TCS Daily

ACORN's Living Wages

By Radley Balko - May 6, 2003 12:00 AM

A recent issue of the magazine City Journal featured a lengthy article on the "living wage" campaign - efforts underway in cities across the country to mandate wages far above the national minimum wage. Some of these campaigns aim for "minimum" salaries for city workers as high as $48,000 per year, as much as five weeks of mandatory vacation time per year, and a full range of health/sick leave/retirement benefits.

In Santa Fe, living wage advocates want the new regulations to apply to any business located within the city proper. Most campaigns aim to cover to city employees, and the employees of companies that get tax incentives from, or who contract with, the city.

The living wage movement has been around for about 30 years, and has generally been led by union interests. But City Journal credits another organization - the Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) - for the recent spate of successful city ordnance campaigns across the country. Left-leaning weekly The Nation describes ACORN as one of "two national organizations outside the union movement that have been particularly active in promoting the living wage movement."

ACORN's website lists both its recent successes and its ongoing campaigns - and there are lots of them: about fifty cities, over twenty colleges and universities, twenty statewide campaigns and a push for a sweeping federal law all currently occupy ACORN's activist agenda. Clearly, the organization's efforts are reaping results in labor-friendly urban America.

Here's the funny thing: ACORN fights like the dickens to avoid giving its own employees the same wages and benefits the organization demands of corporations and small businesses.

On March 27 of this year, National Labor Relations Board Judge Jane Vandeventer made the following findings about ACORN's national office in Dallas, Texas:

• ACORN pays its field members $18,000 per year.
• Field members typically work 54+ hours per week.
• Field members are rarely given weekends off.
• Field members are expected to canvas neighborhoods alone, sometimes at night.
• ACORN is frequently tardy with member paychecks.

Those findings are damning enough by themselves. Eighteen thousand dollars per year at 54+ hours a week breaks down to about $6.40 per hour, a wage that would be illegal under all but one of the 39 city ordnances ACORN claims credit for on its website.

But that's not even the half of it.

When field members attempted to organize a union to address the issues of nighttime canvassing and weekends off, three of the instigators were fired. Vandeventer also found that Dallas office organizer Kimberly Olsen threatened and intimidated other union agitators with the loss of their jobs as well.

The NLRB ruling is striking (pardon the pun). Olsen's comments to employees could have come straight from the mouth of a sweatshop manager in 1950s South Carolina. She said she "shouldn't have to take orders from employees," that attempts at organization were "trying to destroy" her and ACORN, and described one employee who circulated a union-organizing newsletter as a "poison pill."

And this year's NLRB ruling isn't even the first example of ACORN's hypocrisy.

ACORN's Seattle office, for example, faced a strike in 2001 after attempting to break up attempts at union organization by its employees.

In 1996, ACORN's California offices actually filed suit to exempt the organization from the state's minimum wage laws - at the time, just $4.25/hour.

In its Activist's Guide, written by Wayne State Professor David Reynolds, ACORN dismisses claims that higher minimum wages force business to cut jobs for its lowest-paid workers. That's "low road" thinking, Reynolds scolds, the kind of philosophy that "seeks short-term increases in the bottom-line by directly lowering costs and casts high wages, benefits, and other worker protections as obstacles to competition."

Now read what ACORN wrote in its brief to exempt itself from California's minimum-wage law:

"California's minimum-wage laws...affect the quality and quantity of staff which Plaintiff can retain....the more that ACORN must pay each individual outreach worker...the fewer outreach workers it will be able to hire."

The National Federation of Independent Businesses couldn't have written it any better. Funny how quickly leftist activists learn basic economics when minimum wage laws hit close to home.

According to the Employment Policies Institute, ACORN's argument on appeal got even more bizarre:

"A person paid limited sums of money will be in a better position to empathize with and relate to the low and moderate membership and constituency of ACORN," they said.

The judge dismissed the argument, calling it "absurd."

In its "People's Platform," ACORN demands that corporate America be forced to grant laborers:

  • The right to a job which does not endanger health or safety.

  • The right to a job which does not require overtime work as a condition
    of employment.

  • The right to a fair grievance procedure.

  • Most fundamentally, the right to organize, which is to be promoted by:

    • Extending the National Labor Relations Act coverage to all workers.

    • Streamlining the union election and certification process.

    • Restricting the use of anti-strike injunction by courts.

  • Providing stiff penalties -- back wages times five -- for employers who fire or demote workers for their organizing activities.

Emphasis mine.

It's hardly surprising that a labor-rights group would show such contempt for its own employees, or its own philosophy. Several years ago, Forbes magazine published an expose on Ralph Nader in which several ex-employees described low pay, sweatshop hours, and union-busting tactics similar to those the NLRB found used by ACORN. Nader, one employee said, would regularly call employees in to work on random sunny weekend afternoons simply to test their devotion. And organized labor of course regularly spends the mandatory dues of its membership on leftist political activism, despite that polls show as much as 40% of organized labor votes Republican (not to mention federal law and one Supreme Court cases forbidding the practice).

Historically, labor movements have been known for their colorful sloganeering. In the realm of today's "living wage" movement, it seems, the mantra is "high standards for thee, but not for me."

Radley Balko is a TCS contributor. He maintains a weblog at:

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