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Responding to MORE Misinformation from ACORN

Posted by ACORN, employee Joe Slovo on 3/28/2001, 1:04 pm:

I am a current employee of ACORN and I am posting this without the knowledge or sanction of my supervisor or senior ACORN management. This is strictly on my own and represents my own views, no one else's.

Here are some questions I have about the current conflict between the IWW and ACORN.

First, why are all the people on strike employees with less than 6 months seniority? It would seem to me that a truly deeply felt unionization effort would include employees with longer tenures who have seen and felt management's responses to employee complaints over time.

Second, why did staff resort to striking so quickly? Striking is so drastic a move that it is often the tactic of last resort. My understanding of the IWW's efforts at ACORN is that practically the first thing that happened was a strike. Why weren't other workplace direct action tactics tried first?

Third, regarding the demands. One of the demands is for a 40 hour work week. I want to know how many hours a week the strikers are spending fighting this battle and how many hours the IWW organizers are spending helping the workers. Social justice isn't a 9-5 job. Ask any union organizer and they'll tell you that a 40 hour week is a fantasy.

Now, it seems the larger question is one of preventing organizer burnout and respecting the needs of employees for a social/family life outside of ACORN. And this is a very important question, one which could generate a lot of support for efforts to win, say, comp time or more vacation time.

The fact that the demand is framed as a 40-hour work week demand just shows how little respect the strikers really have for the work they do and the members they are doing it with and for. No organization that is serious about building a mass-based movement for social and economic justice is going to do it on a 9-5 schedule.

Fourth, if this is really about making ACORN a better place to work and build a career, why are the tactics being used the kinds of tactics that you would use against a multi-billion dollar corporation? This strikes me as the Vietnam-era "We had to destroy the village in order to save it" mentality. What really saddens me is the complete lack of respect the strikers have for the good work that ACORN does despite the internal problems. If they were serious about this they wouldn't be trying to destroy the local offices, which ultimately hurts the ACORN members more than anyone else.

Why is the IWW spending so much time and effort fighting to unionize an organization that struggles constantly to meet its financial obligations when their anti-capitalist ethos would seem to indicate that they would be going balls-to-the-wall to unionize places like banks, check-cashing outlets, fast food franchises, and drive-through oil-change places? Why is the IWW so intent on cannibalizing the left?

ACORN is not without serious management problems which hamper our ability to do the work we have set out for ourselves. I am not against unionization of ACORN as a concept or possibility. I believe that ACORN could use a balanced and fair system that allows for more employee redress of grievances. I believe that ACORN should figure out how to communicate much more effectively with its employees and offer better support and training. It should make a serious commitment to invest in its workers. I believe some of this is staring to happen, with the best example being the recent 33% salary increase for starting organizers. I believe that we have a long way to go to actually institutionalize this investment and that a union or organizing effort could help push this process forward.

But I have no faith in the IWW's attempts to improve working conditions or their ability to organize at ACORN. Their treatment of ACORN as an institutionally evil workplace and demonic employer indicates a serious lack of understanding and respect for the history and culture of the organization. The reckless tactics taken by ACORN's IWW members show a serious lack of strategic vision for a winning campaign here.

For God's sake, this is an organization built by organizers. You need to out-organize them to win. The steps taken so far would be embarrassing if they weren't so damaging. They serve as an indication to me that the people behind this drive don't really care about making ACORN a better place to work, they care about making a political point at the expense of ACORN's low and moderate income membership.

Response #1 - Posted by Anonymous on 4/2/2001, 4:58 pm:

Just so you know--You are wrong about the seniority thing. There was a worker in Dallas who had two years seniority and was terminated. (As well as workers who had one year, eight months, and two months) All that was said was that folks were interested in seeing what a union would do. A 33% raise is great, but not if the workers never see it. The workers are concerned about not getting paychecks after having worked 60-hour weeks, and getting one weekend off a month. Strikes are about negotiations, and the head organizer in Seattle most certainly rebuffed any attempts at that. I would strongly encourage you to speak to some of the workers (strikers and those who have been wrongfully terminated), who are the best, most honest, and good-hearted workers I have ever seen. No one really believed that ACORN would support a 40-hour workweek, but some negotiation really needed to be done, and the heads are just stamping out the opposition gulag-style, instead of taking a listen to what the workers have to say.

As far as "reckless tactics" go, I don't know about you, but someone suggesting that a union might not be a bad thing doesn't sound too reckless to me. That enough to get fired, if you work at ACORN. (no extenuating circumstances, extremely capable organizers, simply union-friendly. In an organizer's position. Imagine that.)

I would not have been all that interested in the union unless I had seen the unfair and illegal reactions to the workers even suggesting it. The behavior of ACORN management has been reprehensible, and they should be ashamed.

Response #2 - Posted by Alexis Buss, on 4/2/2001, 9:00 pm:

In Joe's message, he raised some issues that have been popping up in the last couple of days, so I thought Id chime in to help folks understand why things are going the way they are. I'm going to try to answer Joe point-by-point. And then I have some questions of my own, which perhaps the critics of our drive can reply to.

Joe asks, "Why are all the people on the strike employees with less than 6 months seniority?"

In Seattle, where the situation is no longer a strike but a lockout, (the campaign) includes every single worker at the office. The most senior person on strike worked for ACORN for three years in DC and nine months in Seattle. The second most senior person on strike had been there six months. Another fact that must be taken into consideration is the extremely high attrition rate of ACORN staff. Simply put, it is very, very unusual to find workers who can endure the job for a long period of time. But this doesn't mean the workers don't believe in ACORN's mission. It means that the conditions on the job are intolerable and must be changed. When I first met with the workers in Philadelphia, the second-most non-managerial employee on the staff had been there for only a month and a half. The others, a matter of weeks. And in the two months that I worked with them, three workers were hired and quit. In YE/YB meeting reports that I've read, office managers write with pride when they've retained 50% of the people they train in the course of a year. Does ACORN appreciate that the high turnover rate is damaging their ability to get effectively run their campaigns? In more cynical moments, I wonder if ACORN has chosen to ignore the obvious problem of staff attrition. Instead of fixing the problem by having a more democratic workplace, is recognition, because the Lead Organizer received a copy of an e-mail sent out by one of the workers. The day after the request for recognition, a vocal advocate for the union was told that he'd have to sign up three new members in the next two days or he'd be fired. Strangely, a worker who was not in favor of the union who had signed up fewer members than the pro-union worker was not held up to this standard. There was another captive meeting pressuring workers to drop the union idea. One pro-union worker was so alarmed by the attitude that management took towards the union and what they wanted to bargain for, she decided that she could not keep working for the organization and left. A manager said she wouldn't help a worker with the voice mail system because of her activity in the union. When the same pro-union worker took sick time, she was fired.

The unfortunate reality that veteran ACORN organizers understand is that those who dare to speak up about conditions are singled out for bad treatment. On the IWW's website, you'll find issues of To-Gather where former workers have written about this. Instead of being picked off one by one, the workers in Seattle decided that they would try withholding their labor all together, and try to get to the bargaining table that way. They were probably right to expect recriminations if they stayed. A week later in Dallas, when workers were discovered talking union, two workers were laid off the next day under the pretext that there wasn't enough money to continue employing them. But there's an interesting twist to this whole thing. Fellow Worker X352548, one of the workers in Philly who spearheaded the union effort here, received a rather unfriendly e-mail after she was fired from Beth Butler, head of the Louisiana ACORN and wife of Wade Rathke. In it, Beth indicated that ACORN would recognize any union if the majority of the staff showed interest (Beth believed that the folks in Philly didn't have a majority, but she was wrong). So, there was an about-face in Seattle. When workers are confronted with the legal kinds of union-busting (captive meetings, being whined at, and so on) and illegal kinds (being harassed and fired) and then very bad faith gestures like Beth's e-mail saying ACORN would recognize a union and then an about-face when 100% of the workers ask for union recognition, it is completely appropriate to go out on strike. This decision was made by the workers themselves, not handed down from some union bureaucracy. And the IWW's union bureaucrats, like myself, support them in their choice.

As a side note, tactics like what the Seattle workers used have in recent past been used by the successful Justice for Janitors campaigns, which of course, were supported by ACORN.

40-Hours

Joe argues that it would be impossible for ACORN to do its work if employees were only working 40 hours a week. I believe ACORNs policy-setters at some point made a decision to not consider a 40-hour workweek at all. 54-hour weeks are the norm. Workers are scheduled for 54-hour weeks, whether or not that amount of time is truly needed to accomplish the goals they are working on. For instance, on a typical day, workers will come in at 11:00am to meet, do administrative work, research, or some type of office chores. By around 2:00pm they leave for the field. Around 7:00pm they are back from the field, and return to work to make phone calls. Why not have it be that the phone calls are made by someone who is stationed at the office? Why not have the work done in such a way that the administrative details can be done by an office person? People don't work efficiently when they work so many hours. Not to mention there's no scheduled lunch breaks, and workers only get one day off a week. I can see the need for occasional overtime if a big rally is coming up, but aren't we all in this for the long haul?

Why is the IWW spending so much time and effort fighting to unionize ACORN?

Because ACORN workers approached us. And when workers come to us, we offer our support. The IWW's foundation is not in support that comes down from above, but rather the solidarity offered from member to member. The IWW's membership is rightfully angered by the reaction management has displayed towards the unionization of the workers and offered their help and support. It doesn't take much to make a loud noise about a situation when the membership is mobilized and empowered. It is my feeling that in our publications that that we've striven to keep the discussion focused on the working conditions and how they can be improved. We are not interested the "leftist squabbling" that people who do not view the labor of ACORN workers as real work paint these drives and our grievances to be. The real issue is the amount of control that workers have over the conditions of their labor. The IWW is a relatively small but very energetic organization of workers. In our recent past, like most labor unions, the campaigns get off the ground pick us. I think the workers at ACORN who contacted the Wobs feel that we're a good fit because we do so much with so little, we're democratic, we like direct action (like ACORN) and we want workers to run their own drives. The job security of people who dare to speak up to improve conditions at ACORN depends on the visibility we bring to this drive and the pressure we can bring on the organization.

So, my question is, What the heck is the big deal? Why not bargain with the union? Wade Rathke recently called our East Bay IWW office, upset about calls he had been receiving and to say that "it's all in the hands of the law now," contemplating that if things just run their course, justice will be done. Any labor organizer will tell you that if working people rely on the law to get the goods, they will be sorely disappointed. Labor laws are written by the bosses, for the bosses, and the delays that ACORN has employed while taking advantage of this fact are what we in the labor movement commonly call "union busting." Legal or not, it's wrong. And ACORNs own People's Platform makes note of the advantage given to the bosses in the legal realm. The people in Seattle who are locked out of their jobs are not protesting so vigorously in order to crush ACORN, which clearly can weather this whole thing. They are doing it to have a say in their own working conditions. Why is ACORN so afraid of that?

Response #3 - Posted by x351222 on 4/2/2001, 6:58 pm:

Others closer to the struggle than I have already responded and will continue to do so, I am sure, so I won't attempt a comprehensive answer. But I would like to offer a few comments.

Here are some questions I have about the current conflict between the IWW and ACORN.

The conflict is between ACORN management and ACORN employees who have chosen the IWW as their union, not between the IWW and ACORN. ACORN, as I understand it, is primarily an organization of volunteer members. As far as I am aware, neither the IWW nor its members who are or were employees of ACORN have any conflict with the organization or its members. Indeed, the membership of ACORN, at least in Seattle, seems to be supporting the workers against ACORN management.

First, why are all the people on strike employees with less than 6 months seniority? It would seem to me that a truly deeply felt unionization effort would include employees with longer tenures who have seen and felt management's responses to employee complaints over time.

Could the reason be that there are very few ACORN organizers with more than six months' seniority? My information is admittedly second-hand, but I understand that high turnover due to overwork and burnout is a constant problem at ACORN. See "To-Gather" #4.

...Third, regarding the demands. One of the demands is for a 40 hour work week....Social justice isn't a 9-5 job. Ask any union organizer and they'll tell you that a 40 hour week is a fantasy. Now, it seems the larger question is one of preventing organizer burnout and respecting the needs of employees for a social/family life outside of ACORN. And this is a very important question, one which could generate a lot of support for efforts to win, say, comp time or more vacation time. The fact that the demand is framed as a 40-hour work week demand just shows how little respect the strikers really have for the work they do and the members they are doing it with and for. No organization that is serious about building a mass-based movement for social and economic justice is going to do it on a 9-5 schedule.

People who volunteer their time to fight for social justice--like IWW organizers--expect to work long hours for no pay. People who are hired to do a job organizing those volunteers expect to get paid as promised, and not to be asked to do for free what they are supposed to be paid for. A wage-worker is not a volunteer, no matter how worthy the organization he or she works for. All workers are entitled to time off the clock. I refer "Joe" to ACORN's own People's Platform, which declares every worker's right to a job which does not require overtime work as a condition of employment. There is no exception made in that document for employees of ACORN.

Fourth, if this is really about making ACORN a better place to work and build a career, why are the tactics being used the kinds of tactics that you would use against a multi-billion dollar corporation?

Perhaps it's because ACORN management is using the tactics multi-billion dollar corporations use to bust unions.

The rest of Joe's message, full of hysterical accusations such as "complete lack of respect the strikers have for the good work that ACORN does despite the internal problems", "cannibalizing the left", "trying to destroy the local offices", "treatment of ACORN as an institutionally evil workplace and demonic employer", and "making a political point at the expense of ACORN's low and moderate income membership" suggests such a deep-seated denial of reality that I hesitate to respond to it.

But there is no political point to be made here. ACORN workers wanted a union. They discussed it at a national conference last summer, but nothing came of it immediately. Then some of them in Philadelphia did their homework, looked for a union that was truly democratic and consistent with their own principles of social justice, and they picked the IWW. They approached us to help them improve their working conditions. We did not approach them to help us make some political point. Why would dedicated ACORN organizers, who presumably wanted to keep working for ACORN, risk losing their jobs (a risk which has been realized in seve

Response #4 - Posted by x344543 on 4/3/2001, 1:35 am:

In further response to Joe Slovo, I need to point out that inside sources tell me that the turnover rate in one California ACORN office is so high that one worker is the most senior employee, after having only been an ACORN "organizer" for Three weeks.

Furthermore, ACORN probably does have the money to pay for organizers working in pairs and for 40 hours of work per week, but much of that money is earmarked towards establishing new ACORN offices, which hardly seems like a useful priority, considering that ACORN has such a high turnover rate.

Furthermore, my girlfriend (also a Wobbly) and my other housemate (not a Wobbly) are both veterans of California Peace Action / SANE-Freeze. That organization treats their workers according to the same Saul Alinksy inspired, "martyrs for the cause" organizing model. Turnover rates are high, people get promoted not based on skill, but based on which manager they have sex with, and good organizers are railroaded out faster than you can say "BOO!". I've heard similar horror stories about the PIRGs. It seems to me that this organizing model doesn't work as well as advertised, and a union might be just the ticket to make it actually viable to the low-level grunts who actually make those organizations mean anything.

Finally, You cannot compare ACORN workers, working 54 hours per week for crappy wages to IWW members who get paid nothing to volunteer their time and energy. One is not a more evolved form of the other, despite the popular myths spread by ACORN to the contrary. To begin with, IWW members freely volunteer their time on top of working a regular job. For ACORN workers, working there is their regular job, and they haven't the luxury of working outside of ACORN to supplement their income, because 54 hours per week is a Herculean commitment by itself. Furthermore, Every IWW member is allowed to vote on issues that affect them, and all members are considered equals. This is not true in ACORN where Wade Rathke can make unilateral decisions. No one in the IWW has that power. The comparison between the two isn't valid.

I happen to know, from that same inside source, that the annual starting "salary" of most ACORN workers is barely more than $20,000, which, if based on a 40-hour work week comes to roughly $9.50 an hour. But, base that on 54 hours per week, that amounts to barely more than minimum wage! Perhaps there is some confusion about the math, so I will clear that up:

A full year's worth (52) of 40-hour weeks amounts to 2,080 Hours. Divided by 2,080, 20,000 yields roughly $9.62.

However, ACORN employees work 54-hour weeks, which (at 52 weeks per year) equals 2,808 Hours; but the labor law requires that employees be paid time-and-one-half (150%) for any hours worked above 40 in any give week. So 14 hours must be paid at overtime rate. 150% of the normal rate of pay can be calculated by multiplying the overtime hours at the overtime rate, so 14 x 150% = 21 additional hours.

A full year's worth of 54-hour weeks then actually works out to 61 hours, and this amounts to 3,172 hours per year! This is actually slightly higher than 51% more "hours". Divide 20,000 by 3,172 and you get $6.31!

After calculating 20% income tax withholding, the average ACORN worker makes about $5.05 per hour!

ACORN often supports living wage campaigns that call for a living wage anywhere from 50-100% more than that. Any IWW member worth their salt will be working for more than that at 40-hours per week if they can help it. To even suggest that the IWW would expect their staff (if they could pay for full-time staff) to work at that rate is to wholly misunderstand what the IWW stands for.