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Philadelphia ACORN Workers Strike

Acorn Workers Strike for Safe Jobs & End to Union Busting

Industrial Worker, March 2001

The IWW struck the Philadelphia office of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) February 8 to protest a series of unfair labor practices that had made working conditions intolerable. ACORN workers asked management to recognize their union and respond to their concerns about job safety and working conditions Jan. 29. Although ACORN claims to be a progressive community group promoting rights for working people, management refused to recognize the union or address workers grievances.

In the ten days between the demand for union recognition and the workers decision that they had no choice but to strike, managers subjected workers to captive meetings, threatened workers for engaging in direct action on the job to address unsafe working conditions, threatened to terminate and later briefly suspended a member of the union organizing committee on alleged productivity grounds (though ACORN's own records document that he is as productive as a pro-management employee who was not disciplined), threatened to discipline a worker for taking a lunch break during her 10-hour shift, blamed the union campaign for its refusal to transfer another worker to a safer job, subjected union supporters to surveillance and investigations, and, after the decision to launch the unfair labor practices strike had already been made, fired a member of the IWW organizing committee.

A lively picket line in front of ACORNs offices drew 15 ACORN strikers and supporters, and enthusiastic support from many passersby. A United Parcel Service driver refused to cross the picket line to make deliveries, and several ACORN members pledged to speak to management to demand better treatment for workers. The picket line concluded with a march into the ACORN office to collect pay checks owed the strikers. While inside, Wobblies subjected the manager to a barrage of questions about ACORN's unsafe working conditions and union-busting, finding that he had almost nothing to say in response. ACORN is a national organization bringing low-income people together to campaign around issues such as predatory lending and a living wage. (ACORN also operates a national living wage coordinating center, the ACORN Housing Corporation, the Arkansas Institute for Social Justice, charter schools, community radio stations, two SEIU multi-state locals, Project VOTE, and several other affiliated operations around the country, all administered out of its New Orleans headquarters.)

"We work 54 hours a week, we work every weekend, and we dont get overtime pay," says ACORN worker Fellow Worker X352548. ACORN workers low salaries combined with weekly overtime means an hourly wage hovering around minimum wage. They plan to bargain for a guaranteed lunch break, eight hour work days, and at least two weekends off per month.

Another urgent concern for all ACORN workers is job safety. "Every night after dark we are sent out alone into city neighborhoods to recruit new members," Fellow Worker X352548 explains. "It's not safe for us. I've been grabbed and molested while out in the field by myself. Our supervisors havent done anything except issue a vague memo saying to take appropriate precautions. We want to work in pairs, but they wont let us. Another worker was robbed at gun point while working the streets alone after the union had demanded the right to work in pairs."

ACORN workers have also discovered disparities in pay and in work assignments which seem to be based on the race of the workers, and called for measures to address institutionalized racial biases.

The Philadelphia workers have launched a national newsletter for ACORN workers, To-Gather, the first issue of which has been distributed to workers at over a dozen ACORN offices around the United States. ACORN is closely linked to the AFL-CIO, making its union-busting even more ironic. One of ACORN's founders, Wade Rathke, is also an international vice president of SEIU, and head of HOTROC, an AFL inter-union committee to organize hotel workers in New Orleans. While Rathke leads a campaign for management neutrality, urging employers to stay neutral instead of fighting against their workers organizing efforts, the Philadelphia branch of ACORN is fighting the union tooth and nail going so far as to advance the ridiculous claim that it would be illegal to recognize a union for its Philadelphia staff.

The IWW will be picketing ACORN offices intermittently, while reaching out to grassroots ACORN members and workers nationwide in order to pressure management into respecting workers rights.