Far from the tree

ACORN's downtown office looks exactly the way you might picture an activist operation's office would: small and messy, with news clippings and goal sheets taped to the nondescript walls. The place is staffed by young, casually dressed staffers working the phones and sifting through paperwork. ACORN's Florida head organizer, Brian Kettenring, fits in perfectly in his bright red "Unite!" T-shirt, as he gathers two ACORN colleagues for an interview.

The Association of Communities Organizing for Reform Now's move to Orlando in early August was well-timed. Two weeks after the national social-justice advocacy group set up its East Colonial digs, the city council passed a "living wage" ordinance requiring the city's contractors to pay their employees at least $8.50 an hour.

It was a modest step, considering most living-wage ordinances require wages in the $10.50 range with cost-of-living increases and/or health insurance, but a sign nonetheless that the city felt it shouldn't subsidize poverty. And in Orlando, a town dominated by tourist and service industries not reknowned for labor friendliness, that's something. "The mayor created a lot of political space for us to win living wages in other regions," says Kettenring.

ACORN selected Orlando for three reasons, he says: its proximity to sister offices in Miami and St. Petersburg; the region's rapid growth and service economy means there are many working poor, which is ACORN's bread and butter; and the fact that ACORN views Orlando as a watershed.

"As Florida goes, so goes the rest of the country," Kettenring says. "As the I-4 corridor goes, so does the rest of the state."

ACORN is the nation's largest and most well-known organizer of low-income communities. The nonprofit has 150,000 paying members (dues are $120 a year), 300 employees and 55 offices in at least 45 states. Nationally, its budget is about $10 million, though it's hard to say for sure because ACORN isn't tax-exempt, and thus does not file publicly accessible tax forms. (The $10 million figure is Kettenring's estimate.) The Orlando office has 11 employees and a budget of $266,000, which it must raise itself by soliciting memberships.

Though ACORN sells itself as the premier living-wage-information clearing house and advocate, the group had nothing to do with Orlando's ordinance. Throughout Florida, however, ACORN is engaged in a related campaign to raise the state's minimum wage $1, to $6.15 per hour.

In its first month the local ACORN office has already held two rallies in Pine Hills, where it is lobbying the county for better speeding controls and sidewalks on busy streets. It has also signed up 50 members at $120 per year. It has been well received in the pages of the Orlando Sentinel, which has written several favorable news stories and columns about the group.

What the Sentinel hasn't mentioned -- and something that the service industry doubtlessly will, if the proposed constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage gains traction -- is that ACORN has something of a checkered past when it comes to its own labor relations.

In 1995, for instance, ACORN sued the state of California, seeking an exemption to the state's minimum wage, then $4.25 per hour. ACORN argued that by having to pay its workers more, it would have to employ fewer people; thus, its First Amendment rights were violated. More laughably, ACORN's lawyers argued that, by paying its workers less than minimum wage, they would better empathize with the downtrodden people ACORN was trying to help. The lawsuit was tossed.

That same year, the ACORN Housing Corporation -- technically a separate entity that shared space with ACORN in Texas -- was stripped of an AmeriCorps grant for using funds, illegally, for ACORN itself.

Kettenring blames the minimum-wage flub on ACORN's attorneys, who he says "wrote dumb stuff" and muddied up an otherwise simple question of compensation for volunteers. "It made us look contradictory," he admits.

As to other questions the report raises, he responds: "We do think reports put out by the restaurant industry are not worth too much effort. The bad guys can always dig up dirt on you."

He is referring to the Employment Policies Institute, the source of the reports and ACORN's political nemesis. Nonetheless, EPI's work is well-sourced and it does raise questions of "do as I say" hypocrisy. "ACORN consistently campaigns for laws that it refuses to follow in its own workplace," the EPI report says.

But there is another troubling, and more recent, fact: In March, the National Labor Relations Board cited ACORN for, of all things, union-busting. In 2000, a wave of unionizing spread throughout ACORN's ranks, starting with the Seattle office, where four employees went on strike and were thereafter fired.

ACORN, were it not an activist group, would be ripe for organizing. According to the NLRB report, workers make as little as $16,000 a year and often put in 54 hours a week. They are routinely sent into high-crime neighborhoods to sign up members and rally community members.

The unionizing movement started in Seattle and spread to Dallas, where ACORN employees were allegedly fired when they tried to unionize and ask for one weekend off per month rather than working every Saturday advocating for a living-wage ordinance. Head organizer Kimberly Olsen, according to the NLRB report, tried to stop any union activity by telling employee John Rees that ACORN workers in Seattle were fired for organizing. Olsen also fired three other ACORN workers for organizing, the report says.

Kettenring insists ACORN is not anti-union. In Seattle, he says, the workers were fired for general laziness; in Dallas, he says he's unaware of the details of the situation. "We're not stupid," he says. "We're a pro-union organization. The only reason we ever terminate people [is] they weren't doing their job."

ACORN's problems in other cities don't necessarily relate to its new Orlando office. While Kettenring has worked with ACORN for nine years, starting right out of college in Minnesota, other staffers such as Lloyd Beeston and Stephanie Porta, who worked earlier this year on Buddy Dyer's mayoral campaign, are local and dedicated to the cause.

And local activists are excited about the contribution a well-known national organization can make as they push for living-wage laws in Orange County and other municipalities.

"We did not know they were coming," says the Rev. Fred Morris, one of the area's leading living-wage advocates. "They caught us a little off guard. We're delighted."

Delighted because ACORN's presence -- and the possibility of a high-profile campaign to raise the minimum wage -- can only raise passions in what is decidedly not an activist town.

"There's a lot of talk (in Orlando), but nothing gets done," Porta says.

That's a problem ACORN can help, provided the group's own past doesn't get in the way.

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