ACORN: History, Activities, and Agendas
By Richard Poe
ACORN is a grassroots political organization that grew out of George Wiley's National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), which employed the Cloward-Piven Strategy of “orchestrated crisis.” In the late 1960s, ACORN founder Wade Rathke was a protegé of Wiley and a NWRO organizer. Rathke also organized draft resistance for the militant group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) during the same period.
In 1970, Wiley sent Rathke to
Sensing that his days at NWRO were numbered, Rathke formed a new organization in 1970 called Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). The name was later changed to Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, but the acronym ACORN remained the same. In keeping with George Wiley's original vision, Rathke gave ACORN a wider mission than that of the NWRO. Instead of focusing only on welfare recipients, ACORN would work on issues touching all low-income and working-class people.
ACORN grew rapidly. Today it claims 175,000 dues-paying member families, and more than 850 chapters in 70
In 1998, ACORN founded the Working Families Party in
In November 2001, a coalition of radical politicians led by ACORN-sponsored candidates running on the Working Families Party ticket won a veto-proof majority on the New York City Council, giving ACORN de facto control of the
With little opposition from Republicans or moderate Democrats - and very little press coverage - ACORN radicals pushed laws tightening their control over
On March 12, 2003, the
In the 2004 election cycle, ACORN and its sister group Project Vote ran a nationwide voter mobilization drive for George Soros' Shadow Party. The drive was marred by numerous allegations of fraudulent voter registration, vote-rigging, voter intimidation, and vote-for-pay scams.
ACORN drew national attention during the 2004 election campaign, when its get-out-the-vote activists were implicated in numerous reports of voter fraud, especially in the swing states of
• Falsifying thousands of voter registration forms, either by registering the same person multiple times or by registering deceased or imaginary people • Hiring canvassers to collect registration forms from Democratic voters, while destroying those of Republican voters • Registering convicted felons, even in states where felons are ineligible to vote
Longtime observers of ACORN were not surprised to see this organization surface at the epicenter of vote-tampering schemes. These reports barely hint at the full range of corrupt activities in which ACORN has indulged. From its inception, ACORN has worked hand-in-hand with corrupt labor unions, and its tactics closely resemble those employed by labor racketeers.
Presenting itself as a vehicle for "community organizing" of poor and working-class people, ACORN enriches itself through an array of money-making methods ranging from Jesse Jackson-style corporate shakedowns to fraudulent solicitation of federal grants - schemes which, in many cases, exploit the very people ACORN claims to be helping.
Former ACORN members and other leftist critics often describe ACORN as a cult - a movement which exploits its own members while demanding of them a fanatical, quasi-religious devotion. "They're a curious cult, that's what ACORN is," comments Bob Bland, a self-described peace activist and solar architect who has worked with ACORN on specific projects. "ACORN carefully selects issues to build its name. It won't coalesce with other groups."
In response to ACORN's shabby treatment of employees, the ultra-radical Industrial Workers of the World declared in a bulletin, "We charge that ACORN . . . leadership constitutes a cult that is disconnected from the needs of their own workers."
Dorothy Perkins, former state ACORN chairman for
Every activist group has its critics, rivals, and disgruntled employees. ACORN stands out, however, by the number of critics who describe it as a "cult." An October 2004 report by the Employment Policies Institute (EPI) provides some clues as to how ACORN managed to acquire its this reputation. Titled The Real ACORN: Anti-Employee, Anti-Union, Big Business, it draws on insider testimony to document ACORN's abusive organizational culture.
Former ACORN workers cite low salaries, sporadic paychecks, sweatshop conditions, and intense work pressure among their reasons for leaving. One disillusioned activist vented his complaints through humor, composing a satirical "Help Wanted" ad that reflects what he thinks ACORN would say if it wished to provide an honest description of what ACORN activists really do. His satire reads:
"Immediate openings: Have you always wanted to be a martyr? ACORN is currently hiring community organizers to dedicate their lives at the expense of everything else for at least a year for a minimum of 54 hours a week. Job duties include door knocking by yourself to sign up members (sometimes at night); developing leadership; planning meetings, protests and rallies; running campaigns and fundraising. Working for ACORN is a position of privilege, so if you are single, young, can go for weeks without a paycheck, and you think you have what it takes, call us at 555-ACORN. Fluency in Spanish and the willingness to neglect your own well-being a plus."
The ad is satirical. However, the conditions it describes are real. Many ACORN activists in fact work more than 54 hours in a given week. Their paychecks often arrive late, and are often short of the actual money owed. According to the Employment Policies Institute (EPI) report, "ACORN employees . . . are routinely forced to work alone at night in dangerous neighborhoods. Female ACORN employees report being sexually assaulted while attempting to work under these conditions. ACORN has refused requests from nighttime employees in dangerous neighborhoods to work in pairs"
ACORN's miserly treatment of employees sounds a discordant note in a group whose trademark issue is crusading for a "living wage" for all Americans. EPI notes that ACORN's standard wage of $5.67 per hour ($18,000 per year for organizers working 54 hours per week) is "less than half the level demanded by many proposed 'living wage' ordinances that ACORN supports. In some states, such as
ACORN actually sued
ACORN founder Wade Rathke has close ties with the labor movement. He founded Local 100 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in
Rathke's union background has not inhibited him from engaging in union-busting against his own workers. ACORN employees in several states have attempted to unionize. Invariably, they have met intimidation and retaliation from ACORN management, including hostile interrogation about their union activities, threats of firing and, in many cases, actual firing. Such classic union-busting tactics directly violate workers' rights under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA).
ACORN makes a great deal of money from its "community organizing" campaigns, and thus shows little tolerance for rival leftist groups infringing on its turf. ACORN's intense territoriality brings it into frequent conflict with other community organizers. For instance, when ACORN set up shop in
"We are the majority, forged from all the minorities," reads ACORN's "People's Platform." "We will continue our fight . . . until we have shared the wealth, until we have won our freedom . . . . We have nothing to show for the work of our hand, the tax of our labor." ACORN rhetoric abounds with references to "social justice," "economic democracy" and other socialist agendas. However, a sober assessment of ACORN's actions through the years leaves little doubt that its true purposes are: (1) to make money, and (2) to gain political power, which in turn enables it to make more money.
Since ACORN is a private corporation, it does not divulge its finances. Further complicating any effort to calculate ACORN's income is the fact that it operates an unknown number of front groups, many of which conceal their relationship to ACORN. Any thorough investigation of ACORN's finances would have to determine the cash flow through each and every one of its front groups. Notwithstanding these obstacles, EPI's October 2004 report The Real ACORN makes some telling observations regarding ACORN's profitability. It notes:
"…ACORN receives an estimated $7.2 million per year from its 120,000… member families. In addition, ACORN has received at least $16 million in grants from deep-pocket foundations during the last five years. … The organization also receives considerable support from trade unions. While unions are not legally required to disclose their grantmaking activities in the same manner as private foundations, it is clear that they have given millions of dollars to support [ACORN's] living-wage campaigns."
To update the figures in the preceding paragraph, as of March 2006 ACORN claimed 175,000 member families on its website, each contributing at least $120 per year. ACORN therefore implies that it receives about $21 million in annual membership fees. This gives us some idea of ACORN's income.
As for ACORN's expenses, the EPI report reads as follows: "It is estimated that ACORN employs . . . 150 organizers across the country. With each organizer making approximately $20,000, this amounts to a labor cost of only $3 million. With over $10 million a year flowing into ACORN and so little being spent on labor costs or overhead, just what is happening to this mountain of financial support?"
ACORN's website states, "Membership dues and a host of grassroots and chapter-based fundraising programs pay for 70 to 75 percent of the entire organization's budget." Though many details of ACORN's varied enterprises remain shrouded in secrecy, the organization is clearly thriving financially.
Since its inception in 1970, ACORN's overriding mission has been to enact "living wage" ordinances at the local, state and - ultimately - federal levels. ACORN has succeeded in getting many local and state "living wage" laws passed. How does this benefit ACORN? It does so by generating a constant stream of large contributions from trade unions. According to EPI's report, ACORN's model legislation for local and state "living wage" ordinances contains a clause that exempts unionized businesses from paying the minimum wage. The practical effect of this clause is to force non-union businesses into a corner. They can choose: (1) to compete with unionized businesses at a great disadvantage, since they are compelled by law to pay higher wages, or (2) they must unionize, so that they too can receive an exemption from the "living wage" requirement.
Either way, the unions benefit. Those companies that stubbornly resist unionizing founder and, in many cases, go bankrupt. Those that unionize thrive, providing an ever-expanding membership base for union recruiting. This is the main reason that unions such as AFSCME and SEIU contribute so generously to ACORN.
ACORN was a signatory - along with more than 120 other leftist organizations - to a 2000 campaign to increase the minimum wage. ACORN's
Housing activism is a major focus for ACORN. It has also been a source of hot controversy among ACORN critics. ACORN programs provide housing for the poor. Some would argue, however, that ACORN derives far more benefit from the arrangement than its poor tenants. Typically, ACORN will form a housing collective in a targeted area. The collective applies pressure on local authorities to place it in charge of renovating and managing abandoned or dilapidated properties for poor tenants. Local authorities provide money for renovation - much of which ends up in ACORN bank accounts. The poor tenants are compelled into "earning" their new homes by investing "sweat equity" - that is, working without pay on renovating the properties.
When the tenants finally move in, they are given ownership only over the house or apartment they renovated. ACORN or its designated "housing collective" retains title to the land on which the building stands. The more houses and buildings ACORN renovates for the poor, the more land it acquires. Finally, if the tenants decide to move out, they are required to sell their property back to ACORN, at cost, no matter what the market value of the property.
Another ACORN campaign exploits the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 (CRA), which requires banks to practice neighborhood-based affirmative action in dispensing loans. In order to avoid federal civil rights charges, banks must issue a certain quota of loans in high-risk, low-income minority neighborhoods. ACORN intimidates targeted banks by accusing them of violating the CRA, and then dispatching multiracial crowds to picket their offices, charging the banks with "racism." Fearful of bad press and federal regulators, most banks will agree to appoint ACORN as their official advisor on CRA compliance - giving the group enormous power to channel loans to hand-picked recipients.
ACORN was a signatory to a March 17, 2003 letter exhorting members of the U.S. Congress "to oppose the Domestic Security Enhancement Act (DSEA), also known as 'Patriot [Act] II,'" which was then under consideration. These signatories stated that the new legislation "fail[ed] to respect our time-honored liberties," and "contain[ed] a multitude of new and sweeping law enforcement and intelligence gathering powers . . . that would severely dilute, if not undermine, many basic constitutional rights." In addition, ACORN has given its organizational endorsement to the Community Resolution to Protect Civil Liberties campaign, a project of the California-based Coalition for Civil Liberties, which tries to influence City Councils to pass resolutions creating Civil Liberties Safe Zones; that is, to be non-compliant with the provisions of the Patriot Act.
ACORN is also a sponsoring organization of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride Coalition, which seeks to secure ever-expanding rights and civil liberties protections for undocumented workers, amnesty for illegal immigrants, and policy reforms that diminish or eliminate restrictions on immigration.
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