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Oregon Canvassers Workers Push for Unionization at Union-Funded Workplace

By Shane Burley - In These Times, November 4, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

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(c)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 works with the IWW, the VOZ Workers Center, and the Portland Solidarity Network on wage-theft campaigns. He recently completed a documentary about housing justice movements, Expect Resistance.

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