Fund for the Public Interest wants to remain a ‘right-to-work’ and at-will employer, and walks out of bargaining when a reporter shows up
By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
Portland call center workers who raise money for state PIRGs and affiliated environmental groups went on strike again Jan. 16, this time to protest late paychecks. The shift-long strike was the fourth time the call center’s workers have walked out to protest conditions at the non-profit Fund for the Public Interest since workers voted to join Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 7901 in October 2011. Boston-headquartered Fund for the Public Interest is the fundraising wing of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, statewide affiliates like OSPIRG, CALPIRG, and spinoff environmental groups like Environment Oregon and Environment Colorado.
Draconian pay and discipline practices were the reason workers unionized. When workers fail to meet fundraising targets, their pay can drop up to several dollars an hour in one pay period. And workers are fired if they fail to meet a separate benchmark two weeks in a row, regardless of how many years they’ve worked there.
Those practices have continued. The Fund has fired at least nine pro-union workers since the union campaign began 15 months ago, including all six workers who volunteered on the union bargaining team when contract negotiations started. That’s in a workplace with about 25 workers.
Two pro-union workers have been fired since the Labor Press last reported on the situation. Union supporter Rachel Starr was terminated Dec. 6 after working nine years at the call center. And union steward Alixandre Long was fired Jan. 3 after one year on the job. Starr and Long, like three of the other union activists, were terminated for failing to reach a fundraising quota two weeks in a row. But they have no say in setting the quota or choosing the lists they call from, and they and other workers believe that managers are deliberately giving pro-union workers heavily-called-over and underperforming lists.
Meanwhile, bargaining sessions have produced no first-time agreement in 14 months.
On Jan. 17, national Fund for the Public Interest managers Pat Wood and Christine Walsh walked out and cancelled the day’s negotiations after a reporter from the Labor Press showed up to observe the bargaining session. [The Labor Press wanted to see a bargaining session to get a sense of why it’s taking the two sides so long to get a contract.] CWA Local 7901 President Madelyn Elder says when bargaining began 14 months ago, CWA proposed that the negotiations be open to other workers and to members of the public, and the Fund agreed. In September, now-Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek sat in on a bargaining session.
Elder says the Fund has agreed to some changes to the pay and discipline policies which drove workers to unionize, but the changes won’t be implemented until a complete agreement is reached.
Meanwhile, the Fund has refused several basic features of union contracts, including “just cause” discipline. “Just cause” means an employer has to show a reason before disciplining and terminating an employee. Under the alternative, known as “at-will” employment, an employer may terminate a worker for any reason or no reason at all.
“Their position is that ‘at-will’ is a firm position,” Elder said. “We said it’s a non-starter for us.”
The Fund says it’s against just cause because it wants to retain “flexibility,” Elder said. But the Fund hasn’t demonstrated any of that flexibility, workers say: In June, the Fund fired nine-year employee Cortina Robinson, one of its most successful fundraisers, for being $47 under her fundraising quota. Robinson was on the union bargaining team.
The Fund has also said no to a clause known as “union security.” That’s a stance that puts the progressive non-profit group in the same league as advocates of so-called “right-to-work” laws. A “union security” agreement, standard in union contracts, requires that all represented workers pay dues or their equivalent. But in 24 states, “right-to-work” laws prohibit union security clauses in union contracts. Without union security, dues are voluntary. Some workers pay. Others freeload: They benefit from any improvements the union negotiates, and the union is required by law to represent them in disciplinary hearings, but they pay nothing. The point of right-to-work is to deprive unions of resources; its advocates claim to be concerned about the right of workers to work without paying union dues, but tellingly show no concern for any other workplace right.
In sum, the Fund wants to remain an at-will and “right-to-work” employer, and is eliminating core union supporters one by one.
The next bargaining session is scheduled to take place Feb. 12 to 14.
MORE: Previous Labor Press reports on the campaign.