Friday, October 24, 2008

Will the Real ACORN please stand up…

The McCain campaign is reaching the heights of desperation. With the economy in free fall, the result of the neo-liberal economic agenda promoted by McCain and company for the last 30 years, they are grasping at straws to find one more avenue through which to bamboozle the American working class into giving them one more chance. Perhaps the ugliest attempt at this yet is their attack on ACORN. Who is ACORN? Well, according to the mainstream media, it seems as if they are an organization established to commit vote fraud on behalf on Democrats in general and Barack Obama in particular. The accusations have quieted some in the past few days (replaced by the even more ridiculous “Joe the Plumber” campaign), but it was all the press was talking about last week.

I have a personal connection with ACORN as I worked in the Summer of 1990 as an organizer with Local 880 of SEIU. Local 880 was established by ACORN organizers who wanted a vehicle by which to empower the home health care workers they were meeting through their efforts to organize residents in the Englewood community, a very poor, African-American community on Chicago’s Southside. I was very young and very inexperienced at the time and I made a lousy organizer. It was a short stint, about 3 months long over my college Summer vacation. But the experience left an indelible impression on me and despite not being totally pleased with the way in which ACORN and Local 880 treated their staff, I left the experience with great respect for the important work of the organization. So I feel a strong obligation to set the record straight and to let the public know about the real ACORN.

Founded in the early 1970’s, ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) has become the largest and must successful community organizing network in the nation. ACORN is active in 100 cities across the country and has in excess of 400,000 dues-paying members. They are organized at the neighborhood level and the national organization claims to have more than 850 neighborhood chapters. The work these neighborhood groups are engaged in varies. Some of the organizing is as local as demanding that a stop sign be erected at a dangerous neighborhood intersection. When I worked at Local 880, the ACORN organizers were working with residents in the Englewood community to establish more low income housing in their neighborhood. Communities like Englewood were rife with abandoned properties, which had become state property but were being left to rot, uninhabited. At the same time, thousands of people in these neighborhoods were in desperate need of affordable homes. The answer – those community members in need of houses, with the support of their neighbors, would take over (or “squat” on) these abandoned properties and turn them into habitable homes. Using various legal means, ACORN would then pressure public officials to turn these properties over to the squatters who had transformed them. It was a win for those in need of homes, for the communities in which abandon properties were magnets for illegal activity, and for cash-strapped municipalities in need of property tax revenue.

Some of ACORN’s campaigns have a more statewide, regional, or even national focus. Many ACORN branches have launched living wage campaigns in their municipalities in order to win city ordinances that would raise the wages of large numbers of low-paid workers. A few years ago I worked with a coalition, including ACORN, on a living wage campaign here in Chicago. Some chapters have fought for increased and more equitable public school funding in their town or state. One of ACORN’s most important issue campaigns around the country is their effort to end the practice of predatory lending by banks, mortgage companies, payday lenders, and tax preparation companies. ACORN has been on the frontlines of organizing at the grass roots level against the financial practices that are partly responsible for the current economic crisis. One of ACORN’s newest and most interesting national campaigns is their effort to pass laws establishing some sort of paid sick leave for all full time employees. Nearly half of all working Americans in the private sector are not provided paid sick days by their employers. We are the only industrialized nation not to have national paid sick leave laws. The result is millions in lost wages and exacerbated health problems for millions of American workers every year.

ACORN has also lead massive voter registration campaigns targeting low income, minority communities which have historically been poorly represented at election time. Almost all voter registration efforts result in some invalid registration forms. ACORN has acknowledged that a few of its hundreds of paid registration staff have turned in bogus registration forms, most of these have been flagged by ACORN’s quality control system, marked as problematic, but then passed on to state officials as required by law. That is worth re-stating – even invalid registration forms must be turned in to officials in most of the states in which ACORN has carried out voter registration drives. So even when ACORN has caught the mistake and flagged the registrations as invalid, the forms have to be turned over to state officials. ACORN claims that most of the much maligned cases you heard about in the press fall into this category. The staff who demonstrate a pattern of invalid registrations are dismissed. None of these invalid registrations have resulted in actual vote fraud, nor are they expected to (remember, these are registrations, not actually votes). What is more important than the invalid registrations is the fact that ACORN has registered hundreds of thousands of new poor and working class voters, and it is this potentially powerful new voting block that is the real cause for concern among right wing politicians and their lackeys in the mainstream press.

ACORN’s effort to build labor unions for some of our society’s most marginalized workers is perhaps their greatest achievement. It started with the organizing of SEIU Local 100 in New Orleans in 1980, a union of housekeepers and other hotel staff working for Hyatt. The local has since expanded to cover homecare, hospital and school employees in Louisiana, Texas & Arkansas. It is now one of the largest unions in the mostly un-organized south and has won living wages and basic benefits for some of the lowest paid, most exploited workers. Local 100 has also sought to raise the living standards for all low wage workers in the cities in which they have members by working with ACORN chapters and other organizations to pursue citywide living wage ordinances. The same is true of Local 880, the union for which I worked in 1990. Founded in the mid-1980’s, Local 880’s focus was on home healthcare workers, the individuals whose job it is to care for the sick and elderly in their homes. Despite the obvious importance of this work, home care workers usually earned minimum wages, received no benefits and paid for their own transportation. Many worked long hours without receiving overtime or were required to service multiple clients in separate locations in order to try to maintain full-time pay. The income of many home care workers was so low that they lived in Chicago’s notorious public housing complexes. When I worked for 880, my job consisted of visiting workers in their homes and talking to them about joining the union. I visited Robert Taylor, Stateway Gardens, Harold Ickes Homes, Ida B. Wells, Cabrini Green and numerous other projects across the city. With the possible exception of one time in the Austin neighborhood when some street corner gang bangers were convinced I was an undercover cop, I really never felt unsafe or all that uncomfortable. The hardest part was making my way up 20 flights of stairs in the high rises as the elevators rarely seemed to be working. It was the tenants themselves who upon witnessing this 20-year-old college white boy knocking on their door to talk to them about the union, seemed to immediately want to take me under their protection and would express deep concern for my safety. These women (and they were nearly all women), many of whom were either middle age themselves and/or had multiple elderly family members to take care of already, took their work very seriously and were quite proud of their profession as a care taker. Unfortunately, our society seemed to have a different view. It was these most exploited of the working class that local 880 sought to empower.

This is no easy organizing. With no central place of work, the traditional shop floor organizing and solidarity that is central to building a union is not possible. It requires visiting workers in their homes, as I did when I worked there, and creating opportunities for these very isolated workers to gather and get to know each other. Despite these obstacles, in the years since my short stint with the union, they went on to organize over 35,000 home care workers statewide. Then the union began to organize home childcare providers, a similarly marginalized group. 880 now represents roughly 34,000 home childcare workers across the state of Illinois as well. All of this growth came during the 1980’s, 90’s and 2000’s, a time when most unions were rapidly losing members. 880 is now one of the largest SEIU locals in the country. What is most important, though, is the concrete gains that workers have made as union members – a 35% pay raise across the board, health insurance, a grievance system, and host of other benefits and job protections. Home healthcare and childcare workers are no longer isolated individuals from poor disempowered communities across the state, who are easily exploited and largely ignored. Now they speak with a voice tens of thousands strong and their demands echo loudly in the halls of the state capitol building.

This is the real ACORN, an organization devoted to building power for poor and working class communities. And it is for this reason that they are under attack by the right. We already witnessed the Republican party’s antipathy toward community organizers at the Republican national convention. So it should come as little surprise that ACORN has become a favorite bogeyman of the Republicans mouthpieces in the media. But it is organizations like ACORN that will become more essential than ever in the coming months and years as the collapse of our economic system requires renewed working class activism so that we can fundamentally transform our nation in favor of the working class.

For my interview on last Sunday’s Labor Express Radio program with the National Director of the ACORN Financial Justice Center, Austin King, Click here…

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