Out of the blue, at a September 30 congressional hearing on the Consumer Financial Products Safety Commission, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R‑N.C.) questioned Service Employees (SEIU) secretary-treasurer Anna Burger about the union’s ties to ACORN, the beleaguered poor people’s community organizing network.
“SEIU has also cut all ties to ACORN,” Burger replied, citing Illinois as an example.
It was a surprising statement, since ACORN had long worked closely with SEIU, even more than with its union allies. Five locals of the United Labor Union, an early 1980s ACORN project to organize low-wage service workers, merged into SEIU.
But ACORN’s growing problems — from the revelation last year of a million-dollar embezzlement by founder Wade Rathke’s brother to recent undercover videos of ACORN local office staff giving financial advice to young right-wingers posing as a pimp and prostitute — have turned the 500,000-member group into a stick for the Republican right (such as Glenn Beck) to beat anyone remotely associated with it.
SEIU has been a top target, with corollary assaults on individuals such as Craig Becker, the outstanding former counsel to SEIU and the AFL-CIO whose appointment to the National Labor Relations Board has been put on hold by Sen. John McCain (“Acorn’s Ally at the NLRB,” read an editorial headline in the Wall Street Journal).
So it looked like Burger may have been giving in to the right-wing assault on a group that, despite its serious problems, has played a key role in pushing living wage ordinances, registering poor people to vote (the real Republican objection), supporting union organizing, fighting predatory lending, and working for local political reforms, among its many campaigns.
But the story is more complex. In August ACORN established an outside advisory committee, including funders and public figures such as SEIU president Andy Stern, Center for American Progress president John Podesta, and former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros.
The committee pushed the ACORN board to obtain an independent review by former Massachusetts attorney general Scott Harshbarger, who is supposed to complete his work – which started in late September – sometime in November.
Around the same time, SEIU spokesperson Michelle Ringuette said, “SEIU suspended collaborative work with ACORN.” The union will evaluate its future work with ACORN after Harshbarger issues his report. It’s likely the report will trigger a major overhaul of ACORN into a different organization, but many progressives and union strategists see its work – under whatever name or organizational structure – as crucial.
“We have some legitimate concerns, right?” Ringuette said, explaining the suspension of work with and funding for contracts with ACORN, which totaled $1.59 million in 2008 and $245,000 so far this year. “But we have no doubt the services they provide are essential.”
Other ties between SEIU and ACORN have also frayed. Two years ago, the Chicago branch of ACORN, which worked intimately with SEIU Local 880 (now a two-state local of homecare and health workers), broke from the national group.
Then on October 7 SEIU revoked the charter of Local 100, which is still led by Wade Rathke, who left the SEIU national board five years ago to lead an independent effort to organize Wal-Mart workers in Florida. Now a union of 3,000 members, Local 100 once had 7,000 members, but turned over 3,000 to other SEIU locals and lost many others as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
Ringuette said SEIU, which has been consolidating locals into mega-locals of 100,000 or more members, decided Local 100 was not viable as an independent local and there was no obvious merger partner. But the decision seemed at odds with SEIU’s declared plan to increase organizing in the South.
Rathke said he was told Local 100 “did not fit in the region’s plan” and SEIU was reluctant to continue subsidies that compensated Local 100 for the 3,000 members it had given up. But he also thinks the local was a victim of the right’s attack on ACORN.
“Clearly there’s a neo-McCarhyism at work in the United States, with a guy like Glenn Beck,” Rathke said, adding:
With SEIU coming up on the screen, given other problems, they [SEIU] probably made a decision there’s a different way they wanted to go…These are very polarizing times with a virulent right wing. SEIU probably thought 3,000 members in Local 100, they’ve got 1.8 to 2 million members. I know the math. They probably felt it was something they had to do.
Rathke has no regrets about his 25 years in SEIU and is happy that, given the alternatives, Local 100 was allowed to become independent and develop its own strategy. “These day I think finally that’s a great decision,” he said, “much preferable to being trusteed or forced into a merger.”
ACORN still participates in progressive national coalitions, and despite a coolness in relations, some organizational leaders and a few rare Democratic politicians, notably Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, have come to ACORN’s defense.
Meanwhile, many ACORN funders have, like SEIU, suspended payments to the group. “Unfettered right-wing attacks have had some impact, but there’s been an outpouring of support at one level, but too few Democrats have stood up against the concerted right-wing attack,” says ACORN spokesman Brian Kettenring.
If more Democrats, unions and progressive groups do not defend the good work ACORN has done, the organization itself will not be the biggest loser. It will be the progressive movement itself that loses most of all.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.