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ACORN Alert, by Rovin' Workman - September 02, 2002

Details ACORN's actions against workers and its activities in Pittsburgh

ACORN management has once again proven its true colors in recent anti-worker actions throughout Pennsylvania. While ACORN touts itself as an organization that supports the rights of workers to organize and collect welfare benefits such as unemployment insurance, it is little more than a pot that calls the kettle black.

While ACORN already has an international reputation as a union-busting organization, it continues to harass employees, even when they are not affiliated with a union. This is, undoubtedly, the reason that so many ACORN workers across the country have reached out to unions like the IWW for assistance in gaining more power in their workplace.

Recent actions by management in Philadelphia are quite illustrative of the horrendous workplace conditions imposed on employees. Organizers in Philadelphia work more than 54 hours each week. They are frequently asked to come in several hours early for events, and do not leave the office until after 9 p.m., receiving no additional compensation for this. Workers are usually not given anything in writing concerning their wages, and when they are given specifics by management, their paychecks often do not reflect these announced policies. New organizers are sent out to the most dangerous parts of Philadelphia, late at night, when they do not know the area and are unfamiliar with public transportation routes. To top it all off, new organizers are not compensated for their public transportation travel expenses while on the job. Many report that they would not have taken the job had they known all of the details about how ACORN treats its employees.

One former ACORN employee, with whom I have been in contact, reported that her paychecks were several dollars short every two weeks, and she remarked to me that if this is happening all across the country, ACORN must be saving quite a hefty sum each month.

Even more alarming is that workers have not been provided the health coverage ACORN had promised. Workers are supposed to be given COUNCIL health benefits after three months of service (most do not last that long). After a bit of research by one former employee, it seems as though many ACORN employees are currently without coverage, even though they have put in their qualifying time. In one case, management even assured a worker that she had insurance, when, in fact, she did not.

Workers at ACORN in Philadelphia are also subjected to patronizing comments and verbal abuse by their supervisors, who try to squeeze every ounce of surplus labor value out of them. Even when the most fiscally productive organizers politely suggest to management that there are better ways to run the organization, they are quickly silenced and told that they are out of line. It seems that workers who do not "tow the party line" can never please management. One worker in Philadelphia was told that while she was the most productive organizer in terms of the quotas or "goals" that are imposed upon staff, she did not do anything "big". The meaning of this was left to be deciphered by the puzzled worker, who also had more involvement by her members than any other person in the office.

In response to continued mistreatment by management, yet another office turnover has occurred in Philadelphia. One worker, who was recently fired, could hardly get a straight answer out of her boss, Head Organizer, Craig Robbins, who suggested that they "part ways". Only after repeated requests did Robbins state that this worker was, in fact, fired. One is left to believe that ACORN simply wanted to weasel-out of paying unemployment benefits to this worker, whose name had previously been attached to a letter condemning striking ACORN workers.

When workers are harassed and "purged" from ACORN offices, not only do the workers lose, but ACORN low-income members lose, as they are frequently lost in the reorganizing shuffle. All of this contributes to the phenomenon known to ACORN organizers as "burnt turf," which is where organizers are met in the field with skepticism and hostility from potential and former members. It is a wonder there are any active members at all in Philadelphia. Certainly, the number of current dues-paying members is closer to 500 than to the figure of 5,000 quoted by management. Many of the members are, in ACORN's own words, "fired up" and "can't take it no more". Adding to this "burnt turf" phenomenon are claims by members, albeit unsubstantiated, that ACORN has taken more money out of their bank accounts for dues than they had authorized.

While ACORN still needs to get its house in order in Philadelphia, it has opened new operations in Pittsburgh, and there has been talk about opening an office in Harrisburg. One former employee in Pittsburgh complained of not having any materials to work with, thereby slowing down his work day considerably. The office had apparently been quite barren, with management expecting workers to shell out their own meager paycheck money to make photocopies and buy basic office supplies. This becomes a Catch-22, the worker explained. "By having me running around, looking for basic things an office should have, I am left with less time in the field, and therefore can't build the membership base that could sustain the organization and effect some positive change in the community...but I'm still expected to meet the same goals as in Philadelphia, where office supplies are somewhat more available and at least people have heard of ACORN." The former organizer further explained that the Thomas Merton Center had reluctantly allowed ACORN some space to work when it first opened-up operations in Pittsburgh. "I don't even think that the Merton Center got a thank-you from my boss, or an offer to pay for photocopies made. I hope I'm wrong on that one. I think ACORN has already burnt some bridges within the progressive community here in Pittsburgh."

When asked about his overall experience with ACORN, the former organizer said, "don't get me wrong, an organization that can mobilize low-income community members is needed in Pittsburgh, and in my time working for ACORN, some good things were getting parents more involved with the schools, cleaning-up trashed homes on North Fairmont street, and informing people about predatory lending practices...but it is hard to maintain enthusiasm when I was exhausted myself, and when the members start to talk about problems with membership dues practices. I felt terrible when I heard about this, as I was the one who set-up the dues payments. Who knows what National [the national office] is doing with this information. I just hope that the members. enthusiasm does not die off because ACORN's carelessness." This former organizer was told by his supervisor that his criticisms of ACORN were not valid, since he had chosen to leave the organization.

The former employee admitted that his work environment was better than in Philadelphia, due to direct actions on his part, and that "ACORN does do good work for the community," but has questioned its policy of steering members into the Democratic Party, and of taking money from banks, which the worker feels could pose conflicts of interest when these same banks mistreat ACORN members in the future. "It's hush money," said the former ACORN employee. "We don't like it when politicians accept corporate funding...why should we do the same thing?"

While members and organizers remain in poverty, ACORN Chief Organizer and founder, Wade Rathke, apparently lives quite well while feeding off various troughs. One former employee of ACORN's SEIU local in Louisiana stated that he had heard Rathke owned a big ranch in Wyoming, and others have remarked on Rathke's expensive cars. It seems like the moniker of .poverty pimp. is fittingly attached to Rathke.

ACORN has just recently hired another organizer in Pittsburgh, who is working with community members in Beltzhoover, and is trying to work with other organizations like the NAACP to step-up its visibility in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, it is resisting collective bargaining in Portland, and has been found guilty of unfair labor practices by an Administrative Law Judge in Dallas, Texas. ACORN will probably appeal the ruling.

One can't help but think that if ACORN treated its non-supervisory organizers a little better, money spent on legal fees and transport for scabs could actually be put back into community organizing for some benefit to dues-paying members.