FOUR YEARS AGO, the directors of one Los Angeles office of the Fund for Public Interest Research told their bosses that they planned to unionize. To their surprise, the Fund — a giant national umbrella group that runs canvassing and fund-raising campaigns for nonprofits like the Sierra Club and the Human Rights Campaign — responded by firing them and shuttering the office for more than a year. Last summer, Christian Miller, who works at another of the Fund’s L.A. offices, learned from his predecessors’ mistakes: When things got ugly, he went straight to the Teamsters. But despite successful union votes in two L.A. offices and no less than 14 complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Miller and his co-workers say they’ve faced a fierce union-busting effort from an organization that survives on its wholesome liberal image.

Several of the Fund’s managers refused to be interviewed for this story, responding instead with e-mailed statements from assistant national canvass director Sarah Gaudette, who writes that the Fund respects its employees’ right to organize. “We have certainly not done anything illegal,” Gaudette continues. “In fact, the NLRB has consistently dismissed charges that we have engaged in bad faith.” In fact, only two of the 14 charges filed with the labor board were dismissed.

MILLER, LIKE MANY OF HIS CO-WORKERS, was hired by the Fund after answering a newspaper ad that promised $300 to $500 a week for “activist jobs.” It proved to be hard work — ringing doorbells for hours to ask for donations to various environmental and progressive causes: solar energy, forest protection, gay rights. Canvassers were paid a percentage of the money they raised, which could easily work out to be less than the minimum wage. Only rarely, Miller says, did he see a comma on his biweekly check. But the hardships were bearable, Miller says, “because these are issues that I care about.”

The grievances, though, began adding up: low pay, long hours without breaks, shifting work rules, abysmal job security. It became clear, Miller says, that long-term employment was not encouraged. The Fund, he speculates, wanted a “flexible,” easily replaceable work force of idealistic college students who stick around for a few months and move on. Then, last April, a manager told canvasser Tiff Petherbridge that she might be fired for having failed to reach her donation quota on two consecutive days. For months before, Petherbridge had voluntarily taken on extra responsibilities that had her in the office for 60 hours a week, for which she was paid, she says, just over $300. “The only reason I put up with it is I believed in it,” Petherbridge says. If even her job could be so easily jeopardized, she and her co-workers realized, they had to seek help.

They contacted Teamsters Local 848, signed union cards and filed a petition with the NLRB. Last June, that office (which they call, simply, “the door office”) voted the union in by an overwhelming margin.

The Fund reacted by downgrading the health-care plan in another troublesome L.A. office, the telephone office, in which employees make fund-raising calls over the phone. (The changes to the health plan, says Gaudette, “were long under way before union activity began.”) Grievances there were similar: Workers could make up to $14.50 an hour, but their pay rate was re-evaluated every few weeks, and could drop without warning from just-scraping-by to less-than-livable.

“There was no accounting to us why we got a raise one week and got docked the next,” says Matthew Scanlon, a former telephone-office employee. Worse, “People would just get fired and disappear. There was no security.” In September, that office also voted the union in, despite a campaign of steady intimidation, says worker Marcy Harris. “They told us if we formed a relationship with the union, we could no longer have this kind of relationship with them.”

THE FUND LIVED UP TO THAT PROMISE. The phone fund-raisers say that as soon as they unionized, their pay rates began to tank mysteriously. Then, in a single week in November, the Fund fired six people, nearly half the office’s staff. “Everyone they fired had been strong supporters of the union and vocal opponents of the abuse the office was meting out,” says Scanlon, who was among those fired. All but one of the original union supporters in the telephone office, says Harris, have been fired, had their pay cut or have quit.

Things weren’t much better in the door office. Two union supporters were fired in the weeks after the union vote. Then, in July, an office manager fired Petherbridge. She immediately filed a complaint with the NLRB, and was re-hired the same night, only to be fired again three weeks later. “I don’t know exactly what it was I got fired for, because they gave me so many different reasons,” she says.

Both offices instituted hiring freezes in September. “They’re just trying to squeeze us out and start from scratch,” charges Miller.

At the same time, contract negotiations have progressed at a snail’s pace, and the Teamsters blame the Fund. According to Local 848’s Emilio Arias, the union rep for both offices, “Most employers try to hurry up and get the bargaining over with, so everyone can move on. They’re not doing that.” Instead, Arias says, the Fund has been unwilling to schedule more than one or two meetings a month for each office, and limits those sessions to two hours apiece. “They’re not meeting with us, and when they do meet with us, it’s a dog-and-pony show. Then a month goes by.”

The Fund’s Gaudette in turn blames the union for the slow pace, but regardless, laughs Miller, “At this rate we’re not going to have a contract until late 2009. I actually did the math.” Without a contract, though, as the Teamsters’ Arias points out, the union is certified by the NLRB to represent Fund employees for just one year. “If they can get rid of enough of the employees who were there during the organizing effort, they can decertify the union.”

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