Wade Rathke, Organizer
Wade Rathke is the founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN International as well as Local 100 United Labor Unions and the Publisher of Social Policy magazine. Wade is also the founder, and served as the Chief Organizer of ACORN for 39 years.
He has worked for and founded a series of organizations dedicated to winning social justice, workers rights, and a democracy where “the people shall rule”.
Rathke began his career as an organizer for the NWRO (National Welfare Rights Organization) in Springfield, Massachusetts, under the direction of George Wiley. After beginning in the NWRO, Rathke started an organization in Arkansas that would have a base in the general community, not just welfare recipients. Rathke’s initiative in Arkansas eventually grew into ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) the largest organization of lower income and working families in the United States. Founded in 1970, ACORN now has over 500,000 dues-paying families spread throughout more than one hundred cities. ACORN’s mission is to win “a bigger voice and fairer share for low and moderate income families”. Through the hard work of hundreds of community organizers and thousands of community leaders across the country, ACORN has won landmark victories in the areas of community reinvestment, fair lending, living wages, education reform, environmental justice, and other issues. The ACORN family of organizations includes radio stations (KNON and KABF), publications, housing development and ownership (ACORN Housing), and a variety of other supports for direct organizing and issue campaigns, such as Project Vote and the Living Wage Resource Center. Besides being ACORN’s Founder, Wade served as Chief Organizer for ACORN from 1970 to 2008: 38 years!
ACORN International has expanded rapidly in recent years, with operations in countries as diverse as Canada, Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Dominican Republic, and India, and emerging projects in Kenya and Ecuador and partnerships in Indonesia, Korea, and the Philippines. ACORN International’s unique style of grassroots, membership based community organizing has found traction in places from squatter communities in Latin America all the way to the diverse cities of India, including Mumbai, New Delhi, and Bangalore. ACORN International also supports direct low wage worker organizing with among waste pickers in Delhi and hawkers in Mumbai.
Wade also was the founder and is the Chief Organizer of Local 100, Service Employees International Union, working with members in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas in 1980. Over the last several years he has directed the WARN project, a joint community-labor effort engaging Wal-Mart’s expansion in Florida, California, India and Mexico.
Through WARN and the Community Labor Organizing Center (CLOC), Wade and his team provide research, campaign, and organizing assistance through consultancies and contracts for a series of critical labor, community, and other campaigns for unions, immigrant rights, and community organizations both domestically and internationally from offices in New Orleans and St. Petersburg, Florida.
Wade is also the Chair of the Organizers’ Forum, which brings together labor and community organizers for two dialogues per year, one domestic and one international. The Organizers’ Forum is a project of the Tides Center. Wade was a founding board member of the Tides Foundation and continues to serve as senior advisor of the San Francisco-based organization and for a number of their entities including the Paradox Fund and Frontera Fund.
Wade is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Social Policy, a quarterly magazine for scholars and activists. He has written regularly for the New Labor Forum as well as recent essays in There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster, edited by Gregory Squires and Chester Hartman about organizing in the aftermath of Katrina, Wal-Mart: The Face of 21st Century Capitalism, edited by Nelson Lichtenstein proposing a way to organize Wal-Mart workers in an association, and American Crises, Southern Solutions: From Where We Stand, Promise and Peril, edited by Antony Dunbar on the failure of labor to organize the South and what could have been done about it differently. Wade has a forthcoming essay on “Sweat and Social Change,” ACORN at 35 Years, edited by Robert Fisher for the Vanderbilt Press. Wade has two forthcoming books expected in Spring of 2009 with Verso Press on The Battle for the Lower 9th: ACORN and the Rebuilding of New Orleans, and with Berrett-Koehler on Citizen Wealth: How Community Groups are Working Themselves and the Working Poor out of Poverty.
Rathke’s initiative in Arkansas eventually grew into ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) the largest organization of lower income and working families in the United States. Founded in 1970, ACORN now has over 500,000 dues-paying families spread in over 100 American cities. ACORN’s mission is to win “a bigger voice and fairer share for low and moderate income families”. Through the hard work of hundreds of community organizers and thousands of community leaders across the country, ACORN has won landmark victories in the areas of community reinvestment, fair lending, living wages, education reform, environmental justice, and other issues.
The ACORN family of organizations includes radio stations (KNON and KABF), publications, housing development and ownership (ACORN Housing), and a variety of other supports for direct organizing and issue campaigns, such as Project Vote and the Living Wage Resource Center.
In 1980, union organizing in the U.S. was close to moribund, Rathke and other ACORN organizers started an independent union organizing effort called the United Labor Organizations, and, later, United Labor Unions. In New Orleans, Rathke organized an independent union of Hyatt employees. The New Orleans union later affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in 1984, founding SEIU Local 100, AFL-CIO.
Today, SEIU Local 100, which is headquartered in New Orleans with operations in Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana.. Local 100 has organized public sector public workers, including school employees, Head Start, and health care workers, as well as lower wage private sector workers in the hospitality, janitorial, and other service industries.
Rathke served three terms as Secretary-Treasurer of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO. He was the president and co- founder of the SEIU Southern Conference, and served for eight years as member of the International Executive Board of SEIU.
Rathke is currently engaged in driving the multinational and community project WARN (Wal-Mart Alliance for Reform Now) in Florida, California, and elswhere to prove that Wal-Mart expansion can be stopped in addition to the Wal-Mart Workers Association in Florida that has established that other Wal-Mart workers will join and organize their own association on the job.
Seeking to create a sense of community among organizing traditions and networks, Rathke founded the Organizers’ Forum in 2000. The Organizers Forum brings together senior organizers in labor and community organizations in dialogues about challenges faced by constituency-based organizations, such as tactical development, organizing new immigrants, using technology, utilizing capital strategies and corporate campaign techniques, or understanding the impacts and organizing challenges of globalization.
Rathke is a longtime member of the Tides Foundation Board of Directors, and Board Chair of the Tides Center, which provides core management services to new and existing nonprofit organizations promoting social change.
Rathke has published articles and commentaries on organizing, direct action tactics, revitalizing the union movement, and other topics in publications like Social Policy, Boston Review of Books, the Nation, Clamor, and others. He now serves as publisher and Editor in Chief for Social Policy, and maintains a blog at www.chieforganizer.org.
In 2006, Rathke contributed chapters to two books. The first, There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster, covers the response to the Hurricane Katrina and offers a critical and comprehensive social portrait of the disaster’s catastrophic effects on New Orleans. Wade Rathke contributes with his chapter on “The Role of Local Organizing” in which he discusses the importance of grassroots organizations in attempting to help low- to moderate-income families recover after Hurricane Katrina. The second, Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism, examines the largest employer outside the U.S. government with regards to both its negative and positive effects on a range of topics, from discrimination to economics and renders an assessment of the corporation from a scholarly perspective. Wade Rathke contributes with his chapter on “A Wal-Mart Workers Association? An Organizing Plan” in which he discusses the limitations of unionization in the US and what is needed to respond proactively to meet the demands of American workers and serve as a model for other unions both domestically and internationally.
Wade also authored Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families, The Battle for the 9th Ward and edited the compilation Global Grassroots.
Wade Rathke and his family live in New Orleans, Louisiana.