of it is itemized.

Otherwise, the wages are so intentionally byzantine, on a formula absolutely opaque to each individual, it’s not difficult for the payroll take a little here or there, or make the sort of “mistakes” that benefit the company and hurt workers. They always seemed to catch the ones that affected them. In the Seattle office in 2015, there was a guy who continued fundraise for three years but continually had to fight corporate because they credited and paid him for more sick days than he’d earned, and rather than just eat the money for their error, they said he now had negative sick days.

Fundamentally, the same dynamic remains at play as when Fisher wrote her book: all workers are kept in a situation of precarious employment so they can be fired at any time. That includes if they fail to raise enough money in a two-week period, or indeed, if they raise no money for a whole day twice ever. If you’re a gender non-conforming person who is spat on or assaulted on the street, or if you’re anyone who becomes sick, or has donation processing equipment that malfunctions, that counts as a full day wasted when you drop your shift.

And if, due to all of this, you’ve been agitating for better worker conditions, what do you think they’re going to do to you?

It’s easy to accept that evil corporations do this, or that conservatives are willing to take advantage of their employees for profit. But what’s worse is what we’ve accepted for almost two decades from progressives, from those working as close to the front lines of politics as that metaphor can extend.

We have effectively determined that unions and fair wages and enforcement of government protections of those least able to protect themselves are effective marketing strategies but nothing more because attempts to embody them in the real world aren’t practical.

Until Democrats and organizations on the Left are capable of demonstrating our ability to fulfill our rhetoric for those people already within our power, there’s no reason for anyone to believe we’ll do it eventually for those yet lying beyond.

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