By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
Job security was the number one reason workers unionized last October at a Southeast Portland call center affiliated with state PIRGs like OSPIRG and groups like Environment Oregon. So it’s ironic that in 10 months of union contract bargaining, the non-profit Fund for the Public Interest has fired five of the workers who’ve volunteered to serve on the union bargaining team.
Their union, Communications Workers of America Local 7901, protested the firings to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). But the federal agency has declined to press charges, because the union has no “smoking gun” evidence that union supporters were singled out for worse treatment. In other words, Local 7901 president Madelyn Elder says, the NLRB concluded that the Fund for the Public Interest treats all its employees that way. The Fund is a high-turnover workplace where firings are routine.
It has canvass operations in multiple states and telephone outreach call centers in Boston, Sacramento and Portland. Canvassers recruit members door-to-door or in public places, and telephone outreach workers call members to renew or make additional donations.
The Fund’s call center workers have no control over the call lists they’re given. Nor do they have any say over a weekly quota they’re expected to meet. But if the workers miss the quota for a week, they’re placed on “ultimatum,” and if they miss it for a second week, they’re terminated — even if they’ve been stellar fundraisers for years.
“What other call center, honest to god, fires you within two weeks for not making your quota? Non-union commercial call centers don’t even do that.” — CWA Local 7901 President Madelyn Elder
[/pullquote]Workers’ other big complaint is unpredictable paychecks. Callers start at $9.50 an hour, and can get $0.50-an-hour raises every 20 shifts based on how much money they raise, up to $14.50 an hour. But they are demoted back to $9.50 an hour if the amount they raise drops by a certain amount for two weeks. And the dollar amounts are based, not on how much money is pledged, but on how much is actually collected within three weeks of the pledge.
So a below-par two weeks can cut a caller’s pay to $9.50 an hour. And a very bad two weeks can end in termination.
“It’s certainly not a pleasant way to live,” says telephone outreach worker David Neal, a 35-year-old single parent of two boys — and the only remaining member who’s been on the bargaining team since talks began Nov. 4, 2011.
CWA represents workers at call centers around the country, and Elder, the Local 7901 president, says the Fund’s policies are “draconian.”
“What other call center, honest to god, fires you within two weeks for not making your quota?” Elder said. “Non-union commercial call centers don’t even do that. If you were a new hire, I could see that, but somebody who’s been there nine years, and they’re short $47 on the second week, and you’re going to fire them? That’s ludicrous. This person has made you all kinds of money for years.”
Elder is convinced the Fund is using existing policies to get rid of its Portland call center workers across the board, because they voted to unionize.
“They can make you successful or not successful depending on what list they are feeding your automatic caller,” Elder. “They can give you a list of people who haven’t donated in five years.”
Until last week, the Fund call center was in the same building and right next door to the offices of OSPIRG and Environment Oregon; the call center is being relocated temporarily during a building remodel.
OSPIRG executive director David Rosenfeld would not comment about labor practices of the group that raises his salary and nearly all of the funds for his group’s educational and advocacy efforts — and instead referred questions to Pat Wood, Boston-based director of the Fund’s national telephone outreach program. The Labor Press was unable to reach Wood prior to publication.
It’s a funny position for OSPIRG, a public interest non-profit whose slogan is “standing up to powerful interests,” particularly when even Apple Computer has accepted some responsibility for conditions at its contractors.
The Fund is an independent non-profit, but it’s overseen by a board consisting of representatives of a number of state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) and the statewide environmental groups, such as Environment Oregon and Environment Colorado, that spun off from the PIRGs several years ago. Rosenfeld said he’s not a member of that board.
“We’ve not cut off all communication with OSPIRG, but we’ve tried to make the point: You’ve got to treat your workers better.” — SEIU Local 503 political director Arthur Towers
[/pullquote]Unions have collaborated with OSPIRG on political campaigns in the Oregon Legislature, but OSPIRG’s stand-aside stance on Fund labor practices may be alienating some of its allies in organized labor. Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain wrote a letter to Rosenfeld asking him to intervene. And Arthur Towers, political director for Service Employees Local 503, says he’s less inclined to work with OSPIRG and declined a request for help on something.
“We’ve not cut off all communication with OSPIRG, but we’ve tried to make the point,” Towers said, “you’ve got to treat your workers better.”
Towers himself was a door-to-door canvasser in 1977 in Rhode Island, and he and his co-workers tried unsuccessfully to unionize.
Elder praised members for determination, and for their courage: So far, each time a bargaining team member is fired, Elder says, another worker has stepped forward to serve, and workers have continued to help with the union effort even after being fired.
Elder said the union presented a complete contract proposal the day bargaining began, and the Fund has yet to respond to all of it in 10 months of meeting for two three-hour sessions a month with Wood, who flies out from Boston. The changes workers are proposing are pretty modest: They want to extend the ultimatum two weeks, so that a longtime experienced caller would have to have four rotten weeks before being sacked. And to reduce paycheck volatility, workers want no more than a $2 hour an hour pay cut per pay period.