Save the turtles, but never mind the TOPsters

Fund for the Public Interest, the fundraising wing of the PIRG network, refers to its call center division as the Telephone Outreach Project (TOP). Workers are true believers in the group’s mission, but in Portland, callers voted to join CWA Local 7901 in October 2011. Among the complaints: volatile paychecks, and sky-high turnover. Workers start at $9.50 an hour, and can get $0.50-an-hour raises every 20 shifts based on how much money they raise, rising as high as $14.50 an hour. But when workers fail to meet fundraising targets, their pay can drop up to several dollars an hour in one pay period. And if they fail to meet a separate benchmark two weeks in a row … they’re fired, even if they might have worked there for a decade.

It adds up to a cutthroat and mercenary workplace that union president Madelyn Elder says is worse than any nonunion for-profit call center she’s seen in decades of fighting for call center workers. But few members are aware of that.

Instead, here’s what members hear (from a pitch the Portland call center were using last week):

“Hi this is ‘Terra’, with Environment Oregon, the environmental group that you’re a member of. I just need a minute of your time to thank you for the support you gave last year. With it we were able to set up three new marine reserve sites off our coast, to protect our wildlife. Right now we’re working on making Oregon the leader in stopping ocean pollution by banning plastic grocery bags statewide. Currently there’s over a hundred million tons of plastic and other trash floating out in the Pacific Ocean. This plastic pollution kills millions of sea turtles, whales and sea birds every year. Too much of this pollution is coming from plastic grocery bags, which we don’t even need. So we’re working to make Oregon one of the first states in the country to ban plastic grocery bags. Portland, Corvallis and Eugene have taken the first steps with their own bans. But the plastic industry, which is actually chemical and oil companies have been spending millions to stop this from happening statewide. That’s why your continued support is so important right now. With everything at stake, can we count on you to renew your membership with a contribution of $100?”

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