Among the many posters visible on campus, some of the most noticeable have been the bright red, white and blue fliers calling for a democratic takeover of the White House. The posters were created by Grassroots Campaigns, Inc., a not-for-profit organization that is recruiting graduating seniors for canvassing jobs in support of organizations such as the Democratic National Convention and Moveon.org. What these posters do not tell passersby is that Grassroots Campaigns was the defendant in two lawsuits filed by their college-age employees.
The first case against Grassroots Campaigns was filed in Oregon in August 2006. Fourteen students claimed that Grassroots Campaigns failed to pay them wages owed for work during Senator John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. According to the plaintiffs, the students were paid $5.15 an hour, below Oregon’s minimum wage of $7.05 an hour. No public ruling ever came from this lawsuit as both parties settled out of court in August 2007 for an undisclosed amount.
A second lawsuit was filed in San Francisco in July 2007, accusing the organization of violating state labor laws by underpaying their employees while requiring them to work long hours for seven days a week. San Francisco law firm Nelson Law Group filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of twelve former employees. The verdict in this case is still pending.
Dov Altabef ’08 applied for a position with Grassroots Campaigns and was not aware of its legal history.
“I didn’t know about the class action suits before applying,” Altabef said. “The reason I applied is because I am looking for short-term work at the beginning of the year, because I plan to leave for Asia in October or November.”
Because Altabef plans on having a brief relationship with Grassroots Campaigns, he remained relatively undeterred when learning of the organization’s history of labor violations. He also sees working for Grassroots Campaigns as an opportunity to work for causes he is passionate about.
“I applied for this job more as a back-burner option,” he said. “After reading about the class action suits, this decreased my interest somewhat, but I didn’t care too much because at this stage in my life, and for short term work, I am more concerned with a job being a meaningful experience than with it paying well.”
Recruiters for Grassroots Campaigns did not mention these lawsuits to students. Some students, however, such as Saul Carlin ’09, the campus coordinator for the activist group Democracy Matters, were already aware of the group’s legal history.
“I worked for United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), a canvassing group that hired Grassroots Campaigns to find its employees,” explained Carlin. “I was asked to join a class action lawsuit against U.S. PIRG that involved Grassroots, but I didn’t, since I was paid well and had a good experience working for them.”
Despite his positive experience with U.S. PIRG, Carlin believes it is important for students, especially the several seniors who have applied to work for the organization, to be aware of Grassroots Campaigns’ past.
Carlin thought that Grassroots Campaigns’ aggressive methods of passing out pamphlets, campus-wide postering and face-to-face recruiting were detrimental to its goals at the University.
“I don’t think aggressive tactics work well with Wesleyan students,” Carlin stated. “Word of mouth is what gets people’s attention here. Students have to hear positive things about Grassroots Campaigns from firsthand accounts, and these lawsuits don’t help that. If people pair their aggression with their legal past, it might suggest to some students that they’re trying to compensate for something.”
Although WSA member Chris Goy ’09 thinks these rumors probably affected the success of the organization’s visit to the University, he also believes that the recession has also led seniors to follow a more practical career path, making canvassing for a political campaign and earning minimum wage less appealing.
Carlin thinks students should be informed about their employers.
“The University has rules for recruiters, and if Grassroots Campaigns follows those rules, then that’s okay by me,” Carlin said. “Overall, students should really look into who’s hiring them, get educated so they know what they’re getting themselves into, for better and for worse.”
Grassroots Campaigns did not respond when asked to comment.