NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018

Book Review: Dana Fisher’s Activism, Inc. is a reminder of 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. (How the out­sourc­ing of grass­roots cam­paigns is stran­gling pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics in Amer­ica) 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 post­mortem 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.

That cycle, Democ­rats relied pre­dom­i­nate­ly on paid — but still high­ly intrin­si­cal­ly moti­vat­ed — 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 Fish­er’s book came out in 2006, right ahead of two of the great­est Demo­c­ra­t­ic wave elec­tions in a quar­ter cen­tu­ry, so the issues she sought to draw atten­tion to went large­ly unad­dressed. Since the next cycle was a cen­sus year, the rot has lin­gered at the state and nation­al lev­el in ger­ry­man­dered elec­tion maps ever since.

Hav­ing become accus­tomed to Repub­li­can tri­fec­tas in state­hous­es through­out the coun­try, we final­ly got one again at the nation­al lev­el in 2016.

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” younglings, 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. 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 (which states in its 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.

Activism, Inc.: How the Out­sourc­ing of Grass­roots Cam­paigns Is Stran­gling Pro­gres­sive Pol­i­tics in Amer­i­ca by Dana R. Fish­er
| 168 pages | Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press (2006)

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 eighty 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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One Comment

  1. David, thanks for this review. Not an issue I’ve seen writ­ten about hard­ly any­where.

    # by Janice Jenner :: October 16th, 2018 at 11:27 PM