In early March of 2018, 23-year-old Gordon Shelton landed what he thought would be a meaningful job working as a canvasser for Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. in Seattle. Founded in 2003, GCI describes itself as "a progressive organization that specializes in running face-to-face campaigns for political parties, candidates, and advocacy groups." The company is headquartered in Boston and has offices across the country. Its clientele is composed primarily of Democratic political organizations and progressive non-profits—the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, Amnesty International, even the Obama-Biden campaign—whom it offers services in fundraising, voter registration, volunteer recruitment, and advocacy. For someone like Shelton, it was a step into working for social change.
Shelton's first assignments were canvassing for the Southern Poverty Law Center and Doctors Without Borders. It was his job to solicit random passersby on behalf of the organizations, ideally securing commitments from them for monthly contributions to the non-profits. But after just a month on the job, Shelton began to feel burned out. Although he appreciated the political aspect of the work, the pay was low and erratic, as it was pegged to a grueling quota system. Unsurprisingly, turnover was also very high, which took an emotional and practical toll on him, as he watched coworkers committed to their causes leave and continuously had to adjust to working on teams with new hires.
In an effort to obtain what they deemed livable wages and stable working conditions, Shelton and his coworkers turned their organizing skills inward to form a canvassers' union. His coworkers told him stories of their appeals to management, which had fallen on deaf ears, leaving unionizing, in their minds, as the only reasonable option available. But that's when, according to Shelton, GCI dropped its progressive facade and began a vicious union-busting campaign, which peaked with the closure of the entire Seattle office.
"About 15 of us were working there when the office was closed with only a few days' notice," he says. "However, we were not formally notified that we had been laid off as individuals until a bargaining session on August 27th and 28th to discuss the effects of the closure."
GCI has on occasion worked with labor organizations. In 2016, it was contracted by Working America, the political organizing arm of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations. Shelton also points out that the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood, both clients of GCI, were founded by members of the Industrial Workers of the World–the union that he and his coworkers decided to affiliate with. GCI's website even features a photo of its field director with the president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest union of public employees in the United States.
Yet despite taking on labor organizations as clients and staging photo shoots with them, GCI has a questionable history with its own employees. Nearly two dozen cases alleging unfair labor practices—most of them still open—have been filed against the company with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing it of a range of illegal behavior, including surveillance, threats, and firings. (GCI declined to comment for this story.)
Shelton and his coworkers were not the first GCI employees to attempt to unionize. In May of 2017, GCI workers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, also demanding better working conditions and higher wages, applied for an NLRB election for recognition of their own canvassers' union. If they won a majority vote, the election would establish workers' legal representation by their union. In this case, GCI employees in Ann Arbor wanted to affiliate with the Industrial Workers of the World, an international, democratic union known for organizing workers in notoriously anti-labor sectors, such as fast food and prisons. GCI employees in Ann Arbor claimed that "an overwhelming majority of workers" had signed union cards, winning their election; shortly thereafter, the company closed their office.
"The company got rid of them," Shelton says of the unionized employees, "and let the office sort of wither on the vine."
But GCI wasn't able to quash the drive to unionize before it had taken root elsewhere. Shelton points to the organizing drive in Ann Arbor, which he heard about from coworkers, as the inspiration for their own efforts in Seattle, where they started building what is sometimes referred to as a "solidarity union."
"A solidarity union is one in which solidarity between workers on the shop floor is the basis for organization," Shelton says. "Workers themselves make and carry out decisions, rather than those decisions coming down from a union bureaucracy, paid or otherwise."
Building a solidarity union at GCI's Seattle office took many forms. Early on, canvassers addressed the hated quota system. Rather than trying to edge past each other in pursuit of meager bonuses, they prioritized the needs of those trailing behind, giving them optimal spots to solicit passersby. Not only did this strategy blunt the sharp edge of the quota system, thus staunching turnover, it also built support for collective action in general and the canvassers' union in particular. In March of 2018, when the canvassers' union—again affiliated with the IWW—decided to hold an NLRB election, they won 86 percent of the vote. (The NLRB did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
"By that time, we clearly already had near universal support among canvassers," Shelton says.
But as in Ann Arbor, winning the election did not necessarily mean the canvassers' union won GCI's acceptance. Shelton says that he and his coworkers received a call from corporate on June 9th, informing them that operations at the Seattle office would be suspended indefinitely due to their "unacceptable" actions. This closure, which the IWW deems an "illegal lockout," was met with solidarity actions from IWW members, and even some GCI employees, from across the country. Pickets, flyerings, and other actions were held outside—and sometimes inside—GCI offices in Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Denver, and Raleigh, in addition to a nationwide call-in campaign. Shelton credits these actions with forcing GCI to reopen the Seattle office on June 21st.
"We utilized the network of the IWW to build solidarity across the country," Shelton says. "The motto of [the IWW] is 'An injury to one is an injury to all,' and that mentality has played out very concretely in this campaign."
But the Seattle office's reopening would be short lived. As Shelton describes it, the power struggle between GCI and the canvassers' union continued. It wasn't long, according to Shelton, before GCI began gutting its office—eliminating fundraising campaigns, changing managers, and firing employees. In response, the canvassers' union staged more strikes, accompanied by more solidarity actions, such as a march on the boss by GCI employees in New Orleans and IWW members delivering a letter of demands at the company's headquarters in Boston, picketing outside of the Denver office, and flyering offices in New York, Berkeley, and Los Angeles. By August 1st, the Seattle office was apparently closed for good, but according to Shelton, he and his coworkers were not formally notified of their termination until a bargaining session on August 27th, at which they were offered three weeks of severance pay. The IWW continues to demand the reopening of GCI's Seattle office, describing its closure as illegal retaliation for labor organizing. To that end, the IWW has held solidarity actions in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Raleigh, as well as online, and it intends to continue putting pressure on GCI into the foreseeable future.
Largely absent from this struggle between a supposedly progressive company and its employees are the clients that GCI serves. While Shelton and his coworkers have not yet raised the issue of their termination with the organizations for which they were fundraising, other IWW members have. The IWW's local in Burlington, Vermont, for example, has called out the Southern Poverty Law Center, Doctors Without Borders, Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Democratic National Committee for working with GCI. The Southern Poverty Law Center declined to comment for this story. Doctors Without Borders' director of development, Thomas Kurmann, issued this statement:
As a nonprofit organization, all vendors we contract with must agree to act in accordance with all applicable federal, state and local laws, including labor laws and regulations. We evaluate these contractual relationships on a regular basis as mandated by our Board of Directors, and to ensure to the best of our ability that our partners continue to meet contractual standards. At this point, there is no change to our vendor contract with GCI.
It is unclear whether GCI's Seattle office will be reopened. It remains Shelton and his coworkers' primary demand, around which they continue organizing, with the IWW supporting them through solidarity actions and a hardship fund. But even if they fail, and the Seattle office goes the way of the Ann Arbor one, the struggle that they've waged will undoubtedly continue: Inspired by Shelton and his coworkers in Seattle, another GCI office in New Orleans announced their affiliation with the IWW in May.
*Update—October 17th, 2018: After this story was published, Nora Langan, media outreach specialist at Working America, contacted Pacific Standard, emphasizing that Working America has not collaborated with Grassroots Campaigns Inc. since 2005. At the time of this writing, GCI's website still claims that the two organizations worked together as recently as 2016. The confusion may be a result of the Working America Coalition, another affiliate of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, contracting with GCI in 2016, according to records from the Federal Election Commission. Multiple requests for clarification from the AFL-CIO went unanswered.