Dubrick Wilson

Public Interest Research Group

ISSUE 76 | BAD JOBS | JUN 2017

You’ve probably encountered U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) before, although most likely not under that name. The organization parthenogenetically spawns itself anew in each state where it operates, every state group bearing a localized name and an interchangeable website and organizational structure: MASSPIRG, CALPIRG, TexPIRG, etc. To further mystify matters, PIRG itself is but the most well-known brand of a more expansive structure of grassroots nonprofits known as The Public Interest Network, or TPIN; its subsidiaries and cousins include organizations like Environment America (Environment Massachusetts, Environment California…), and, most notoriously, its canvassing arm/sweatshop, The Fund For The Public Interest (or The Fund for short). TPIN’s liberal pedigree stretches, somewhat obscurely, back to Ralph Nader and Saul Alinsky, and the organization likes to put itself forward as a small and superhumanly cheerful army of Erin Brockoviches. In reality, it’s more like the American national security state: a shambling monstrosity, with a psychological profile that veers from ecstatic triumphalism to crippling, sleep-deprived paranoia; perpetuating itself through a bewildering cloak-and-dagger miasma of acronyms, front groups, and sibling organizations, many of which exist purely on paper; clinging to a series of grand mission statements as threadbare cover for the fact that the institution’s only real purpose is to endlessly, emptily perpetuate itself.

Unlike the NatSec community, TPIN has not, to my knowledge, directly carried out any homicides. It is, however, responsible for churning through enormous numbers of idealistic and politically interested young people, burning them out through a combination of incredibly shallow ideology and the impression, gained through bitter experience, that a career in progressive advocacy can only mean a soul-crushing slog racked by economic insecurity and a life lived entirely at the mercy of your bosses. I’m tempted to criticize TPIN’s political and strategic vision, but it’s so patently flimsy (the upshot is that only a 501(c)(4) nonprofit’s canvassing operations can protect the American people from the ravages of special interests; political participation is also crucial, so long as it’s defined as a) voting in national elections and b) perhaps applying for an unpaid internship with your local PIRG or Environment America chapter) that there’s hardly any point. Better, in the spirit of materialism, to focus on TPIN’s execrable labor practices. The vast majority of TPIN’s employees are canvassers with the Fund — if you live in an American city of almost any size, you’re bound to have seen one of their flyers around summertime, advertising “Jobs for Good Causes” and urging passersby to call them and ask for Sandy. The posters’ promise of summertime income (often, they claim, over $6000) and progressive values conceal the fact that Fund offices exploit their workers with as much gusto as Walmart. Door-to-door canvassers are kept to a strict quota system ($120 per canvasser per night, in my day), and failure to hit the target three times is grounds for immediate and unceremonious termination. The turnover rate is, consequently, enormous; in the summertime it’s not uncommon for 75-90% of a canvass office’s workforce to be fired and replaced from one week to the next.

Canvassers and phone fundraisers (employees of TPIN’s “Telephone Outreach Project”) who try to address this problem through organized labor and collective bargaining have found that TPIN’s Naderite/Alinskyite heritage has failed to impart to the organization any scruples about union-busting. Canvassers in California who tried to start a union drive in 2005 were fired one by one, until their entire office was closed; ludicrously, the Fund claims that all “turf” (that is, neighborhoods and doors assigned to an individual canvasser) is interchangeable — “there’s no such thing as bad turf,” including retirement and nursing homes — which makes it easy for management to ensure that troublesome employees commit the fireable offense of failing to make quota. (I don’t mean to blame the office canvass directors, who are themselves brutally overworked. 10-16 hour days, up to seven days a week, is a common schedule. The union-busting, like all other decisions that really matter in TPIN, issues from its command center in Denver.) When Barack Obama’s Department of Labor announced its plans to expand overtime pay in 2015, so that workers making under $47,476 (that is, all but a select few Fund employees) would be eligible for time-and-a-half compensation for work beyond 40 hours per week, it’s no surprise that U.S PIRG spoke out in protest of the new rule — sending its executive director Andre Delattre to make the impressively perverse argument that granting overtime pay “raises First Amendment concerns,” because PIRG would only be able to allow people who were already wealthy (and polite) enough not to demand financial recompense to work over 40 hours a week for them!

TPIN rationalizes the inhuman grind of its canvass model with the argument that door-to-door fundraising is the only effective means to remain financially afloat without taking corporate money — a claim which would ring significantly truer if not for two glaring facts: 1) despite decades of constant activity, TPIN’s genuine policy achievements can be counted on one hand, an underwhelming record attributable entirely to its depoliticized vision of large, maladroit, bureaucratized nonprofits as the necessary leftmost flank of social change; 2) the organization routinely pisses money down the drain by sending its employees (office workers, state and campaign directors, and “fellows” — not rank-and-file canvassers) thousands of miles across country at the drop of a hat, for no real reason at all. (During my eight-month tenure as a “fellow,” or entry-level field organizer, I was flown to four different cities to “learn how to canvass,” despite the fact that the Fund was running daily canvasses out of the very office where I worked. One of the campaigns I canvassed around was curbing carbon pollution to stop global warming. It was unclear whether my supervisors were oblivious to the irony or just completely indifferent.) But this pales in comparison to the subsidized week-long vacation summit in Aspen that TPIN throws for all its full-timers — again excluding the canvassers — each December, to the tune of thousands and thousands of dollars.

Surely, you might ask, PIRG and TPIN must have accomplished something? Well, they secured the passage in multiple states of “bottle bills,” which are the reason you can get five cents back if you recycle empty glassware. U.S. PIRG’s lobbying efforts played a role in founding Elizabeth Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, according to a single Beltway blog which PIRG loves to quote to skeptical would-be donors. TPIN is also very good at the age-old trick of calling on elected officials to do something they were going to do anyway, then claiming credit. Meanwhile, on a personal note, experiencing the eye-popping cynicism and political limitations of liberal nonprofits by working at TPIN almost certainly accelerated my embrace of militant Marxism, so I suppose I owe it at least some gratitude. But to any readers who might ever be in need of a gig and tempted by one of those Jobs for Good Causes posters, I implore you, don’t respond. A minimum wage job would provide not only more financial security, but a more inspiring, less demoralizing (if only because less grotesquely two-faced) political environment. And a genuinely resurgent left would put PIRG — exploitative, bloated, and pointless — out of its misery.

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