They wear “Amy for America” shirts. They staff events. And they knock on doors, asking you to donate. But they’re not volunteers. And they’re not on Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s campaign staff.
Across Minnesota, if you talked to someone wearing an “Amy for America” t-shirt over the last year, they might have been a contractor for Grassroots SG Company (or GRSG), a consulting agency founded by veteran organizer Sean Gagen.
While campaigns often have canvassers, it’s uncommon for a late-stage presidential candidate, especially a senator, to hire outside consultants in their home state when they usually can turn to their own already established volunteer network. Michael Bloomberg, a relatively late entrant into the presidential race, is the only other major candidate who’s made substantial use of contractors to contact voters. Other candidates, like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have volunteer networks built out in their home states and do not contract out.
GRSG is the Klobuchar campaign’s third largest expenditure for outside consulting agencies. In total, the Klobuchar campaign has paid GRSG more than $1 million. The only vendors the campaign has spent more on are GPS Impact, which coordinates Klobuchar’s television advertisements, and Rising Tide Interactive, which provides digital consulting for Klobuchar’s campaign.
When asked about GRSG’s role on the campaign, representatives for GRSG redirected requests for comment to the Klobuchar campaign. A representative for Klobuchar’s campaign said that they currently work with GRSG on ballot access efforts and petition initiatives, and that the group no longer does work for Klobuchar in Minnesota.
But while their work for the campaign is now centered elsewhere, GRSG canvassers did do significant amounts of work in Minnesota. According to job postings, the Klobuchar campaign started using GRSG contractors in July of 2019. GRSG has also done work for Klobuchar and other Minnesotans in the past, including helping Sen. Tina Smith get her special election campaign jumpstarted.
Minnesota canvassers hired by GRSG worked in tandem with Klobuchar’s campaign in order to ensure she had enough donors to make the debates last year (although the campaign has continued to pay GRSG into the early months of 2020, primarily for work in other states). In all, Klobuchar needed to have 165,000 unique donors in order to make the September debate. The initial goal of contracting GRSG in Minnesota was apparently to put her over the top.
One GRSG canvasser described the job in a LinkedIn profile: “As a Canvasser, I work to get Senator Amy Klobuchar more donors to ensure she can make it to the DNC sponsored debates, first the debates in September and October, and now to the debates in November and December.”
Yet there are notable differences between Klobuchar staffers and GRSG canvassers. The Klobuchar campaign unionized in December, and campaign representatives have said non-managerial field staff are covered by the contract. “Amy and our campaign are pro-union and we support organized labor,” Klobuchar Campaign Manager Justin Buoen said when the staff unionized. “We are proud of our field team’s decision to unionize with the Teamsters and we look forward to moving this process forward.”
Campaign representatives told the Star Tribune that field organizers on staff make a minimum of $42,000 a year (around $20 an hour) and receive benefits. GRSG’s in-state canvassers (or “grassroots fundraising organizers”) were paid less: a starting wage of $15 an hour to staff some Amy for America events and fundraise for the campaign. Some GRSG staffers were eventually promoted and received more than the initial $15 an hour, however. Klobuchar’s campaign would not say if GRSG’s canvassers received any health insurance or benefits, like unionized staffers do.
While the canvassers primarily dealt with in-person fundraising, and field organizers on staff primarily dealt with in-person voter contact, Klobuchar’s campaign would not say why the campaign hired contracted canvassers instead of campaign staff that would be covered under the union contract.
“Canvassers have always been among the most marginalized and exploited workers on any campaign,” said Meg Reilly, the President of the Campaign Workers Guild (CWG), which works to unionize campaign staff.
“The health and safety protections of a union contract are particularly critical for canvassers, who work in all weather conditions for hours on end, and often deal with harassment or threats. Canvassers deserve the same job stability, wages, and workplace protections as any other field staff.”
Greta Kaul contributed reporting to this story.