Before Bernie: How Ralph Nader Created a System to Exploit Young, Idealistic Progressives
[Author's note: The following piece included anecdotal and observational information, gathered from the author's experience working with the organization]
How do we get young people to become politically involved?
It was this very question that led progressive hero Ralph Nader, along with lawyer Donald Ross, to put into place a model based on the work of their book Action for a Change: A Student's Manual for Public Interest Organizing. With Nader serving as founder and Ross visiting college campuses for recruitment, the concept of public interest research groups, or PIRGs, began to come to fruition in the early 1970s. These campus PIRGs eventually expanded to state PIRGs with Minnesota, Oregon, New York, and Massachusetts becoming the first states to do so and eventually there emerged the national organization know as U.S. PIRG. In 1982, a separate organization called The Fund for the Public Interest was formed, becoming the fundraising and canvassing arm for the PIRGs. As time passed, more organizations allied themselves with the PIRGs and the Fund for the Public Interest and eventually The Public Interest Network was created. This network brought on such organizations as Environment America, Environmental Action, and Green Corps among others in an effort to work together on common progressive causes. In 2007, Environment America separated from the state PIRGs to focus solely on its work while the state PIRG groups would focus on consumer and social justice issues.
Currently, there are forty-seven state PIRG groups that employ 400 organizers, policy analysts, scientists, and attorneys and the organization has its national office in Washington, D.C. Environment America has 29 state affiliates including large scale organizations in California, Texas, and New York. The Fund for the Public Interest works in combination with both these groups to help grow membership and fundraising. For example, a Fund office in New York City might start off a summer canvass with an Environment New York campaign for six weeks but would then switch over to a New York PIRG campaign for the last six weeks. Each organization has national campaigns that the majority of the states work on, but there are certain regional issues where the campaigns might differ. For instance, Environment California might be working on an anti-fracking campaign whereas Environment America might have a national campaign to close holes in the Clean Water Act. It simply depends upon what each group deems its most important political issue at the time.
With a goal of having all these organizations in the Public Interest Network working on behalf of progressive change, there have been some notable successes, especially in recent years. U.S. PIRG lobbied hard and was seen as a driving force in the creation of the 2012 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as it was also instrumental in helping to convince both McDonalds and Subway to move toward antibiotic-free chicken in the past year. Environment America has had success at the state level with California enacting the nation's first plastic bag ban and has also had success on a national campaign to close loopholes in the Clean Water Act, ensuring the protection of the drinking water of 117 million Americans. Even some of the smaller groups in the Network like Environmental Action have helped raise awareness by mobilizing their members and being passionately involved in a series of climate marches throughout the country.
So why would the Public Interest Network's flagship organization, U.S. PIRG, go on record this week against President Obama's new overtime rules, designed to help working class individuals?
According to a statement released last Wednesday, U.S. PIRG has financial concerns regarding these new rules. The statement read:
In looking at this statement, one should look at the implications being suggested. U.S. PIRG is going on record against providing a means to help raise people out of poverty and to ensure that they properly compensated for the work they are doing. In addition, they're also implying that following this new rule would place a burden on the organization's ability to fundraise, which seems to take precedence over providing employees with a living wage and a non-overbearing work schedule. Add that to the absurd claim that somehow these new rules would prohibit U.S. PIRGs free speech and it seems as if the only progressive causes that U.S. PIRG deems worth fighting for are those that don't directly affect the organization's profit margin.
Yet this has always been the business model of The Public Interest Network. The organization prides itself on fighting for progressive causes yet when push comes to shove the organization does not believe in progressive values. It hires campaign directors straight out of college and forces them to work 80-hour weeks for well under $30,000. Its recruitment process won't consider anyone with a felony conviction. Minimum wage canvassers are forced to make a weekly quota regardless of the weather, neighborhood, or time of year they happen to be canvassing. Salaried directors in progressive states like California are paid minimum wage plus time and a half and are given a quarterly "bonus" to allow them to reach their contractual salary. The Network has even fought to prevent the unionization of local offices. The average lifespan of a canvasser is two weeks and a large number of directors leave before their one-year term is up. There's a reason why U.S. PIRG and The Fund for the Public Interest are rated so low on various websites that evaluate nonprofits.
Democracy is often uncomfortable. Yet it should never be exploitive, which is exactly what Ralph Nader's brainchild has become. It's ironic that Nader was once seen as a champion of progressive rights, yet the very organization that he helped form is now firmly entrenched into maximizing profits while minimizing grassroots activism. Nearly all the people to join groups associated with The Public Interest Network do so in an effort to make the world a better place and the majority are young and idealistic. However rather than nurture this indomitable spirit and create a pipeline for future progressive organizers and leaders, The Public Interest Network has instead created an assembly line where canvassers are chewed up and spit out and directors are overworked and underappreciated. You don't take a $28,000 gig straight out of college unless you are willing to truly commit yourself to a cause. And you don't stay with that cause if management doesn't practice what they preach.
Interestingly, the Public Interest Network boasts Barack Obama as one of its most famous alum. Yet notice how President Obama has not once mentioned his association with the organization. Like most organizers, President Obama spent a year working for a state PIRG (New York) after graduation and then left the organization, never to return. Fortunately, President Obama eventually returned to organizing, and everyone knows how important and transformative his time was as a community organizer on the Southside of Chicago was as it became an experience which helped make him the man he is today. Ironically, we now have a progressive organization willing to fight a wage increase by the most progressive president in the past half-century, a man who just happens to be an alum of that very same organization.
Progress means different things to different people yet there can be no denying that the Public Interest Network has long since abandoned the progressive values it was founded upon nearly 50 years ago. For someone like Ralph Nader, it has become more about the money than the movement. As the Public Interest Network's profits continue to rise, there remains little to no accountability for staff at the national level despite being the only group to have a stable, fixed salary. Campaign directors at various offices are given a targeted fundraising goal for each office but have no idea where and how the money raised is distributed. Employees, especially those who work at various call centers, are expected to meet weekly fundraising quotas with two successive missed quotas being grounds for dismissal. Even directors are seen primarily as fundraisers with every other aspect of running a successful office seen as being of lesser importance. They are given weekly feedback by their superiors and can be subject to dismissal if they, too, don't reach their fundraising goals.
Despite constant employee evaluations for the organizations, The Public Interest Network seems unlikely to alter its business model anytime soon. They've become the Walmart of Democracy by treating their workers horribly while doing everything they can to maximize profits. This might work out fine for a millionaire like Ralph Nader but for hundreds of idealistic young adults, it can ruin what might have been a potential life served in public service. By viewing its directors as replaceable spokes in a wheel, The Public Interest Network is placing a premium on profit over people. It is this very mindset that initially drew Ralph Nader into fighting for consumer protections in the 1960s. Yet here we are, fifty years later, and the very Network that he created has now become a revolving door for future progressive leaders and social justice warriors. As these young men and women get pushed out of what could have been a promising career in social justice, Nader and others continue to rake in the profits in the name of progressivism. Truth be told, the way in which they treat their employees as simple replaceable parts to maximize profits reflects much more of a Republican mindset than a Democratic one. For once-progressive hero Ralph Nader to adopt this mindset has shown how far he has fallen from his previous ideals.
And how far he is willing to go to destroy the progressive movement in this country for a little extra cash.
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