An in depth critical article by the Anarchist Communist Group on the 'community union' ACORN. Published 2020.
ACORN (Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now) is a “community union” set up in Britain in 2014. Its initial and founding branch was in Bristol, but it has now established branches in other cities, including Cambridge, Exeter, Brighton, Hastings, Sheffield, Newcastle, Norwich and Manchester. It describes itself as “a mass membership organisation and network of low-income people organising for a fairer deal for our communities”. ACORN “identifies rising housing costs, stagnant wages and spending cuts as key issues, and aims to tackle them through mass member-led community direct action”.
In Norwich it has supported a family in Dereham who were forced to leave a 12month tenancy early because of rising damp and mould that was affecting their health. In Sheffield it recently organised a noise demonstration of renters and leaseholders at Park Hill Flats demanding that the owner freeze service charges during the pandemic. It also won back £800 in deposits for three renters from a landlord and campaigned against the privatisation of local bus services, and demanded that they be placed back under the control of the local council.
In Manchester they won £250 compensation from a landlord. They appear to be growing and claim 500 members in Manchester alone. In Bristol they successfully lobbied the local council not to withdraw tax exemptions from 16,000 of its poorest residents and have campaigned to bring buses back under council ownership. In Brighton it has won quite a few cases for individual tenants.
We are convinced that many of the rank and file members of ACORN are genuine activists concerned about the housing situation. Yet, we have profound misgivings about the whole ACORN project, including its structure and its connection to the Labour Party, which we spell out here.
As we said, ACORN emerged in Britain in 2014. According to the ACORN International website in an article from 2016: “It began in Bristol when co-organiser Nick Ballard and a colleague worked on Locality, a government-backed community-organisers programme. Any funding the pair raised to start a community organisation, would be match-funded by the government. When they secured the cash in 2013 the Bristol Acorn was planted. 'We thought we would do something to tackle economic issues rather than relatively more superficial things,' Ballard explains”.
Ballard went on to say that: “I have to admit I didn’t know much about the US organisation, but when we spoke to their founder it sounded like their model worked and that it would beneficial to operate under that name.”
In fact, Ballard was to state in an interview in the Morning Star that: “Some us had been involved in a renegade, rule-breaking, anarchist-inspired pilot scheme called Liberty & Solidarity which had taken such a ruthless approach to ‘keeping only what works’ that it had eventually ditched anarchism for a kind of ‘pure syndicalism’ before rationalising the organisation itself out of existence too….Some see a bit of the anarchist spirit lingering, while others have called us closer to Bolshevism. In reality our members would reject both (and other) labels and demand, rightly in my view, that we focus on the work of winning as much for the working class as we can at any given point….We’ve avoided the trap of adopting a ‘purer than thou’ approach that some might have taken and as we were memorably criticised for early on: we are willing to ‘enter the corridors of power’ and interact with whoever we find there in order to advance the interests of our members, our communities and our organisation. We understand that we won’t win anything without power and without getting our hands dirty we’ll never achieve that. Ultimately, the major difference between us and other organisations is that we know what it takes to win and we’re prepared to do it”.
In point of fact Ballard was interviewed on this occasion by another ex-member of Liberty and Solidarity, who now works as a Morning Star journalist.
As Notes from Below noted: “ACORN is the child of the Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition government. However strange that may sound, it is accurate. The funding used to launch the project came, in part, from David Cameron’s ‘big society’ initiative. Three organisers, who’d cut their teeth in the syndicalist union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), used that money to cover their expenses, quit their jobs and begin setting up the union in late 2013”.
In actual fact, these three IWW members (at least two of whom had been members of Liberty and Solidarity) had approached the union at both a branch level and nationally to ask for funding to set up the Acorn project. They used the lure of Acorn recruits in Bristol being automatically jointly recruited to the IWW. The London General Members branch rejected giving branch funds to Acorn, though thousands of pounds was given from other branches and at a national level. The promise of a large increase in IWW membership was one that failed to materialise and these three subsequently were to leave the IWW. Indeed, as Acorn organisers they began to employ staff, which went against IWW statutes.
In Leeds one IWW activist cancelled a branch meeting because he didn’t recognise a single one of those present and most of the core IWW members had sent in their apologies. At the following branch meeting it is alleged that the core members outnumbered the unknown newcomers and the motion to fund ACORN did not pass, as Leeds IWW members had as many misgivings as London members. However, Leeds, London and also Glasgow branches remained a minority within the IWW as the vote was lost nationally because of the alleged strategy of filling the one meeting where this was voted on with ACORN members was successful in more branches than it wasn’t.
One member of Leeds IWW recalls: “the first time I heard of ACORN was when I met someone at a party in Leeds and started trying to recruit her to the IWW and she said she’d actually just joined and I said oh are you having trouble at your workplace and she said no not at all, that she’d just been on a community organising course from a group called ACORN and that was meant to lead to a job with them eventually. She said that she didn’t expect she’d have any problems with them as employers. But that at the end of the course they told all the people on the course that they should join the IWW, which was a lot of people from all over the UK. I was sort of pleasantly surprised but also really confused to be honest (thinking why is her potential employer trying to get all their potential employees to join the IWW, very very weird). Then a few months later when this proposal to give them a load of money appeared, and she turned up to her first IWW meeting, it all fell into place”.
The reticence of some IWW members in funding Acorn is explained by the history of the parent group of Acorn in the United States.
ACORN in the States was set up by Wade Rathke, who came from a family of wealthy orange growers in California. He was active in the leftist Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s and worked for it as a draft resistance organiser. In 1969 he became a paid organiser for the National Welfare Rights Organisation (NWRO) which practised a strategy of building a “poor people’s alliance”. The NWRO had been set up by African-American George Wiley, who sent Rathke into the South to organise NWRO branches. Black militants objected to this appointment of a white organiser. As a result, and probably sensing that he might soon be out of a job, Rathke set up the Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) which the following year changed its name to the Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now. For the next 38 years Rathke served as its chief organiser and created more than 300 ACORN affiliates.
Rathke counted Bill Clinton as a friend, and he and other ACORN organisers organised mass campaigns of voter registration to assist the Democrats. He also has links with the Democratic Socialists of America.1
In 1999 and 2000, Dale Rathke, Wade’s brother, embezzled $948,000 from ACORN and its affiliates. For eight years, ACORN executives, including Wade Rathke, kept this a secret from the membership, and allowed the Rathke family to pay back the sum at the rate of $30,000 a year! Despite the embezzlement, Rathke kept his brother on the payroll as his assistant for eight years. All of this came to a head on July 28th, 2008 when ACORN voted that Rathke “be terminated from all employment with ACORN and its affiliated organizations or corporations,” and “removed from all boards and any leadership roles with ACORN or its affiliated organizations or corporations.” It went on to acknowledge the embezzlement.
Despite being expelled from ACORN Rathke continued his work with various ACORN affiliates and changed the name of its international consultancy, ACORN International, to Community Organisations International and served as its head. It soon reverted to its old name and Rathke continues to serve as its “chief organizer”. In 2011 he became owner of the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in New Orleans, and became station manager of the Arkansas community radio KABF in 2013.
If the embezzlement scandal and links to the Democrats were disturbing, what really worried London IWW members was some of the following.
ACORN filed a lawsuit in California seeking to exempt itself from the state's minimum wage of $4.25 per hour in 1995. ACORN alleged in its complaint that "its workers, if paid the minimum wage, will be less empathetic with ACORN's low and moderate income constituency and will therefore be less effective advocates."
In 2001 the Washington IWW reported that: “Since the workers at the ACORN office in Washington were forced to resign their jobs amid hardship and harassment on the part of the employer, Wade Rathke, "chief organizer" of ACORN National, and the new manager at the local office, Kent Smith, continue to perform damage control for their illegal anti-union tactics and their mistreatment of workers. While the union was able to negotiate a severance package for the workers that were able to return to their jobs, ACORN cannot buy their way out of the fact that what they did was wrong, and Wade Rathke shows no remorse for what he has done in the organization, and will likely continue to do to their workers without a union. We have to put in all into perspective: workers were asking for a 40 hour week, regular lunches, a policy on sexual harassment, a safety policy, and to get paid on time and in full. It is a sad commentary on ACORN that their workers had to turn to organizing a union to get ACORN to comply with their own stated principles, not to mention what is law in most states. Mr. Rathke and Mr. Smith, along with their small but powerful clique of anti-union power brokers, have shown that they do not have the interests of the ACORN membership in mind. They will continue to ask low income and working class families to give their hard earned money to an organization that represents the antithesis of what their membership has expressed; the right to be treated fairly on the job. It is why the membership in Washington supported the boycott call by the organizers; it is why the new manager, Mr. Smith, refused to allow the organizers to talk to the membership once they did return to their jobs after much struggle. ACORN operates under the pretense of democracy; however, even their own bylaws have provisions for what the hidden hierarchy can do if the membership strays from the unofficial party line, that being of top down control and only very limited membership democracy, if it actually exists in reality”. 2
In the same year in Seattle workers had organised with the IWW and went on strike on February 26th, 2001, demanding a 40 hour week and recognition of the union. The employer locked the workers out shortly thereafter. During the strike, lasting over two months, two workers, Alexa Gilbert and Lara Davis went on to take other jobs as a result of the lockout, in order to pay the mounting bills and living expenses, and were unable to return to their jobs at ACORN. The three remaining workers decided to quit in protest, after seeing that ACORN was willing to appeal every ruling in favour of the union, which would effectively postpone a representation election for up to a year. The National Labor Relations Board eventually forced ACORN to pay $20,000 in back pay. John Pershak, an IWWer in Seattle was to remark: “The community must never forget what ACORN has done. How can ACORN management lock workers out for two months, forcing them to quit because of hardship, pay out over $20,000 in a settlement, fly two attorneys to Seattle to further delay the representation election at the Labor Board, and expect people to believe that all is well?" He adds, "This underscores further the doublespeak that causes their workers to unionize or resign in disgust, and it shows that Wade Rathke and his clique have learned nothing about workers' rights." ACORN employed scabs during the course of the action as strike breakers.
In 2002 the IWW in Pennsylvania reported that: “Recent actions by management in Philadelphia are quite illustrative of the horrendous workplace conditions imposed on employees. Organizers in Philadelphia work more than 54 hours each week. They are frequently asked to come in several hours early for events, and do not leave the office until after 9 p.m., receiving no additional compensation for this. Workers are usually not given anything in writing concerning their wages, and when they are given specifics by management, their paychecks often do not reflect these announced policies. New organizers are sent out to the most dangerous parts of Philadelphia, late at night, when they do not know the area and are unfamiliar with public transportation routes. To top it all off, new organizers are not compensated for their public transportation travel expenses while on the job. Many report that they would not have taken the job had they known all of the details about how ACORN treats its employees. One former ACORN employee, with whom I have been in contact, reported that her paychecks were several dollars short every two weeks, and she remarked to me that if this is happening all across the country, ACORN must be saving quite a hefty sum each month.
Even more alarming is that workers have not been provided the health coverage ACORN had promised. Workers are supposed to be given COUNCIL health benefits after three months of service (most do not last that long). After a bit of research by one former employee, it seems as though many ACORN employees are currently without coverage, even though they have put in their qualifying time. In one case, management even assured a worker that she had insurance, when, in fact, she did not.
Workers at ACORN in Philadelphia are also subjected to patronizing comments and verbal abuse by their supervisors, who try to squeeze every ounce of surplus labor value out of them. Even when the most fiscally productive organizers politely suggest to management that there are better ways to run the organization, they are quickly silenced and told that they are out of line. It seems that workers who do not "tow the party line" can never please management. One worker in Philadelphia was told that while she was the most productive organizer in terms of the quotas or "goals" that are imposed upon staff, she did not do anything "big". The meaning of this was left to be deciphered by the puzzled worker, who also had more involvement by her members than any other person in the office”.
In 2003 it was reported that in Dallas ACORN bullied and laid off three workers who tried to organise at work with the IWW. ” The National Labor Relations Board of the United States of America ruled that ACORN violated labor law by intimidating and unfairly laying off three employees who were trying to improve their working conditions and supported the IWW union organizing effort”.
When questioned about the above by members of the IWW in Britain, the ACORN organisers denied any direct connection with Rathke. However, this was apparently contradicted by photos on the internet of Rathke, over in the UK on a visit, having dinner with these self-same organisers. They had said that, in the words of one IWW member: “they understood that we don’t trust ACORN because of him firing ACORN employees for organising, using the IWW, and that these were completely separate organisations, and that of course they’d never have anything to do with Wade Rathke the union buster.”
Later in 2020 with Bristol ACORN announcing that it was running a film show about Rathke. "ACORN Bristol are proud to be screening a film about the founder of ACORN and the rollercoaster history of the organisation…His entrepreneurial vision helped build ACORN but internal conflict and external pressures would lead to its tragic downfall….Wade will be joining us on the night to discuss the film, ACORN, community organising and more. This is our chance as members of ACORN Bristol to quiz Wade on how to make our union as powerful as can be!”
Indeed on Rathke’s Chief Organizer blog, he adopts a proprietorial attitude to ACORN UK, for example: “Although we had been renting the upper floor in the Communication Workers’ Union of Bristol since last December, it was my first time there”, and “Every day is a challenge for a young organization, but in Bristol we’re seeing how quickly we can begin to reach our potential and it’s exciting to imagine the unlimited potential for our members there in the future.” The Bristol film show proved to be part of a UK tour including Manchester and Leeds where Rathke held question and answer sessions at the end of the film shows.
ACORN in the USA turned out to be an organisation where professional organisers, who served in permanent positions within it, forced those who it employed, many from very poor backgrounds, just out of prison, from halfway houses etc, to work immensely long working weeks and no lunch breaks, below the minimum wage. ACORN USA acted as a strike breaking organisation, and it covered up major embezzlement. Rathke has served as its Chief Organizer for decades. We should be totally opposed to the concept of professional organisers as a concept that creates a hierarchy of officers and footsoldiers.
If ACORN UK does not have the same history of strikebreaking and bad treatment of its employees, it is still wedded to the idea of professional organisers and Rathke, to all intents and purposes, appears to be very much in the driving seat. Another concern with ACORN in the USA was its links with the Democrats. Is the same thing being repeated here? One key ACORN organiser in Bristol has now moved on to being organiser for the Labour Party in south west England, and as Notes from Below remarks, Brighton ACORN “began to develop very close links to the local Corbyn-supporting wing of the Labour party… For some members ACORN was understood as part of a strategy to develop ‘Corbynism from Below’. The branch began regularly sending speakers to Labour party ward and branch meetings, and counted among its supporters a number of councillors and Momentum local committee members. The Kings Rd. rent strike was openly supported by the newly-elected East Brighton MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle.”
Also disturbing is the presence in Bristol ACORN of the landlord and Green Party councillor Stephen Clarke, who evicted a tenant from “one of his numerous local buy-to-let investments after the tenant told him that his rent increase of 28 per cent was unaffordable!” (from the Bristolian newspaper/website).3
As we stated earlier, ACORN in the UK does not have the same history of strikebreaking and bad treatment of its employees, but given the organisation’s structure of employers and employees, we predict that this is an inevitable outcome in the long term. A class analysis shows that the relationship of boss-worker is certain to lead to exploitation and abuse. Such a structure is unavoidably incompatible with advocating for the working class.
It is vital that organisation develops around housing struggles. The London Renters Union is an example of a model of organisation that involves the mass of the membership rather than relying on a command structure where there is a professionalised elite and an employer-employee relationship. They say: “We are controlled by every one of our members. Every single member has a say and we take decisions collectively and democratically. Every member is encouraged to bring new ideas and suggestions.” It is such a model that needs to be developed outside of London and that coordinates federally on a territorial basis.
Published in Stormy Petrel, magazine of the Anarchist Communist Group, issue 2: 2020.
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