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Dramatic Irony

By Gwen Shaffer, February 15-22, 2001 The City Paper.

ACORN has led union campaigns across the country. Now the groups own employees claim they are being punished for organizing.

A community organization whose mission is to protect the rights of low-wage workers is refusing to recognize its own employees attempts to unionize, several field organizers with the group claim.

One employee was fired after she protested outside ACORNs Philadelphia office last week.

ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) is a national non-profit with an active chapter in Philadelphia. Most recently, ACORN has made headlines for tackling the issue of predatory lending and spearheading a "living wage" campaign, both of which prompted City Council to introduce legislation.

But several field organizers for ACORN who earn about $20,000 annually claim that long hours, low pay and unsafe working conditions would be improved if they formed a collective bargaining unit.

In late January, they approached the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union. Four of seven organizers working at ACORN as of Jan. 29 signed union cards. Since that time, at least one of them quit and one was axed.

"We work 54 hours a week, we work every weekend, and we dont get overtime pay," said Fellow Worker X352548, 24, who was hired by ACORN in December.

On the morning of Feb. 9, Fellow Worker X352548 led about 15 people in a picket outside of the ACORN office, located at 846 N. Broad St. That evening, Jeff Ordower, the managing organizer for ACORN, delivered a letter to Fellow Worker X352548's home. It notified Fellow Worker X352548 that she was "terminated."

Fellow Worker X352548 said the letter does not clearly explain why she was fired. But another source speculated that Ordower thinks Fellow Worker X352548 was working at the IWW office on a day she called out sick to ACORN.

Fellow Worker X352548 and some of her now-former colleagues believe that a collective bargaining agreement would lead to guaranteed eight-hour weekdays, lunch breaks and at least two weekends off per month.

Concerns about safety on the job are also prompting field organizers to seek help from IWW.

Each evening, they are sent out into some of Philadelphias most dangerous neighborhoods to knock on doors and recruit new ACORN members. While working for the organization, Fellow Worker X352548 was in charge of signing up people who live between 31st and 48th Streets, north of Market.

After just two months on the job, Fellow Worker X352548 claimed she was sexually harassed twice. In December, a potential ACORN member invited Fellow Worker X352548 into his home, then grabbed her head and kissed her. Another evening, a man loitering on the sidewalk flashed her.

"It's not safe for us," she commented.

Other ACORN organizers agreed.

"A few days ago, I was robbed at gunpoint," asserted organizer Ozzie Sims. "Our supervisors havent done anything except issue a vague memo saying to take appropriate precautions."

When field organizers asked to canvas in pairs, management said "no," according to IWW.

Ordower declined to comment for the record. "This is an internal matter and we are not going to work it out in the press."

But Fellow Worker X352548 said that when presented with signed union cards from a majority of the field organizers on Jan. 29, Ordower insisted it would be "illegal" for him to recognize a union in ACORNs Philadelphia chapter unless field workers in about 39 other offices throughout the country also unionized.

Dorothy Moore-Duncan, regional director for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), said there is "a presumption that a single workplace is an appropriate bargaining unit." But that assumption can be challenged, she added, "based on the interchange of employees among offices, the role of labor relations in the workplace and how the office is managed."

Wade Rathke, Ordowers supervisor and a co-founder of ACORN, is based in New Orleans. He denies knowing any details about the situation in Philadelphia.

"Im not particularly aware that workers are trying to organize," Rathke said, noting that he did receive a fax from the field staff outlining "general issues."

When questioned about the concerns raised in that memo, Rathke responded, "Now youre asking me to have memorized it." But Rathke added that ACORN "supports everybodys legal rights."

ACORN employees filed two complaints with the NLRB earlier this month. One, dated Feb. 1, alleges that ACORN threatened "Sims with discharge because of his activities in support of the union." A second complaint dated Feb. 7 contends that management "interfered with and coerced an employee because of the employees union activity."

The NLRB is investigating the complaints, Moore-Duncan said.

According to ACORNs website, it is the nations largest community organization of low and moderate families, with more than 100,000 members in 40 cities across the country. ACORN helped found the United Labor Unions in 1979, which succeeded in organizing low wage service workers most unions had ignored, the site says.

And ACORNs Ordower is currently aiding the "Justice for Janitors" campaign in its search for new union organizers.

This is why IWW organizer Alexis Buss says she finds it ironic that ACORN management is resisting unionization in its own workplace.

"Right now, Mr. Rathke is leading a campaign for management neutrality, urging employers to stay neutral instead of fighting against their workers organizing efforts," Buss says. "Meanwhile, the Philadelphia branch of ACORN is fighting the union tooth and nail."