PIRG/Fund/GCI = WalMart/Enron/Exxon
December 4, 2006 8:28 AM   Subscribe

The Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) / the Fund for Public Interest Research (the Fund) / Grassroots Campaigns Inc (GCI) = the WalMart/Enron/Exxon of the progressive/liberal activist industry. [much more and much better linkage inside]
posted by snortlebort (39 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
For about six months now, a discussion has been raging on liberal blogs like MyDD and DailyKos about the PIRG/Fund/GCI network, the largest employer of "activists" on the progressive left. There are three series of interest (an overwhelming amount of reading in total, so I’ve left asterisks by particularly salient posts):

Strip-Mining the Grassroots (about the Fund/GCI fundraising canvass) (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7* - summary/conclusion)
About the MoveOn PAC 2004 Leave No Voter Behind Campaign (about a disastrous PIRG-run GOTV campaign, on which I was a staffer) (1*) (2) (3* - particularly good) (4) (5) (6*)
The Canvassers’ Union (about a recent major union-bust at the Fund, which was reported in In These Times magazine) (1) (2*) (3) (4) (5*) (6* - the motherlode!) (7 - posted today)

From those posts and threads, and with a lot of help from my friends, I’ve cobbled together a summary/linkdump of the history of this "progressive activist industry":

In the 70s, a loosely connected network of student activist organizations called the Public Interest Research Groups, spurred in large part by the writings and recent successes of Ralph Nader, took up environmental and consumer advocacy campaigns on college campuses and state capitols. In the 80s, after success and growth, their crafty funding scheme (fees embedded into students' tuition) came under attack by conservative activist groups led by people like Jack Abramoff and Karl Rove.

As a defensive measure and as a platform for further growth, the Fund for Public Interest Research was created. It was a national umbrella organization that ran fundraising canvasses for all state PIRGs. The fundraising canvass became the defining element of the PIRG "activist model," sending kids door to door in the summer to gather signatures and donations. The fundraising canvass never actually raises any money, but it does get "members" onto a list that can be called in the future. Those donor lists are relatively cheap, though they are created through massive amounts of near-minimum wage work hours.

The formerly-loose, grassroots connections of the state PIRGs consolidated into a highly-centralized corporate structure. Fundraise canvassing matured into an industry, and Fund/PIRG has been the dominant presence. FFPIRG came to develop a bad reputation for awful labor conditions, peculiar group dynamics, and "not playing well with others." Recently, a study of the Fund’s canvass called Activism Inc has been published; it describes this model of outsourced field campaigns as "strangling progressive politics in America."

Fund/PIRG began to diversify. Organizations like the PIRG Fuel Buyers, the PIRG-owned Earth Tones phone company, the activist field-training bootcamp Green Corps, the PIRG-owned Green Century Funds. Most recently, Grassroots Campaigns Incorporated, a forprofit partisan "sister" to the Fund, scored major contracts with the Democratic National Committee (mentioned in Slate) and MoveOn in the 2004 election (previously on MeFi projects: Beating Bush). Those contracts are still active today.

There will likely be people in this thread who swear by the PIRGs. Before you jump in this thread with the stock responses, please read set aside a half hour and read the three posts by Lockse (an 8 year veteran of PIRG, and a founding director of GCI).
posted by snortlebort at 8:28 AM on December 4, 2006

Sorry, I don't know why it screwed up the second set of links in the post-proper...i checked that like four times, what happened?!

Anyway, here are the links again -- the first one is just a link to one of Greg Bloom's blog posts, the second is a link to a Malcolm Gladwell piece that ex-PIRGer Lockse linked by way of comparison, and the third is to a very interesting analysis of Activism Inc (which Lockse also linked):

WalMart / Enron / Exxon of the progressive/liberal activist industry.

(Ack! still not working!)
posted by snortlebort at 8:33 AM on December 4, 2006

Before you jump in this thread with the stock responses, please read set aside a half hour and read the three posts by Lockse (an 8 year veteran of PIRG, and a founding director of GCI).

If it really takes 30 minutes to explain this, then you are doomed.
posted by grouse at 8:45 AM on December 4, 2006

Actually I doubt many mefites will have even heard of this outfit.
posted by delmoi at 8:47 AM on December 4, 2006

Attack of the smartquotes!
posted by delmoi at 8:47 AM on December 4, 2006

OK, I looked at a couple of the links and found them prolix and confusing. It's really annoying to go through them due to the misformatting. Why don't you pick one story that explains what you are talking about? Preferably one that is succinct and well-written.

And just post the URL directly in your comment since whatever editor you used to assemble this post keeps messing up your hyperlinks.
posted by grouse at 8:54 AM on December 4, 2006

Yeah, the reason it's not working is that you used the wrong quotation character in your HTML. All quote marks in HTML should be character number 34, the regular quotation mark. Some word processing programs replace "quotes" with "smart quotes", slanted quote marks and (unicode characters 201C and 201D)
posted by delmoi at 8:54 AM on December 4, 2006

I realized it was about the quotes. is it possible to get a do-over of that comment?

I'm sorry metafilter i have failed. was just trying to be a good aggregator
posted by snortlebort at 8:57 AM on December 4, 2006

Alright if you want one link to decide whether to read through the rest, I'd say go for the In These Times article about the LA Fund for Public Interest Research union bust.

Oh. now the link worked.
posted by snortlebort at 9:00 AM on December 4, 2006

wow you blew this one!
I would have just gone with the No PIRG shirt and let the mob take it from there...
posted by greggish at 9:09 AM on December 4, 2006

Hey, I think this is a great, great post. Your links got screwed up, maybe Matt will let you just take this post down for a bit to re-edit? I'm not sure how that works. Anyway, I appriciated the many links on the subject.

I'm still not that freaked out by the PERGs though after reading this. The anti-union stuff is upsetting (I used to canvas, so it wasn't a suprise), but I'm not too concerned about the 'burning through the grassroots' phenom. Asking for money is not the same as grassroots organizing, I don't think going door to door for the DNC has any impact on whether the people who have been asked for money will actually take action on any issure or not.

Building up a small dollar donor base is probably very wise, and it was interesting to learn that that is the main point of these canvas campaigns.

Anyway, I don't think real change ever comes from political leaders, so I don't really care one way or another how the DNC raises money, but ya, overall I really liked the thouroughness of this post, so thanks!
posted by serazin at 9:11 AM on December 4, 2006

well thank you too!
stupid smart quotes grumble grumble...
posted by snortlebort at 9:15 AM on December 4, 2006

The PIRGs may be just the thing for some people who want to find an outlet to get politically involved...

But after dabbling in them myself, and seeing alot of friends get involved and eventually uninvolved, I don't think there's anything that bites off, chews up, and spits out idealistic young activists like PIRGs.

That's not to say they don't do good work, or the "campaigns" aren't worthwhile. But the focus on door-to-door stuff and street canvasing makes the whole gig seem more like a pyramid scheme than a summer job where you can make a difference, which is how their sumer jobs for students are usually advertised.
posted by conch soup at 9:26 AM on December 4, 2006

I worked briefly for OSPIRG, the Oregon PIRG chapter, in the summer of 1999. I had spent most of the summer doing wonderful bumming-around slackery things, but finally committed to making a little bit of money before heading back to school in the fall. I lasted three weeks.

The breakdown in the "bad reputation" meshes well with my experiences, though I'm not as bitter about it (or bitter in the same ways about it) as the person responsible for that page.

I was a canvasser: I went door to door, in a different neighborhood (or town, even) each day, trying to get a word in about a major lumber cut being contended at the time. Generally, a small subset of knocked-on doors were answered, a small subset of those stayed open for more than 30 seconds, and then a fraction of what was left led to a checkbook and, accordingly, a new OSPIRG member.

On my tutorial day, I worked a very nice, young, lefty, well-off neighborhood in SE—our mentor (an adorable, ebullient young blond girl who had canvassed her way easily into a team leader position) managed to talk a very friendly gay couple into writing a check for $1,000* in under five minutes. It was an intimidating experience, and inspiring: while I wasn't sure if this gig was for me, I saw that it was not so bad, at least.

Over the next three weeks, I never worked a cherry neighborhood like that. It makes practical sense: put the big earners in the big money neighborhoods, farm the untested talent out to low-yield spots. It sucked, though. Most neighborhoods I worked were low-income spots where folks had neither the inclination nor the spare cash to throw at OSPIRG.

At one point I spent two days at a logging town fifteen or twenty miles out of Portland. I was nocking on doors and trying to tell folks that live off the timber industry that they should help us fight a big forest cut. It was ridiculous. Someone working a different turf (which is what they call an assigned chunk of neighborhood—that's your turf for the day) was assaulted by, presumably, an angry logging-sympathizer, who jumped the kid as he walked away from the unaswered door in his OSPIRG t-shirt and clipboard full of flyers.

The thing that bothered me so much about the job is that I should not have been doing it. They should never have hired me in the first place, and it speaks to how dependent at least this chapter was on high-turnover, low-investment take-what-they-can-get canvassing staff. Canvassing is hard work, and what needs to drive it is passion and enthusiasm about their goals and aims, qualities I did not possess when I walked in their door.

I was just some nerd responding to an ad stapled to a telephone pole. I first began to understand how out of my element I was when, on our first pre-turf car trip for lunch, our team leader for the day asked an icebreaker: who would you like to see as President? There were a couple of Naders, a couple other fringier candidates, and me. "Linus Torvalds," I said, on a whim. No one knew who he was. Linux, I explained. Everyone blinked. Conversation moved on.

And that was the staff. Generally (but not necessarily) moderately politically-aware youths. Some high schoolers, a lot of college students or college-age kids. None of them looked hungry. There were a couple of California surfer/drifters in my orientation group who may have been genuinely scraping by, but mostly folks were just kind of hippyish. I got the distinct impression that most of the guys were in it for the girls. A lot of people could lay down talking points, there were a lot of protest anecdotes, but there didn't seem to be much actual activism.

The lack of genuine individual activist spirit carried through to the training policies, which bothered me deeply. We were not engaged in sprawling, passionate discussion of the issues at hand, nor were we supposed to become so with potential members: we were supposed to hit the talking points on the brochure and push for the member donation. I found myself addressing only briefly very good, very challenging questions from the occasional door-answerer, before moving on to "well, let me show you this" and a turn of the page to the next thing on my clipboard. That was how it was done. All very rote, all very mechanical. Address the points, gamely rebut objections, push for a member donation and a signature.

I never much liked this middle ground position of charge-but-don't-engage. I felt we were shooting our own feet off by not allowing people to simply sign up as OSPIRG members regardless of any membership donation; and yet were restrained to such mechanical rote pitches that we didn't have the freedom to really pull in fence-sitting folks who might be sold through actual discussion but were wary of someone reciting things from a clipboard. Educating, really educating the hell out of the canvassers, and taking unpaid members: both would reduce the limited income of the venture, but both would make much better activism.

It's not a job I should have been allowed to take. No one ever asked me why I wanted the job. No one ever looked for any correllation between what there goals were and what I was doing standing in their office. I think in part they simply assumed that I knew what I was getting inot, and in part they were so used to dealing with slackerly, half-committed short-timers that they didn't care.

The few really dedicated, enthusiastic activists I met in my brief employment were all upper-level staff. They really cared, and they were working long, exhausting hours for little pay, and you could see a sort of genuine frustration and desire in their eyes that was, to me, both inspiring and unsettling—that they were working so hard for something, that they cared so deeply, and that at the same time they were running a crew of folks who could not approach that level of dedication.

It was a very strange experience.

*A note on the payscale: pay was on a commission basis, plus a base stipend if you reach the quota. If you hit a certain minimum target of membership donations for the week, you received some base amount of cash, plus a percentage of each donation brought it. If you failed to hit the quota, though, you received only the percentage commission. Hitting quota meant making at least a crappy paycheck for the week; missing it meant making pocket change.

Quota or not, though, it was not a job you worked if you needed a job—it was a job you worked because, essentially, you could afford not to have one. Commissions were capped for maximums, too. The plucky team leader who scored that $1000 donation saw the maximum $50-per-donation in her paycheck, so there wasn't much motivation for slimy salesy scheming at the higher levels, just people raising a lot of money.

posted by cortex at 9:35 AM on December 4, 2006 [6 favorites]

snortlebort, if you email Matt and Jessamyn, they will most likely be happy to fix the broken links in the first part of your post.
posted by mediareport at 9:37 AM on December 4, 2006

OK one more link if you're still reading - the most important link in the whole batch that I botched is probably this conclusion to the series on the Fund union-busting incident. It does a better job than I did on drawing the big picture and asking the real questions about what all of this amounts to.
posted by snortlebort at 9:43 AM on December 4, 2006

I was offered an internship with a PIRG affiliated ground a few weeks back. Despite the extremely low pay, it seemed like a pretty good oppritunity at the outset, but as I thought about it more and more it became less of a great idea.

My concerns were not with the low pay and the menial legwork tasks that such a job almost certainly entails, but with the notion of putting my politics on my resume. As I am trying to work in the Environmental field, I feel that it would be highly detrimental to have an obvious left wing group form the bulk of my fresh-out-of-college experience. After consulting with some of my contacts in the industry, it became clear that this was not merely paranoia but a fact of life: large companies (read: where the $$$ is at) will go out of their way to not hire people from these programs. That sealed the deal for me right there.
posted by smackwich at 9:52 AM on December 4, 2006

PIRGs are f--king evil. I went t to the University of Oregon where home of the first and largest student PIRG was founded. It's a total scam. Here's how it works.

Every two years the student body votes to fund the student PIRG or OSPIRG to the tune of 170k a year ror so, making it the most well-funded student group on campus (well, after the student government itself, natch). Of course this is a student election, so in actuality you're talking about getting 50% of the vote in an election that only 5-10% of the student body votes in. 800 votes out of a 17k students is all it takes to get a big fat check.

What happens when they get the money? Well, unlike every other student group on campus that has a line item budget and has to use purchase order to account for every dime of student funds OSPIRG gets a straight cash line-item. That's it for accountability wit their spending. (The money comes straight from your tution in the part of a tacked on and mandatory activity fee -- which was so bloated that paying for extra curricular student groups amounted to about 1/7th my in state tution).

Once they have the money, they basically launder it from the UO student PIRG into the state lobbying organization PIRG in the form of ridiculous consulting fees, rent on offices they don't use etc. It's impossible to demonstrate that a single dime is spent on campus. The flow of funds between both organizations Oregon Student PIRG and Oregon State PIRG - both called OSPIRG - is deliberately confusing. This is crucial because the two organizations have different tax status. The student pirg is a 501(c)3 that can accept public funds but can't lobby, but the state PIRG is 501(c)4 meaning it can't accept public funds but can lobby.

So OSPIRG took my tuition money and used it to lobby for god knows what left-of-center legislation that I may or may not have agreed with whether I liked it or not.

Then as if that weren't enough, the state organization was incredibly active and effective in getting their own students elected to the UO student body, thus ensuring that the scam is perpetrated in perpetuity. So they took my money without my consent, illegally used it to lobby for things I didn't agree with, and then funneled my money back on to campus to finacially support student government candidacies I didn't approve of, not mention campaigning to get their budget.

One year, while I was at school the student body for the first time voted down OSPIRGs subsidy after 20+ years of constant funding. What happened? Well, in the same election students also voted in an the campus OSPIRG president as the new student body president, who immediately held an illegal special election to get their money back (WHO CALLS A SPECIAL ELECTION IN STUDENT POLITICS?!). With even fewer people voting than normal in their stupid election, they got it back.

So last I checked, when corporations violate reams of tax code to illegally fund politicians in order to get into the public coffers, Ralph Nader et al. cry foul every chance they get. But when they do it as self-designated guadians of the "public interest" it's a perfectly acceptable practice. Santimonious a$$holes.
posted by Heminator at 10:10 AM on December 4, 2006

I was always pretty in sync with the PIRG outfit at my college, so I was happy to have some money go to them I just didn't want to deal with the overly-militant, overly-strident hippies who ran the thing and seemed sorta wacko.

After college it did seem like a scam they way they constantly appealed to idealistic folks who'd just graduated and who needed a job and wanted to do something meaningful. I might have even tried it out if I didn't have such a terminal fear of knocking on strangers doors.

Anyhow, I have no solutions or whatnot. Just an observation. For the most part, regardless of their organizational shortcomings, the PIRGS shed light and tackle some very crucial issues and I'll still support them, but they do need to clean up their act, personally I think the problems stem from the overly-strident wacko old hippies endemic to the operation.
posted by Skygazer at 10:17 AM on December 4, 2006

This summer I worked for GCI in Chicago. It was an "okay" summer job, but definitely demanding, soul sucking, and left me questioning "grassroots" campaigning.

It is very cult-like in a way - they spend the first day indoctrinating you into the "rap" (their door-to-door script) and then take you out with more experienced canvassers. Oh yeah, your first day is unpaid.

Basically what killed me was the no/low pay and the demeaning work. You're putting in 10 and 11 hours days and unless you're lucky (and it is luck) you won't even make minimum wage.

The directors don't have it much better. These are college grads who were suckered into uprooting and taking 60 hour a week jobs making $24,000 a year. GCI's business model requires cheap labor, high turn over, and a maximization of profit at every turn. The criticisms I've read are usually valid.

And the indoctrination never ends... each day you show up at the hq, and spend a hour doing role plays, repeating the "rap" and generally reinforcing that, "Yes, you are doing God's work."

At every turn the directors encouraged us to identify ourselves as Democratic National Committee employees and only to reveal our GCI connection if pressed. They were also scared to death about us talking to members of the press for obvious reasons.

I did it because I needed a summer job and I thought I was helping the DNC... but the more I think about my experience the more I feel exploited. At the end of the summer I figure about 1/4 to 1/3 of the money I brought in (about $7,000) went to the DNC. There has to be a better way and I wish the DNC would cut out the middle men (GCI's multi-millionaire executives) and do this sort of campaigning on their own.

Still, if you can knock on someone's door and ask for money I'm pretty sure you can do just about anything...
posted by wfrgms at 11:52 AM on December 4, 2006

There are always several cute hippy-chicks canvassing for PIRG around the Capitol Hill lunch spots I frequent. The best mix metaphor I may have ever seen was when I saw that one had her PIRG shirt knotted in the back, Hooters style. They are generally pretty friendly, and usually respond well to a "No thanks, not today."
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:53 AM on December 4, 2006

What happens when they get the money? Well, unlike every other student group on campus that has a line item budget and has to use purchase order to account for every dime of student funds OSPIRG gets a straight cash line-item. That's it for accountability wit their spending.

I was in the student government at Lewis & Clark College in 1995-1997 (we had a budget of ~$300,000 at the time); upon taking office me and some of the other officers realized that our student government had been giving OSPIRG a veritable shitload of money, and as Heminator says, with absolutely no transparency or accountability for the money we had been giving them (unlike every other group on campus).

For most of my time on the council, we asked them nicely, repeatedly, and pointedly if they could account for the money, or if they would submit a budget, or otherwise show us what would happen for any subsequent money we gave them. It took three years to finish getting rid of them, and it didn't finally happen for good until the year after I left school.

I can't think of anything good to say about OSPIRG based on my experiences with them.
posted by norm at 11:56 AM on December 4, 2006

I don't understand any of this. I am on the board of directors for my local campus PIRG (LPIRG - Lethbridge Alberta) and none of this stuff applies to us. We don't canvass, we don't go door-to-door, we don't lobby, we don't do any of that stuff. What we do is fund student-initiated events and research. Everything we fund has to directly impact the campus in some way, and we use a broad formula that for every $5 you ask for, you had better be able to influence one student.

Last year we funded an environmental action week on campus that brought together some lefty groups, the enviro-sci dept, the biology dept, government and NGOs. It had the highest turnout of any student-led event on campus. We also funded two student researchers to go study global warming and glaciers, we supported a student-run bio-ethics conference, we sent students to a poli-sci conference, and we are hosting a huge art exhibition soon. Not to mention bringing speakers to the campus, collaborating with the Women's Centre, running a campaign to support a Universal Bus Pass, funding a commitee dedicated to getting daycare on campus, and much much more.

We have a paid staff member who is not a student, and who spends 20hrs a week in our office. She is currently working on our annual report which will go up on our University's main online notice board to tell anyone who wants to know, what exactly their money was spent on. Every year we submit a budget and last year our budget was audited, with no problems.

Aren't all PIRGs like this?
posted by arcticwoman at 12:55 PM on December 4, 2006

But I'm in Canada. Is that the difference?
posted by arcticwoman at 12:58 PM on December 4, 2006

I'd just like to point out that it's precisely the fact that PIRG volunteers tend to be drawn from the cohort of college kids who don't need to work to survive that justifies not unionizing them. The whole system is built on the guilty feeling that bourgeois college kids get for being self-obsessed pukes in an unjust world: call it the upper-middle-class burden.

Later in life, you discover that adult non-profits are equally willing to exploit you. My partner was a NYPIRG volunteer (and then a team leader.) Contrary to the OP, they do make a good chunk of money on canvassing.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:56 PM on December 4, 2006

Being a PIRG is still miles better than canvassing door-to-door for Peace Action

...in Chicago

...in 2003

...in Winter

At that point you can't even call it hippie welfare anymore.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:49 PM on December 4, 2006

I interviewed for a professional-level job at a state PIRG -- the policy arm, not the fundraising arm. It was a very odd experience; I felt like I was being evaluated for ideological purity more than anything else. Nobody could explain exactly what I would be doing, and I got the sense that I was failing the interview because I was asking too many questions trying to ascertain the structure of the organization. Maybe the cult-like atmosphere they have to induce in their fundraisers trickles up to the rest of the organization? Don't know.
posted by footnote at 5:18 PM on December 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Hmmmm ... I had a great experience working for NM PIRG for four summers, '89-92, as a canvasser and field manager. We were not connected with the national PIRG except in name, and the money did go to lobbying efforts, but we actually got bills passed. The canvas director was very dedicated, as were most of the canvassers. There were a couple who were just good salesmen, but you take what you can get; it's not exactly a highly desired position, and it was only during summer. I had no problem raising money for political causes, as long as I knew it was well spent.

(By the way, the raps and role plays aren't indoctrination. It's just training. If you don't agree with the group's goals, you probably should find other work. I think that's pretty clear. A lot of reach-out political work is equally grueling and frustrating. There are always those rays of sunshine when you break through to someone, however, and you can see your work as educational at the street level. Even so, canvassing is a pretty high burnout position, and you have to be working for a good group for it to be worthwhile. I also tried working for GCI around the mid'90s. It was very much like a scam org, like those college-age drifters who sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door and live out of motels.)

However, the NM PIRG eventually hooked up with US PIRG for real. I tried to work for them again sometime later, and it didn't exactly jibe with me. Their goals seemed distant to the local concerns of the state, so it wasn't very grassroots, and the dedication I had sensed with the previous group just wasn't there anymore. So, I walked away from it, feeling a bit bitter about it.

But I'm glad to have had the four summers I did with them, as I learned it can work, but only with the right people working for entirely local, common-sense causes (environmental or consumer) with relatively broad support. Our focus in '89-92 was with groundwater, solid waste and recycling, and even got a landmark bill passed addressing the previously horrid landfill conditions and regulations and their effects on our groundwater. And I'll always remember that group of individuals fondly. Some of them are still friends ...
posted by krinklyfig at 6:56 PM on December 4, 2006

Ah, now that I can read the links, I see some of the problem: the "PIRG" appellation is a very generic term, and especially under the auspices of the "Fund," it's become a non-local specialized canvassing outfit. I take it that some state PIRGs (especially NY and CA) have not sold out to the FFPIRG, and are probably pretty reasonably pissed that FFPIRG is drawing them into the partisan waters, muddying the PIRG name, if you will.

The PIRG model I'm familiar with (prior to 2001) depends on being non-partisan in order to get common sense legislation passed without supplying campaign donations to any candidates at all. It's a tough job to lobby without paying for a politician's time, but if you just ask, repeatedly, for only the most reasonable, generally beneficial things, and demonstrate again and again how valuable and inoffensive the legislation would be... you can occasionally get something done.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:08 PM on December 4, 2006

Arnold Schwarzenegger Signs Legislation to Complete Million Solar Roofs Plan, flanked by Environment California (i.e. PIRG) advocate Bernadette Del Chiaro and PIRG canvassers who had worked on this for two years.

Working for the PIRGs is hard, canvassing in particular is a grind and a lot of people wash out. But the state PIRGs get a lot of important progressive work done in this country. If you don't like the working style, don't work for them. But before you spend your breath criticizing them, please come up with a better plan for creating this social change in this country, and implement it.

I work as an environmental advocate, and probably a quarter of the people I work with at the various environmental organizations around the country started out at the PIRGs. They don't work there any more, because of the grind and the internal politics. But they're where they are now because of the training they got at the PIRGs, and for the most part they acknowledge that, even if they roll their eyes a little when they do it.
posted by alms at 7:15 PM on December 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Anotherpanacea: NYPIRG operates independently, but CalPIRG and Environment California are very much part of the national PIRG organization. So yes, that Million Solar Homes bill that passed in California would not have happened without the PIRGs.
posted by alms at 7:18 PM on December 4, 2006

Just to throw my two cents into the pool:

I applied for a job at PIRG in their video editing and media creation division. The job criteria was to help teach small communities the hows and whys of using video / vblogging to communicate their circumstances, and also to create promotional materials for PIRG.

I went to the interview and was given the stock 'we want you to go door to door' speech until I pointed out that I wasn't applying for a job whose description didn't even remotely mention that. (I mean, as a video editor, i should probably be spending my days, you know, editing video). So get through the first interview, sounds ok. Second round, they ask for me to come down to Philly 'for a full day of interviews'.

They wanted me to set aside an entire day to practice canvassing a street and to see how well I did. That was when I gave up on them. If there was this much of a disconnect in their own hiring process, I didn't even want to see what the rest of the org was like.
posted by mrzarquon at 7:36 PM on December 4, 2006

As a former US PIRG employee I agree with this post. PIRG is a giant scam. Like everything else Ralph Nader it is ruining the world. We need to stop PIRG.
posted by humanfont at 7:36 PM on December 4, 2006

We need to stop PIRG.

We need to get it through our thick skulls that PIRGs are not monolithic. PIRG is like "Inc." Not all corporations are run like Enron, right?
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:23 PM on December 4, 2006

alms: So yes, that Million Solar Homes bill that passed in California would not have happened without the PIRGs.

That's just not at all clear. ECal worked on the bill; so did many other groups; ECal pushed the bill hard, but from my conversations with involved parties, it seems as if its unresponsiveness and unaccountability caused as many setbacks as steps forward.

In the meantime, many of the links here are about the thousands of hours of work that go on far below the lobbying level. Good work may be done, but increasingly people are asking whether the ends justify the means.

But before you spend your breath criticizing them, please come up with a better plan for creating this social change in this country, and implement it.

That doesn't really cut it. Not when there's so many people filtering through this system under the pretenses of "grassroots politics." Please read the links (which are carefully poised and argued, rather than the comments here, which are merely people's off-handed reactions) and think about what it is that is being criticized. "Style" just isn't what's at issue.
posted by greggish at 9:55 PM on December 4, 2006

I catch the flavor here that reminds me of Scientology. That is all.
posted by Goofyy at 11:23 PM on December 4, 2006

2 cents:

PIRG does too much good to write them off.

In my mind, the most disappointing thing is that directors must fire canvassers who can't make quota. That sends the completely wrong signal to potential activist, that it IS all about the money, and not about reaching out and educating people, and connecting them to political movements when possible.

The skills they teach are valuable, but if it's your first experience with progressive/environmental activism (as it is for many), and you don't begin working for them without your own solid ideals, it's likely that the manner in which those skills are taught will either burn you out or make you a cynical bastard.

I need to read the articles. I do have some funny stories about the interactions between youth labor radicals and PIRG.
posted by eustatic at 8:52 AM on December 5, 2006

eustatic, please do read the articles. there is much, much more to be disappointed about. Some of it appears to be outright fraud.
posted by snortlebort at 10:32 AM on December 5, 2006

In my mind, the most disappointing thing is that directors must fire canvassers who can't make quota. That sends the completely wrong signal to potential activist, that it IS all about the money, and not about reaching out and educating people, and connecting them to political movements when possible.

Except, what other metric do you use to determine who is effective? Possibly even 'who is doing their job at all?' You can send Joe Canvasser out to walk the beat but you need to know he's doing the job. You're paying him out of your finite funds and you can't just carpet-bomb a neighborhood even if you have infinite human resources - you alienate people if their doorbell is run a dozen times for the same thing.

Someone who comes back with $5 from a house successfully communicated with that person such that they believed in the mission enough to open their wallet. It's not a perfect way to track success but it beats following someone around.
posted by phearlez at 12:00 PM on December 5, 2006

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