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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 Little Rock, Arkansas to begin organizing NWRO chapters in the South. By that time, Wiley - an African-American - was coming under attack by black militants who opposed his policy of placing whites such as Rathke in leadership positions. 

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 U.S. cities. "It boasts two radio stations, a housing corporation, a law office, and affiliate relationships with a host of trade-union locals," 
wrote Sol Stern in the Spring 2003 issue of City Journal. In the same article, Stern pointed out that ACORN also runs schools where children are trained in class warfare; a network of "boot camps" for training street activists; and shake-down operations that extort money from banks and other businesses under threat of racial violence and trumped-up civil rights charges. 

In 1998, ACORN founded the 
Working Families Party in New York, which cross-endorses candidates for political office. It endorsed Hillary Clinton in her 2000 Senate race. Canvassers from ACORN and its sister groups launched a statewide voter-mobilization drive that proved influential in Clinton's victory. Of the 3.4 million popular votes Mrs. Clinton received from New Yorkers, some 103,000 were cast on the Working Families Party line. 

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 New York City government. 

With little opposition from Republicans or moderate Democrats - and very little press coverage - ACORN radicals pushed laws tightening their control over New York City government and stripping the Mayor of executive power. Their current platform calls for a rollback of former Mayor Giuliani's welfare reforms; a crackdown on the New York City police, including a ban on "racial and ethnic profiling"; and the appointment of a politicized Civilian Review Board newly empowered to prosecute police officers. ACORN also seeks to use its influence to raise corporate taxes, increase regulation, and empower unions with a battery of new rights. But corporations will be forbidden to escape ACORN's legislative assault by pulling up stakes and going elsewhere. No corporation will be permitted to leave New York without an "exit visa" from the City Council.  

On March 12, 2003, the ACORN-controlled City Council passed a resolution, by a 31-17 margin, condemning the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Thanks to a virtual press blackout on the resolution, most New Yorkers today are unaware that their City Council ever passed such a measure. 

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 Ohio, Colorado, Missouri Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Minnesota. Election crimes allegedly perpetrated by activists from ACORN and from its front group Project Vote included, but were limited to, the following: 

• 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 Arkansas, has accused ACORN of being "one of the biggest scams in Arkansas." She told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the group is "run like a Jim Jones cult." (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette [Little Rock], September 2, 1987) 

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 California and Oregon, this level is below the state-mandated minimum wage."

ACORN actually sued California in 1995, attempting to argue in state court that California should exempt ACORN from its minimum wage laws. "The more that ACORN must pay each individual outreach worker, . . . the fewer outreach workers it will be able to hire," ACORN lawyers argued in a brief. That is precisely the problem that arises from minimum-wage laws; they force businesses to lay off workers. Under ordinary circumstances, ACORN dismisses this argument as capitalist propaganda. But when faced with the prospect of having to pay its own workers a "living wage," ACORN adopted the "capitalist" argument. ACORN lost its case in California, however. 

ACORN founder Wade Rathke has close ties with the labor movement. He founded Local 100 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in New Orleans and heads it to this day. (SEIU is run by another SDS radical, Andrew Stern.) Rathke is President and co-founder of SEIU's Southern Conference and a member of SEIU's National Executive Board. He also helped launch the United Labor Union (ULU), which organizes low-skill service workers. Rathke chairs the AFL-CIO's Organizers Forum and formerly served as Secretary-Treasurer of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO. 

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). 

When ACORN's Dallas office fired three strikers, they appealed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). On March 27, 2003, the NLRB ruled that ACORN had violated federal labor law and ordered it to rehire the Dallas strikers.Former ACORN organizer John Rees has stated that the Dallas office faced "enormous pressure by ACORN national management to engage in illegal union-busting tactics." Rees resigned in protest. Other ACORN leaders facing similar moral dilemmas have chosen to stay on the job. 

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 San Francisco in May 2002, it discovered that many of its potential recruits - low-income blacks and Hispanics -  were accustomed to patronizing the Outer Mission Resident's Association (OMRA). ACORN suffered a competitive disadvantage, since it charged a fee for attendance at its meetings while OMRA did not. Therefore, as the San Francisco Examiner reports, "ACORN soon began a process of intimidation by busing in activists from Oakland to disrupt OMRA events. ACORN members then began showing up at some neighbors' homes, and in one case jabbed a person in the chest." Says OMRA chief executive Steve Currier, "[T]hey were spreading terror at community meetings, trying to muscle established neighborhood groups out of the way." 

"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 Los Angeles chapter endorsed the 2002 Market Workers Justice Campaign of the activist coalition Communities in Solidarity with Immigrant Workers. This campaign called for increased wages and benefits forKorean and Latino immigrant workers, including those living illegally in the United States

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.

Viewing the United States as a nation rife with discrimination not only against minorities but against women as well, ACORN endorsed Pay Equity Now! - a petition jointly issued in 2000 by the National Organization for Women, the Philadelphia Coalition of Labor Union Women, and the International Wages for Housework Campaign - to "expose and oppose U.S. opposition to pay equity" for women. The petition charged that: "the U.S. government opposes pay equity - equal pay for work of equal value - in national policy and international agreements"; "in the US . . . women's average pay has dropped from 76% in 1992 to 73% of men's wages, 62.6% for Black women, 53.1% for Latina women"; "women are often segregated in caring and service work for low pay, much like the housework they are expected to do for no pay at home"; "underpaying women is a massive subsidy to employers that is both sexist and racist"; and "all women, particularly mothers, who do the vital but unpaid job of caring for children and/or other dependents, are penalized by getting the lowest pay when they go out to work and are discriminated against in such areas as pensions, health care, and social security credits, among others." 

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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