Who’s Really Behind the Anti-Wal-Mart Campaign?

Published January 1, 2007

“To be honest, not to toot my own horn, but ACORN was really and turely [sic] the back bone of the ordinance. We did most of the organizing and turn out.”

This is part of a message I found in my email inbox in early November, following Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s veto of a “big-box” living wage ordinance covering retail stores that sell goods at bargain prices. I was baffled by the email, sent by Shiren Rattigan-Ouni, special project coordinator for ACORN-Chicago.

Why would someone at ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) admit to a reporter that ACORN had orchestrated public support for an ordinance that would have required stores of at least 90,000 square feet operated by firms with $1 billion or more in annual sales nationwide to pay workers $10 an hour and another $3 an hour in benefits?

I had written about Chicago’s big-box ordinance and Daley’s veto for the November issue of Budget & Tax News, and even though I quoted an ACORN representative in the article, I was still taken aback by the email.

Left-Wing Advocacy

ACORN, a national organization of low- and moderate-income persons, has been around since the early 1970s. The organization claims about 175,000 member families in 80 cities and advocates left-wing populist approaches to a variety of issues including public housing, jobs, wages, taxes, and voter registration.

ACORN has been calling for “living wages,” which would raise wages for low-skilled workers and boost union membership by wiping out the price advantage non-union jobs have over union jobs.

While advocating living wages, though, ACORN has opposed paying even minimum wages to its own workers.

Sought Minimum Wage Exemption

This was made apparent back in 1995, when ACORN sued the state of California to be exempted from paying its own workers the minimum wage. According to the December 21, 1995 ruling of the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District:

“ACORN contends that California’s minimum wage laws … are unconstitutional as applied to ACORN because they restrict ACORN’s ability to engage in political advocacy. According to ACORN, this adverse impact will be manifested in two ways: first, ACORN will be forced to hire fewer workers; second, 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.

“Leaving aside the latter argument’s absurdity (minimum wage workers are ipso facto low-income workers) as well as irony (an advocate for the poor seeking to justify starvation wages), we find ACORN to be laboring under a fundamental misconception of the constitutional law.”

A 2003 study of ACORN by the Employment Policies Institute noted, “ACORN pays a wage of $5.67 per hour, less than half the level demanded by many proposed ‘living wage’ ordinances that ACORN supports.”

Despite ACORN’s demands that all workers be allowed to organize, ACORN has tried to prevent its own workers from joining unions. In March 2003, after firing workers who had tried to organize, ACORN lost its final appeal of a National Labor Relations Board ruling, which found ACORN had violated the rights of its employees to unionize.

Not a Grassroots Movement

I’m just guessing, but I think my ACORN correspondent mistook me for another Steve Stanek, one who apparently is a student at Northwestern University in the Chicago suburb of Evanston and writes for the school’s Medill News Service. A quick Google search shows he has written about Chicago’s big-box ordinance and living wage laws.

Rattigan-Ouni thanks him (in the email sent to me) for “publishing a fair article about the Living Wage” and also describes his article as “a breath of fresh air.”

I’m not sure which of his articles Rattigan-Ouni is writing about, but no matter. I’m glad to have on the record that ACORN was the spoon that stirred the big-box kettle.

Supporters of the big-box ordinance had taken pains to convince news reporters and city officials a grassroots movement was afoot. Now here, in my email inbox, is the special project coordinator for ACORN-Chicago, a group that opposes paying its own workers a living wage or allowing them to join unions, admitting it led the effort.

Daley and the city’s voters would do well to remember ACORN’s hypocrisy regarding wages and union organizing, and voters around the country should be suspicious of groups such as ACORN that don’t practice the populist rhetoric they preach.

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.

For more information …

More information about ACORN is available at the Employment Policies Institute Web site, http://www.epionline.org/studies/epi_acorn_05-2003.pdf.