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Hello, Wanna Give to a Good Cause?

Idealistic nonprofits hire a for-profit company to solicit donations. But the conditions canvassers work under are far from ideal.

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As a manager, White earned a salaried income that wasn't commission-based. But even that wasn't enough to keep him canvassing for long. After eighteen months working for Peace Action West, White quit in September 2009. He now works for a natural-foods shipping company.

"I needed to take a step back from working in politics," said White, now 30, recently. "It's pretty stressful. It's tough work, especially when working for something as abstract as peace. It can be really taxing, physically and mentally."


Following the suit Badami and her co-workers filed against Grassroots Campaigns, Inc., the firm insists it has changed its ways. The company has hired a full-time human resources manager and promised to pay overtime wages, allow for meal breaks, and stop the unpaid training days. Nelson's clients who remained in California report that they are now receiving the appropriate state minimum wage.

But it's unclear how much conditions have really improved for Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. canvassers. According to the job description currently posted on its web site, canvass directors and assistant directors still receive $24,000 a year, and there is no mention of overtime. In an online description, it says an assistant director's typical day starts at 9 a.m. and is jam-packed. The only mention of lunch is at 3 p.m., and only within the context of another activity, not as a designated break unto itself. At 11 p.m., the day ends: "Leave office; go hang out with staff and grab a bite to eat."

Not so surprisingly, the company was sued again in 2008, this time for firing three employees from its Chicago office who attempted to form a union. The employees initially sought legal aid from the ACLU, but as a client of Grassroots Campaigns, Inc., the civil liberties group had to decline because of conflict of interest. Ultimately, the National Labor Relations Board took the case and Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. settled, paying almost $18,000 to the workers in back wages.

"I never understood why more people weren't interested in this," said attorney Nelson, who's also a former journalist. "They're a company that bills itself as an extension of the DNC, fighting for workers' rights and liberal causes. Meanwhile, they're committing the most egregious and most blatant overtime and minimum-wage violations I've seen before I handled this case and since I handled this case."

Nelson says there was a certain genius in the way Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. manipulated its young employees. And the reason why he thinks the issue doesn't get much attention is because "the group of people that primarily get taken advantage are rich kids. A lot of them buy into the culture and drink the Kool Aid."

The model, says Badami, directly excludes lower-income workers who simply can't afford to make that little. "It shuts out the very people we should be inviting into the progressive environment," she said. "Anyone who's not being helped out by their parents with money saved up can't do this job. How can we really be a movement if only privileged folks have the opportunity to be part of it?"

Today, Badami vows that she'll never work in electoral politics again. "It really makes me think about how progressives organize themselves," she said. "Republicans make sure their young workers are hooked up with jobs and money, whereas we bleeding-heart liberals believe we have to be poor and miserable to affect change. Now, every time I see a canvasser, I say sorry."

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