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March 6th, 2002 PHILIP DAWDY | News Stories
 

The ACORN that imploded

Squeezed between a union drive and a financial crisis, an activist group cracks.

     
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Hollie Hefferman is one of four ACORN employees laid off after trying to unionize.
IMAGE: basil childers
Hollie Hefferman is no armchair activist. She spent last fall working for ACORN, a fire-breathing social-justice group that mixes community organizing with in-your-face theatrics. As an organizer in East Portland, Hefferman knocked on upwards of 80 doors a day, trying to convince residents to fight slumlords, loan sharks and City Hall by signing up with ACORN.

Fed up with the long hours and low pay, however, Hefferman and three co-workers decided to train the group's rhetoric on itself: They mounted a campaign to unionize ACORN's local office. Two days later, they were "temporarily" laid off.

Hefferman calls it "hypocrisy" for ACORN to market itself as the fifth wave of justice for the downtrodden while turning its employees into food-stamp applicants.

"We felt there was a lot of deceit in the organization," says Sarah Manowitz, another ACORN organizer.

Andrew Ginsberg, ACORN Oregon's head organizer, says the layoffs and unionization were not connected.

Hefferman and Manowitz were spurred to become organizers by all the usual liberal impulses: The 22-year-olds thought they could help low-income renters stand up against slumlords. More often, however, they spent their time whipping up public dissatisfaction over city stormwater fees.

Working conditions were less than ideal for the group's five paid organizers. Employees were required to work 54 hours a week, Saturdays included, for an annual salary of $20,200 (which works out to $7.19 an hour). The two say they were often paid late and, beginning in November, not paid at all.

On Dec. 3, four employees handed Ginsberg a letter outlining their plans to join the Industrial Workers of the World, a.k.a. the Wobblies. Two days later, citing budget problems, Ginsberg temporarily laid off the four employees (the office's fifth organizer chose not to join the union). They haven't worked since.

Ginsberg declined to answer anything but the most cursory of questions, citing ongoing talks with IWW Industrial Unit 650.

"The timing would make it suspicious to begin with," says Linda Davidson, acting officer in charge of the Portland office of the National Labor Relations Board.

ACORN has always been an odd beast. With 45 offices nationwide, the organization presents itself as a grassroots group promoting "people power." Typically, ACORN crosses swords with slumlords, usurious banks and neglectful local governments. In cities such as Chicago, it has become a potent political force, filling a power vacuum between a distant City Hall and more traditional activist groups such as the Urban League.

ACORN sends organizers to canvas neighborhoods and to sign up members for a monthly fee ranging from $5 to $20. Members are taught various strategies to petition for their rights, including street theater, confrontation, taking over government offices, and demanding that bureaucrats sign pledges.

That's largely how things have played out for ACORN Oregon, which opened offices in Lents two years ago. After an ineffectual campaign against predatory lenders, ACORN has skittered from one crusade to another, including urban renewal, sewer fees, traffic lights and unpaved streets. Currently, the group is hectoring the city for a traffic light at Whitaker-Lakeside Middle School in Northeast Portland.

These bread-and-butter issues have gained ACORN some traction among eastsiders--it boasts 1,640 Oregon members, most living in outer Southeast Portland. And it has staged some classic confrontations. The most spectacular came last August, when tattooed, tank-topped ACORNites stormed a meeting of the buttoned-down Portland Development Commission, demanding more citizen control of millions of dollars in Lents urban-renewal monies.

Some critics argue that ACORN is a band of self-perpetuating mercenaries, constantly waging new crusades in order to attract more members. Others say its Sharptonian tactics are out of place in a mellow, consensus-minded community like Portland.

Mary Volm, spokeswoman for the Portland Office of Transportation, told WW that the group's invasion of PDOT's offices last fall earned it enemies instead of the cooperation it sought.

Meanwhile, ACORN employees are mulling their legal options, which include filing an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and a wage complaint with the state's Bureau of Labor and Industries. However, Manowitz and her colleagues say they would all return to work at ACORN if they had a union contract.

Talks between ACORN and the IWW begin March 23.

 
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