Definitions

public-interest group

Public Interest Research Group

The US Public Interest Research Group (also known as PIRG) is a political lobby non-profit organization in the United States and Canada, composed of self-governing affiliates at the state and province level. Its fundraising arm is the Fund for Public Interest Research ("the Fund").

Mission Statement

U.S. PIRG is the National lobbying and grassroots arm of the State PIRGs, a Federation of Statewide Non-Profit, Non-Partisan public interest advocacy organizations.

"U.S. PIRG is an advocate for the public interest. When consumers are cheated, or the voices of ordinary citizens are drowned out by special interest lobbyists, U.S. PIRG speaks up and takes action. We uncover threats to public health and well-being and fight to end them, using the time-tested tools of investigative research, media exposés, grassroots organizing, advocacy and litigation. U.S. PIRG's mission is to deliver persistent, result-oriented public interest activism that protects our health, encourages a fair, sustainable economy, and fosters responsive, democratic government".

History

The first PIRG was a public interest law firm started by Ralph Nader in Washington, D.C. and was much different from the modern conception of PIRG. The State PIRGs emerged in the early 1970s on college campuses across the country.

MPIRG (Minnesota) was the first state PIRG to incorporate (on February 17, 1971), and today is one of the few to remain independent from USPIRG and the Fund. Following the lead of Minnesota, students in Oregon (OSPIRG) and then Massachusetts (MASSPIRG), and finally many other states and Canadian provinces incorporated chapters of PIRG. The PIRGs are responsible for many of the Bottle Bills across the country.

After students organized on college campuses for nearly 10 years, the different State PIRGs established the D.C. arm U.S. PIRG to advocate for change on the National level. Nearly simultaneously, the PIRGs founded the Fund For Public Interest Research (FFPIR), the fundraising and citizen outreach arm of the PIRGs. The Fund hires canvassers to go door-to-door or stand on street corners and fundraise for their perspective organizations by signing up members and collecting donations (or membership dues). There are roughly 60 Fund canvass offices across the country.

Funding

Student PIRG chapters are typically funded through either a waiveable or a mandatory student fee assessed to each student at the college or university. However, this funding system is controversial due to the political nature of PIRG work. Nationally there were several attempts to remove the PIRG chapters from college campuses, with several being removed, several being retained by majority vote of the student bodies, and many student PIRG chapters reinstated on the contingency that they would solicit their funds directly from individual students rather than by addenda to tuition. Student fees are used only to support Students PIRG chapters.

Fund for Public Interest Research

State PIRGs are funded through three sources: door and street canvass revenues, tele-marketing revenues, and grant funding.

The citizen membership of the PIRGs is largely built through fund raising door-to-door, or in high-traffic public areas. The Fund for Public Interest Research Group, the national canvassing organization created by the State PIRGs, works to build membership for several other national non-profit lobby groups, including: the State PIRGs, the State Environment groups, the Human Rights Campaign and the Sierra Club. Canvassers are often college students during the summer when the canvass operation is expanded, while canvassers generally have a more varied background in the few cities where there is a canvass during the non-summer months. Canvass offices vary drastically in size depending on location and time of year with the largest having between 75 and 100 employees during summer months.

The Fund and the telemarketing centers operate on behalf of all of the state PIRG and Environment groups (excepting MPIRG NHPIRG and NYPIRG). There are currently three telemarketing locations (Portland OR, Boston, MA and Sacramento, CA with the Los Angeles, CA telemarketing center having been shut down following a labor dispute). These call centers have a fluid workforce similar to the door and street canvass.

Finally, the individual state PIRGs apply for and receive grants from a variety of different non-profit foundations, along with receiving disbursals of funding from grants received federally. PIRGs avoid any funding directly from corporations, believing such funding would restrict their autonomy.

Labor

There have been labor issues surrounding student funding as well as street canvassing and telemarketing. Attempts have been made by campus staff, telephone outreach staff, and canvass staff to unionize. Each of these efforts have been successfully stopped by the PIRGs. Former employees allege that they were paid below minimum wage and required to work more than a 40 hour work week. PIRG does not dispute this, arguing that they are exempt from paying canvassers minimum wage. There is currently a class action lawsuit from former canvassers regarding this issue.

Criticism

The book Activism, Inc: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America by Columbia University sociologist Dana Fisher, is based on an ethnographic study she did in a stratified random sample of Fund canvass offices during the summer of 2003. Fisher charges the corporatized fundraising model (of which the Fund is an example) with mistreating idealistic young people by using them as interchangeable parts and providing them with insufficient training; Fisher also believes that the outsourcing of grassroots organizing by groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace to organizations like the Fund has led to the decay of grassroots infrastructure and opportunities for involvement on the left. (A summary of this book can be found on the Stanford University Press website.)

The Fund has created a website, Canvassing Works, to respond to some of the criticisms raised by the book. The site includes testimony by former Fund staff who have moved into leading roles in other progressive organizations and other progressive leaders, including U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, Dr. Woody Holton (Associate Professor of American history at the University of Richmond), and Randy Hayes of the Rainforest Action Network.

State (and other) PIRGs

Some State PIRGs are independent state-based lobby groups, but the vast majority belong to a federal network known as U.S. PIRG. The state PIRGs have also been responsible for creating a number of other public interest non-profits including, but not limited to, Green Corps, the Toxics Action Center, Environmental Action, the National Environmental Law Center, Earth Tones, and the State Environment Groups. These groups remain affiliated with varying degrees of closeness. The only truly autonmous PIRG is still MPIRG (Minnesota PIRG) which has declined to affiliate with the greater PIRG network due to the busting of unions carried out by the Fund. Although NYPIRG remains part of U.S. PIRG, it is independent and remains student-directed.

The organization that encompasses all PIRG, "Environment," and spin-off groups is known as NAOPI, or the National Association of Organizations in the Public Interest. This larger, umbrella organization plays a coordinating role.

The highest-profile PIRGs are CalPIRG (California PIRG), MASSPIRG (Massachusetts PIRG), MPIRG (Minnesota PIRG), NYPIRG (New York PIRG), and OSPIRG (Oregon State PIRG). Outside the United States, PIRGs can also be found in Canadian provinces, such as Ontario, Canada. Canadian PIRGs operate on a different model then U.S. PIRGs. Canadian PIRGs are student run and the majority of their funding comes directly from students. Most, if not all, Canadian PIRG's operate on a consensus decision making model. Canadian PIRGs are independent of each other although some efforts have been made towards collaboration.

United States

Canada

See also

References

External links

U.S.A. PIRGs

Canadian PIRGs

Other external links

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