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On strike at Sisters' Camelot: Canvass workers, volunteer collective at odds
The canvass workers for Sisters’ Camelot announced unionization on Monday, February 25, and went out on strike on Friday, March 1. Sisters' Camelot is a nonprofit, volunteer-run collective organization based in Minneapolis. The canvass workers are independent contractors who raise money for the organization by going door-to-door. Canvassers have joined the Industrial Workers of the World, a leftist union informally known as the “Wobblies.”
Sisters’ Camelot has six members of the collective, and no executive director. The members are volunteers, though some receive stipends for specific work. Maria Wesserle, who started canvassing for Sisters’ Camelot in November, wouldn’t say how much the canvassers earn now, but she said it was lower than industry standard, which as about $80-90 per night. For most organizations, canvassers have a quota of about $140-150 a night, which means they typically make 60 percent. Sisters’ Camelot canvassers don’t have a quota, and instead have a flat rate, but it is less than what other organizations pay, according to Wesserle.
Shuge Mississippi, one of the canvassers has been associated with Sisters’ Camelot for more 13 years both as a canvasser and as a former collective member. Mississippi says the canvassers have talked about forming a union for the past couple of years, but what “lit the fire” most recently was that three field managers were demoted from their positions due to a change in policy within the organization.
Collective member Lisabeth Foster-Bayliss, who was a canvasser for three years before becoming a member and currently holds the bookkeeper position, says Sisters’ Camelot has had canvas directors before, but there was a lapse when the last director left.
“Somebody’s got to be in charge,” she said. The collective made the decision that if someone is going to be a canvas director, they should also be a member of the collective, and they should hire from within the collective whenever possible. The canvas directors figure out which neighborhood the canvassers will be going each day, print out the map, handle all the money and keep the books.
“We used to have field managers,” she said, who filled in for the canvas director, but there was a concern from the collective, that if they weren’t invested in the organization enough to be members, they shouldn’t be given keys, access to bank account information, etc.
In the past, according to Maria Wesserle, other people besides the directors were sometimes paid a stipend for doing the director's tasks. Now, only collective members can do it. “They made that decision without informing us,” she said.
Shuge says it is unfair that field managers lost those jobs just because they aren’t collective members. Becoming a collective member requires a three-month volunteer commitment before you can even be considered for joining as a full member.
Mississippi says that the collective members are trying to micromanage the canvassers. “The collective does not deal with the canvas on a day to day basis,” he said. “They don’t understand the jobs.”
Mississippi himself was a collective member for a number of years, but quit due to a personal conflict, he said. Last summer, he tried to re-join, but he was told by one of the collective members before he started the volunteer commitment that he wouldn’t be asked to become a member, and others nodded in agreement. According to Mississippi, one other canvasser, who applied to be a collective member around the same time also was told he would not be accepted.
According to Mississippi, the canvassers’ demands aren’t really about money (though one of their demands is asking for an increase in their rate). “This is really about the power structure at Sisters’ Camelot. We want more control over the environment of our work.”
Mississippi said Sisters’ Camelot “needs to make a good faith effort to negotiate with us,” he said. “We wanted to negotiate, we were willing to take the time. We didn’t have to have everything agreed to. They refused to even begin negotiation. In our opinion, they are not recognizing our right to be a union.”
“I am really proud of my co-workers,” he said.
Wesserle says a typical day for the canvassers involves meeting at the office every day at 3:00, followed by driving in the van to the neighborhood where they will be canvassing. The canvassers then spending about an hour (depending on how long the commute has been) at a coffee shop (where they pay for their own coffee) until 4:30 p.m. when they start canvassing.
Right now, the collective and the canvass directors have no accountability to the canvassers, Wesserle said. Though some canvassers have more than 10 years experience, their leadership potential can’t be utilized because of the collective’s decisions. “We can’t use our expertise to run the canvas,” she said. “We are the ones who do the fundraising. The collective is not involved in that. We would like acknowledgement and control in the way fundraising is done.”
Wesserle said the reason the canvassers went on strike is because the collective refused to negotiate. Members of each side met at 10 a.m. on Friday morning and went through the canvassers’ demands. After that, there was a period of asking clarifying questions and talking points. There was one hour for the collective to go through the demands, and come up with three or four they thought they could easily achieve.
“What happened was, we went through demands. We had an hour break. They issued a statement saying that they would not negotiate. If we want to have our voices heard we would have to join the collective, and that we were being hostile. We tried to talk about it. We tried to make a point that we don’t want to go on strike, that it was a last resort. They interrupted us, and that’s when we made our statement.
The demands included making the workplace more democratic, and giving more power to the canvassers to run their own canvassing operation. They also wanted more allowances for facilitation between the canvassers and the collective. There were some logistical points, too. For example, the van that the canvassers ride in occasionally breaks down. Recently, they were all stuck on the highway. “It’s frustrating that we won’t hire a professional to fix the problem,” she said. Currently one of the collective members fixes the van. “He’s great, but if it can’t be done in a timely manner, they need to figure out another way,” Wesserle said.
Canvassers also demanded an increase in their rate, and that the collective pay any medical bills that occur on the job. Mississippi was bitten by a dog last year, and had to pay his own $200 medical bill. “We don’t want workers’ comp,” he said. Rather, they want Sisters’ Camelot to pay medical bills if canvassers get injured on the job.
The collective and the canvassers will meet again on Monday for the weekly collective meeting.
According to collective member Foster-Bayliss, the collective didn’t hear any word that the canvassers were unhappy prior to last week. “We have an open collective process,” she said. “We make a commitment to do the work. There are lots of unpaid hours, lots of headache and stress.”
She said that any canvasser can become a collective member, and some of the current members were canvassers in the past, including herself. The meetings are open, she said. “Tools are really accessible if someone is having a problem,” she said. “We were informed on Monday they had unionized and that there were grievances.”
But it wasn’t until Friday that they found out what the specific demands were. The collective members were given one hour to look over the demands, and according to Foster-Bayliss, “they could quickly sink the agency. We can’t meet these kinds of demands.”
The collective’s central issue is that they have a collective process already in place, Foster-Bayliss said. “This organizing campaign seeks to force our collective process into a mold that isn’t hours. Collective bargaining has its place, but we’re not owners, we’re not capitalists.”
Foster-Bayliss said the collective wants to sit down and talk with the canvassers. “We can’t have our collective process run over. Those demands would threaten our sustainability.”
When asked about two canvassers told they would not be accepted into the collective, Foster-Bayliss said, “that must have been a miscommunication” for one case, and for another case, indicated that the member had been previously fired from the organization.
“Being on a collective means you are accountable for everything. There has to be some trust and some belief that people are invested before you give them keys and access to bank accounts,” she said.
Foster-Bayliss says that the best case scenario for the meeting on Monday is that everyone sits down together “in a respectful place where no one is making demands. We will respect the right of the canvas to organize and unionize. We need them to show the same amount of respect to us.”
“We were so upset and the language was so aggressive,” she said of the Friday meeting. “It’s not that we are not taking this seriously. Threats and demands aren’t the best ways of getting what you want.”
Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.