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When “Public Interest” Means “Oppressing Workers”

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Scott referred to this in his post yesterday, but PIRG’s statement opposing the new overtime rule is outrageous and entirely appropriate given its founding, history, and mode of operation. The argument itself is pure Lochner (public interest indeed!)

Doubling the minimum salary to $47,476 is especially unrealistic for non-profit, cause-oriented organizations. Organizations like ours rely on small donations from individuals to pay the bills. We can’t expect those individuals to double the amount they donate. Rather, to cover higher staffing costs forced upon us under the rule, we will be forced to hire fewer staff and limit the hours those staff can work – all while the well-funded special interests that we’re up against will simply spend more.

The logic of the rule, as applied to non-profit, cause-oriented organizations, makes no sense. A person of means – in service of a cause to which they feel deeply committed – can volunteer to work for our organization for free for as many hours as they wish, but a person of lesser means – who is no less committed to the work we do – cannot agree to work for our organization for less than $47,476 without having their work hours strictly limited in order to keep our costs affordable. This raises First Amendment concerns.

Yes, paying people overtime is a violation of their First Amendment rights! If this theoretical and entirely non-existent individual who wants to work for low wages specifically for PIRG and finds themselves limited to a mere 40 hours a week of this work, there are clearly no other outlets for their speech! Of course, this is complete garbage. Said individual could always donate the extra pay she made back to the organization, for instance.

PIRG is an utter disaster of an organization. It identifies an always available source of labor–young people, usually college or immediate post-college students, who don’t have a good job lined up and want to do some good. That’s actually a good thing–I wish other left-leaning organizations could find a way to take idealistic people and put them to work doing some good. But all PIRG uses them for is door-to-door fundraising. PIRG has no interest in building organizing skills in these people, no interest in long-term movement building, no interest in helping these people advance to long-term investment in either the organization or larger progressive causes. You can work there for years and advance no further than supervising other fundraisers. All it does it burn out those idealistic people.

I suspect most of us here have known people who worked for PIRG and many of you have probably considered it yourself or even done it. I considered it at one point, but the idea of going door to door asking for money is incredibly distasteful to me. But the working conditions are awful and the pay is low. The complaints listed by former workers here are almost always the same and would be recognizable for people 25 years ago. PIRG is basically a scam to fund a lobbying organization on the work of self-sacrificing true believers. In other words, it shares a lot in common with a religious cult.

None of this should be surprising because Ralph Nader, founder of PIRG, has always hated unions in his own shop.

As it turns out, Nader as a nonprofit entrepreneur has had his own experience with union organizing — from the employer’s side. In one case, unhappy workers at Public Citizen were persuaded to drop their drive to hold a vote on affiliating with the United Auto Workers, and an in-house union was created that over the years won important benefits and worker protections for employees. But in another case, labor-management relations weren’t so smooth.

Amid a dispute with the staff of one of his flagship publications in 1984 over its editorial content and a bid by staff members to form a union, Nader responded with the same kind of tactics that he has elsewhere condemned: He fired the staff, changed the locks at the office, unsuccessfully tried to have one employee arrested, and hired permanent replacements.

When the fired workers appealed the action to federal authorities, Nader filed a countersuit. Applying a legal tactic that employers commonly use to resist union-organizing efforts, Nader claimed that the fired workers were trying to appropriate his business. Nader spurned efforts by other progressives to mediate the fight, and he refused an offer to settle the litigation by simply signing a declaration that his workers thenceforth would have the right to organize.

But that’s not what Nader said at the time. In a June 1984 article in The Washington Post, Nader said his employees and others at nonprofit organizations don’t have a need to organize. “I don’t think there is a role for unions in small nonprofit ’cause’ organizations any more than … within a monastery or within a union” itself, he said. “People shouldn’t be in public-interest groups unless they believe in it and are ready to work for it.” Early on in his career, Nader said, “I worked weekend after weekend after weekend… Now people come here and say they want to fight polluters and unresponsive agencies, but not after 5 o’clock and not on weekends.”

Many employers, especially those who build small companies from the ground up, feel the same way about their businesses. But U.S. labor law is clear — two or more employees can file a letter with National Labor Relations Board noting their intention to try to form a union, and, in theory, they are immediately protected from firing and other retaliatory actions while the case is pending. In practice, however, years of litigation await workers who pursue these cases, even when management doesn’t pursue a countersuit.

In 1984, Tim Shorrock was exactly the kind of crusading journalist that Nader often attracted to his publications. At 33, he was just beginning a career as a reporter that would see him write about foreign affairs, human rights, labor issues, and progressive causes for The Nation and other publications. (Shorrock and I worked for the same publication in the mid-1990s, which is when I first heard his story about working for Nader. I hadn’t spoken with him for several years before contacting him for this article.) Shorrock considered the top editing job at Multinational Monitor a great opportunity. With a staff of two others — Kathleen Selvaggio and Rose-Marie Audette — Shorrock did everything from writing the stories to supervising the printing.

A son of missionaries, Shorrock had grown up in South Korea and Japan and retained an interest in America’s role in South Korea, which had yet to emerge from decades of U.S.-sponsored dictatorship. This interest led him to what proved to be a big story — the news that federal authorities were investigating whether giant contractor Bechtel had paid bribes to South Korean officials while then-Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger were top Bechtel officials. Shorrock says that Nader, who often read the magazine’s copy in advance, was unreachable when the magazine’s deadline came. Since Nader had also been absent at some deadlines in the past, Shorrock printed the story. Newspapers and television quickly pounced on the news, which portrayed exactly the kind of corporate malfeasance that Nader was targeting, and the attention raised the profile of Multinational Monitor. This was the kind of publicity that was supposed to attract fundraising for Nader’s anti-corporate cause.

But Nader wasn’t pleased. He was furious. Shorrock said that, at first, Nader seemed to be overreacting to what Shorrock saw as a misunderstanding about the final editing on a story that other news stories later validated. But then, Shorrock said, Nader started complaining that the story unfairly maligned Weinberger, who had been general counsel of Bechtel during the period when investigators were looking into South Korean bribes. In 1985, a U.S. News & World Report story on odd friendships in Washington mentioned Weinberger and Nader. The story said that Nader had recommended to Weinberger a former protege who later ended up as Weinberger’s deputy at Defense. Richard says today that Nader was a fearless opponent of the Reagan administration and elsewhere criticized Weinberger along with other Reagan appointees. Richard says that Shorrock willfully defied Nader’s instructions to hold the story. Richard produced an August 14, 1984, letter to subscribers that said that management had offered to bargain collectively with workers.

Threatening Ralph’s friendship with Cap Weinberger sounds like a good reason to crush unions to me.

In conclusion:

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