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When Liberal Non-Profits Exploit: LA Workers Are Fighting For Their Rights

by Erin Rosa Thursday, Jun. 01, 2006 at 1:27 AM
rosa.erin@gmail.com

Los Angeles, California--In 2002, the Fund for Public Interest Research (FFPIR) closed one of its LA offices. Management gave no reason for the abrupt closure, but employees alleged in an LA Weekly article that the office had been shut down because they filed a petition to organize a union.

In April of 2006, the Fund closed another city office, almost a year after workers successfully won their own union election through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). That time management told employees it was because of a failure to hire new administration officials, but union members say the company refused to negotiate and even retaliated against them with hiring freezes and bogus terminations.

Now there is one organized office remaining in LA, and it’s struggling to exist amid an eight month hiring freeze and claims that the company is outsourcing work and defrauding employees.

“I worked there for [three and a half] years,” says Christian Miller, “which I'm told is a record for the state of California for someone to just be knocking on doors for three and half years. That just doesn't happen often.” Miller is a former employee of the Fund’s “door” office, and one of the workers who spearheaded the two recent union campaigns.

The Fund for Public Interest Research is a non-profit corporation based in Massachusetts and its business comprises fundraising and canvassing for environmental groups and other liberal causes. According to worker testimonies and the Fund’s own website, clients include Environment California, the Sierra Club, and the Human Rights Campaign.

In Los Angeles the FFPIR structure consisted of three offices before the recent closure—the “door” office where canvassers are hired to go door to door, the “street” office where canvassers solicit on bustling streets, and the “TOP” (Telephone Outreach Project) office where employees fundraise over the telephone.

In June of last year the door office unionized with the Teamsters Local 848 union. Following that, the TOP office also unionized with the Teamsters by holding an election in September. The door office has now been closed and the TOP office currently has five employees. The street office was the workplace closed in 2002 and it soon reopened in 2003 with a new staff. It has not taken part in current union activities.

After the union vote some workers say they experienced unwarranted behavior, and the union claims that even after the workers had voted for representation the Fund refused to negotiate.

“Every time we get into a bargaining session with The Fund, that’s all they do, [nothing]. They come in, and they’re very polite and they’re very cordial, but at the same time, they’re not agreeing to anything. They are not counter-proposing our proposals,” union representative Emilio Arias said in an interview last February, “once a year is up, the group of employees have a legal right to file a decertification petition to get the union out, especially if we have not reached an agreement.”

Tiff Petherbridge, a former Field Director at the door office, was fired in July when she didn’t make her canvassing quota for the week.

“The way it was before, for the year and a half before [Jason Tipton, the new office Director] ever came on to the scene, it was, once you had made core staff, which is after your 3rd of 4th week on staff, is if you miss quota for a week [management] would try to help you out…” Petherbridge says, “and then the second week if you missed quota again they would put you on what’s called an ultimatum, and the ultimatum is if you don’t make quota the next week they have to let you go…with Jason it was 'if you miss quota 3 days in a row I’m going to fire you.'”

After Pehterbridge filed a labor relations complaint Tipton rehired her, but then she was fired again less than a month later. At the time there were no clear written rules at the work place regarding fundraising quotas and policy. The NLRB later found that the Director’s sudden change in policy warranted merit, and that the FFPIR could either take the case to a hearing or settle out of court. The non-profit decided to settle and agreed to terminate workers only after they missed quota for two consecutive weeks.

Another LA Weekly article also reported that workers at the TOP office claimed to be receiving sudden pay cuts and reduction in their health care plan.

“In our calling room the five of us know that our days are numbered…” says Fund employee Marcy Harris when talking about an impending labor board investigation.

“The NLRB judges are in the process of deciding whether our calling room's three charges have merit—those three charges are one, a hiring freeze that was designed to isolate the five callers and after the year from the union vote decertify the union, two, sending our good calling lists out to other offices [in] Portland, Oregon, and three a fraud charge…a charge in which we say that the [FFPIR] has ‘cooked the books’ to keep from crediting the callers with their return [donations]…in order to get their pay down low enough to shut down the office and thereby decertify the union that way.”

According to Harris, the NLRB has subpoenaed the Fund’s computer records and the TOP employees have also submitted evidence toward the investigation.

At the same time, while employees have come out criticizing the FFPIR, former Directors are also making claims about their experiences and the current situation.

“For a successful organization that openly proclaims itself to be the front line of the progressive movement to be so anti-union boggles the mind and turns the stomach,” Emily DeDakis, a former LA door office Director says, “the original intent to organize the L.A. office was to ensure that benefits already stated in Fund literature were properly doled out.” DeDakis quit the Fund in December of 2004.

“I once fired my entire office—which was suggested by my regional director—in order to build a new stronger one,” says Cayenne "Aubee" Tupelo, a former Director of the LA street office. “It worked. Shortly after we were the [number one] street office in the country for a couple months.” Tupelo also quit in 2004.

The Fund was founded by a man named Doug Phelps, according to the state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) website.

Currently Phelps is on the advisory board to the FFPIR, and “chairman of the Board and CEO of U.S. PIRG, the National Association of State Public Interest Research Groups….” He is president of Telefund, Inc, a business that raises money over the phone for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and other charities, and he also chairs the board of Greencorps, an environmental organizer training school.

While the exact working relationship between the PIRGs and the FFPIR is not clear, Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth records confirm that Janet Domenitz, Executive Director of the Massachusetts PIRG, is also VP/Treasurer of the Fund. Poor labor practices have also been reported at Telefund, Inc, Greencorps, and Grassroots Campaigns, Inc by employees. Each workplace is connected to Phelps.

The Fund for Public Interest Research did not return a request for comment.

Other Sources:
Letter from CA Rep. Hilda Solis to the FFPIR (PDF)
NLRB Agreement (PDF)
Mass SOC Records (PDF)


Erin Rosa is a writer living in Denver, Colorado. She used to work for Telefund, Inc.

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LATEST COMMENTS ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
Listed below are the 10 latest comments of 9 posted about this article.
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TITLE AUTHOR DATE
an old story, still going on Meyer London Thursday, Jun. 01, 2006 at 7:28 AM
On Grassroots Campaigns, Inc and this canvassing model Greg Bloom Thursday, Jun. 01, 2006 at 9:47 AM
Current L.A. Pirg Employees' Chronicled Attempt at Unionizing this Beast Brad Macmillan Thursday, Jun. 01, 2006 at 8:40 PM
The Fund is Anti-Union Patrick Lasseter Monday, Aug. 14, 2006 at 10:50 PM
PIRG roylaty doesn't have to follow its rules expirger Monday, Feb. 26, 2007 at 8:11 AM
Necessary Sacrifices? Unconvinced Saturday, Oct. 20, 2007 at 5:52 PM
fundraiser gadeas Wednesday, Apr. 29, 2009 at 11:25 AM

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