The Real ACORN: Anti-Employee, Anti-Union, Big Business


“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”
— Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

On March 27, 2003 the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) lost its final appeal of a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling, which found that ACORN had violated the rights of its employees to unionize. Those unacquainted with ACORN’s history may find this decision simply ironic because of the organization’s active public support of increased unionization, particularly among low-skill service sector employees.

Anyone who has witnessed the activities of ACORN in recent decades, however, realizes that this ruling represents a huge embarrassment for an organization that has maintained a consistent practice of hypocrisy and greed. From bringing suit against the state of California to exempt itself from the minimum wage, to using its national campaign for local wage mandates as a front to increase the membership of its union partners, ACORN consistently campaigns for laws that it refuses to follow in its own workplace. Much like Dimmesdale, Hawthorne’s adulterous priest in The Scarlet Letter, ACORN has attempted to present one face to the masses while hiding its unadulterated hypocrisy and greed from public view.

Wade Rathke, a former organizer for the National Welfare Rights Organization and current member of the International Board of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), founded ACORN in the early 1970’s. With 600 neighborhood chapters in 45 cities across the country, ACORN claims to be the largest organization of low and moderate-income Americans. It claims a total membership of 120,000 families, each paying an annual membership fee of $60.

ACORN plays a prominent role in the American labor movement and local activism. In addition to its founder’s significant leadership roles in multiple national unions, ACORN helped to establish the United Labor Union (ULU), aiming to organize low-skill service employees who had not previously been organized by established unions. Since then, ULU has affiliated with other national unions; it now represents over 20,000 service employees in Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, and Illinois. ACORN’s close connection with labor drove it to use the living wage movement as a lever to increase overall union participation.

ACORN also represents a critical component of that movement, a coordinated national campaign to force employers to pay above-market wages (so-called “living wages”) at the local level. Robert Pollin, an economist and national living-wage proponent, states that “the New Party and ACORN are the two national organizations outside of the union movement that have been particularly active in promoting the living wage movement.”1 ACORN calls for wages up to 130 percent higher than the minimum wage, and insists that no job demand overtime hours as a condition of employment.

Despite its ardent public support of higher wages and union membership for all workers, ACORN has made repeated attempts to block the unionization of its own workforce while paying below-minimum-wage salaries to its employees. In addition to the extensive union-busting detailed by the NLRB (see Appendix A), ACORN unsuccessfully sued the state of California to be exempted from the minimum wage. In its appeal of that suit, ACORN argued that the reduction in the number of employees resulting from the minimum wage would violate its First Amendment rights. ACORN’s claims were labeled “absurd” by the presiding judge (see Appendix B).

Tactics such as these should come as no surprise to even a casual observer of ACORN’s history. In 1995 the ACORN Housing Corporation (AHC)—a technically separate entity that maintains extremely close ties to ACORN, sharing office space with ACORN in several cities—was stripped of an AmeriCorps grant after it was found to be using the money as part of an illegal fundraising scheme for ACORN (see Appendix C). Indeed, a thorough reading of ACORN’s “people’s platform,” as it pertains to workers’ rights, finds ACORN in violation of more than one in four of its own guiding principles.