In the previous posts, we have looked into the meaning and importance of the living wage movement. We have also examined both the Conservative argument against and the history of the movement. In the final part of this three part series, we will examine at the more recent attempts at establishing a living wage and the organization that was destined to achieve some impressive results.
The Rebirth of the Movement
The Rebirth of the Movement
One organization took up the cause of campaigning for a living wage and throughout the 1990s, won unprecedented successes. It was called “the nation's largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families, working together for social justice and stronger communities" with the name the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known as ACORN.
Ilyse Hogue, writing for The Nation, gives this summary about the important role that ACORN played.
ACORN was unique as an organization that served our nation’s poor people. Wrangling with life’s common challenges like mortgages and housing forms, ACORN employees built trust by offering help person to person, neighborhood by neighborhood. They then leveraged that trust to lobby for federal legislation to address the root causes of the crises facing these people—predatory lending, lack of community investment and stagnant wages.
As mentioned earlier, critics of the living wage movement would like to propagate the easily-refutable notion that the living wage movement is a relatively recent political phenomenon. That much is true only as it pertained to ACORN's involvement. As John Atlas, president of the National Housing Institute and author of Seeds of Change, puts it:
Acorn spearheaded campaigns to adopt living-wage laws in dozens of cities and increase state minimum wages, resulting in millions of Americans getting raises. Its free tax counseling has helped make the federal earned-income tax credit an effective antipoverty program.
ACORN took up the cause of the living wage after witnessing the achievements of another, smaller organization in Baltimore which successfully campaigned for a living wage. Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), an alliance between a labor union and religious leaders in Baltimore, launched a successful campaign, convincing Baltimore city officials to enact a living wage requirement for employees of contracted businesses working with the city.
According to the book, Fight for a Living Wage, by Stephanie Luce, Associate Professor at the Murphy Institute, City University of New York:
Workers in some of Baltimore's homeless shelters and soup kitchens had noticed something new and troubling about many of the visitors coming in for meals and shelter: they happened to have full-time jobs. In response, local religious leaders successfully persuaded the City Council to raise the base pay for city contract workers to $6.10 an hour from $4.25, the federal minimum at the time. The Baltimore campaign was ostensibly about money.
But to those who thought about it more deeply, it was about the force of particular moral propositions: first, that work should be rewarded, and second, that no one who works full time should have to live in poverty.
ACORN developed similar city ordinance campaigns across the country, fifty cities, such as Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and St. Louis, over twenty colleges and universities, twenty statewide campaigns. At least 140 living wage ordinances in cities throughout the nation were enacted by 2007.
Success like that is certainly an effective way of getting the attention of the Conservative Right Wing.
Blood in the Water
In some ways, ACORN might have been a little too successful and too quickly.
For example, back in 1996, it found itself being hoisted by its own petards when ironically, its California offices actually filed suit to exempt the organization from the state's minimum wage laws - at the time, just $4.25 per hour. After years of battling with businesses and non-profits contractors to pay higher wages, ACORN suddenly found itself using the same excuses for paying its own worker less than minimum wage.
Interestingly, its lawyers argued that, by paying minimum wages to its staff, it would be limiting its First Amendment right of free speech, since it would have to hire fewer workers and thus, making it harder to get its message out. While conservatives chuckled privately while erupting publicly, others could point out that justice often cuts both ways and there’s no shame in that. If ACORN felt the pressure, that's fine too.
Admittedly, there were some serious management problems at ACORN. With an annual budget of around $25 million- 10% of that coming from federal sources, a smaller figure from state sources, and the rest coming from supporters and membership, greater oversight and accountability were essential. But, unfortunately, that's not what occurred.
Dale Rathke, brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke, embezzled nearly $1 million. The lost money was recovered and Rathke was removed from the ACORN board but only after the matter became public several years later. (Wade stepped down that same day as ACORN's chief organizer.)
As one defender puts it:
But the misjudgment of a few employees is hardly grounds for withdrawing federal or foundation funds.
As damaging as such revelations are, it’s important to put that in the proper perspective. When military contractor Dyncorp reportedly lost millions of dollars and overcharged the government in Afghanistan, this corporation was rewarded with further lucrative military contracts. When Halliburton lost track of more than $18 million worth of equipment in Iraq, where was the orchestrated outcry? Where was the collective action by Congress to punish the wrong-doers? Instead there was only that all-too- familiar, "a few bad apples" excuse. With failures involving taxpayer’s money in the war-effort, the last Republican administration hardly maintained the standards it demanded of ACORN.
Nevertheless, the self-inflicted damage to ACORN's reputation had been done. Worse than that, there was blood in the water.
Coup de Grâce
That ACORN should become a target is hardly a surprise. Given its successes in defending the rights of the low-income, in such matters as predatory bank mortgage practices, voter registration and the campaign to establish a living wage, it was really only a matter of time.
With its superficial connections to candidate Barack Obama, ACORN was bound to become a political football in the 2008 election.
In October 2008, the campaign for Republican presidential candidate John McCain released a Web-based advertisement claiming ACORN was responsible for "massive voter fraud," a point that Sen. McCain repeated in the final presidential debate. Factcheck.org called this claim "breathtakingly inaccurate," but acknowledged that ACORN had problems with phony registrations.
With the insistent noise from Fox News and the plethora of conservative organizations, attempting to point out that “voter registration fraud” is not the same as “voter fraud” was pretty much a waste of breath.
Regardless of their lack of validity, the claims had their effects on public opinion. A subsequent national survey revealed shocking public misperception about ACORN: More than half of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of the organization, and 52 percent of Republicans, 18 percent of Independents, and 9 percent of Democrats think ACORN actually stole the election for Obama.
|James O’Keefe III|
In its defense, ACORN reported that it fired the employees who offered the advice and noted that the conservative activists, who secretly filmed the encounters, were turned away by other ACORN workers.
As far as the explosive charges that caused so much outrage, there was a lot more to the story. Later it was revealed that O'Keefe had intentionally created a false impression. As MediaMatter.org reports, the unedited versions showed that O'Keefe often appeared at ACORN offices dressed rather conservatively -- slacks and dress shirt -- when he talked to ACORN staffers, and he often presented himself as a law school student and an aspiring politician trying to rescue his prostitute girlfriend from her abusive pimp.
Incidentally, O'Keefe was also behind the 2008 scandal with Planned Parenthood where he posed as a caller trying to donate money to specifically fund abortions for African Americans. As unlikely as it sounds, according to O'Keefe, part of his motivation for placing the call was to fight the racism he perceives in Planned Parenthood.
Pulling the Plug
On 17 September 2009, The House of Representatives in a 345-75 vote approved a GOP amendment to a student loan bill that would defund ACORN. The move followed the Census Bureau Director Robert Groves' decision to sever ties with ACORN.
“Recent events concerning several local offices of ACORN have added to the worsening negative perceptions of ACORN and its affiliation with our partnership efforts,” Groves wrote in the letter sent to ACORN President Maude Hurd on Sept. 11.
The House vote was by no means an unanimous decision. Seventy-five House lawmakers, all Democrat voted to keep giving ACORN federal taxpayer dollars, despite the Groves' decision.
New York Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks opposed defunding the controversial group because he needed more evidence that the incidents captured by undercover journalists was, in fact, systemic.
“To me it’s a matter of principle; I don’t know that it’s systemic and I’ve seen what they’ve done to help poor people in the New York area,” Meeks said.
The then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned the organization but felt the defunding was an extreme reaction.
“Well, let me say this: any group that receives any funds from the federal government needs to have tough scrutiny applied to it,” Pelosi said at her weekly press conference. “I think it's up to the Appropriations Committee to scrutinize ACORN or any other group that receives money from the federal government that has such an allegation against it.”
Allegations, a sensational but largely made-up sting operation, non-stop hysteria by Fox News followed by over-reactions in Congress. That was all it took to end all hopes of a living wage for working Americans.
Consequently, the death of the living wage movement in the US- as sponsored by ACORN- was not a natural one. It was a carefully calculated assassination.
Some foundations also pulled the plug. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' anti-poverty charity, praised Acorn for its work "preventing home foreclosures, creating job opportunities, raising wages, addressing crime, and improving education." But under pressure from conservatives, it, too, cut off Acorn's money.
With the Catholic Church’s record of standing for the poor, especially in terms of its historical commitment to a living wage, that decision was inexcusable and cowardly. It went against every thing it had once stood for.
Conservative groups also put pressure on other sources of ACORN funding. For example, the co-founder of The National Legal and Policy Center, Peter Flaherty, wrote to JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon demanding an end to any funding of ACORN. According to the 2007 tax return for the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, ACORN Housing, Inc. was the recipient of a million dollar grant in 2007. Another grant of $25,000 was made to the ACORN Institute. Flaherty's veiled threat is interesting:
Continued identification with ACORN harms the company’s brand name and reputation, and carries special risks for this company, a recipient of taxpayer TARP funds. The New York Times has identified you as President Obama’s “favorite banker.”
Coincidentally, from 1984 to 1988, Mr. Flaherty served as Chairman of the lobbying group Citizens for Reagan. NLPC describes itself as a "conservative watch dog organization". Targets have included Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Charles Rangel and other liberal politicians. (See any pattern?)
At its peak, before its disastrous collapse, ACORN over 400,000 members and more than 1,200 neighborhood chapters in over 100 cities across the United States, as well as in Argentina, Canada, Mexico, and Peru.
And yet, sadly, if you wish to learn more about ACORN’s role in the living wage movement, the Internet has been pretty thoroughly scrubbed of most of the references. It is as if ACORN never existed. It is as if the living wage movement was nothing more than a dream. Just a lot of dead links.
All of the work by so many for the sake of poor and low-income families, has simply melted away.