New Orleans On Saturday afternoon coming back from the gym, I was hailed down by a gaggle of red shirts congregating not far from Holy Angels on St. Claude Street as I made my way, sweaty and nasty to my home a couple of blocks away. Turned out these were some New Orleans ACORN leaders talking at the top of their lungs about a meeting they had just finished.
Listening to the reports of these New Orleans ACORN leaders – and watching the videos on camera — of an internal hearing in what was once a rare procedure in the old ACORN, but now seems a more frequently utilized and, unfortunately, less democratic blunt instrument of political control in the waning days of the “new” ACORN, I was reminded yesterday of how critical the hometown advantage is, especially in organizing.
In my 38 years with ACORN there had been virtually a never utilized Article XIII, which in rare situations allowed the national organization (loss of democratic control, financial mismanagement, etc) to temporarily assume the role of “administrator” of the local operation while it regained its footing. In the sixteen months since I resigned, the District of Columbia has been put under Article XIII and just two weeks ago in a huge surprise Louisiana ACORN, one of the oldest and most renowned and respected of the ACORN affiliates was suddenly placed under Article XIII.
This has been a head scratcher followed closely on the front pages of the local paper, The Times-Picayune. At first it appeared that the long time director of the operation was fired because the great leader of ACORN’s Lower 9th Ward chapter, Vanessa Gueringer, had called for President Obama to visit that devastated area, successfully as it turned out when he did go by a school in the neighborhood on his abbreviated stop. In the old ACORN to fire someone responsible to the local board would have required a suspension and a delicate and specific negotiation with the local leadership about the “cause” of the proposed transfer or termination, which could be appealed by either side (the state board or the Chief Organizer) up to the national level. In the Article XIII hearing convened in New Orleans at Holy Angels yesterday, it turned out according to the new CEO’s claims that she has the unilateral authority to summarily dismiss anyone anywhere, so it’s a new world in yet more ways than I might have imagined. The leaders told me that when they raised this issue they were simply told that Louisiana is an “at will” state, meaning that you can be fired at will and whim, so I guess that’s the case, though personally I’m so old school, I’ll only believe it whenever I see those new bylaws.
There were reportedly about 40 people at the so-called hearing. From watching the movie and listening the tapes it seems that virtually everyone got up to speak at some point, and about 35 of the 40…other than some of the staff retained by the new temporary administrator, wore badges saying “Save Louisiana ACORN: I’m with the Home Team.” The new ACORN national president, Hugh Allyn of Delaware, seems to have chaired the meeting. On the tape he says that this hearing was “the biggest ACORN meeting” he had ever attended. One of the leaders in the crowd rejoined: “welcome to New Orleans!” I’m sure he must have been exaggerating. It’s hard to imagine a president of national ACORN who chairing their first session with 40 people.
In normal times there are no fairer people in the world than ACORN leaders. They will bend over backwards to make sure opposing views are heard. They go out of their way to try and understand the other point of view. To less experienced organizers this can be maddening when they want a black-and-white worldview, but in my time there it had been a saving grace. Unfortunately in these hard times when ACORN everywhere is in the bunker and under attack, it was probably easier for me, watching the film, to understand and appreciate the power and heartfelt passion – and real, true love for the organization – felt by the members themselves as they tried to make heads and tails, unsuccessfully as it turned out, of the whys and whatnots of their situation and how it had come apart. The national delegation probably didn’t really hear what was said though. They may have been simply checking an item off of their “to do” list with their minds set and their ears closed, just trying to make it through a long afternoon in the 9th ward of New Orleans.
But, organizers, real organizers anyway, would have been able to understand this situation dispassionately. The administrator and his team had turned out virtually no one for the hearing, while the local board was there in force and had turned out members. Rather than moving to healing, the hearing mobilized the local organization and its base as they jumped to sign new bank drafts for their dues so that they would support the local chapter and not the national organization, as they scratched their names off of the attendance list being pushed by national staff, and they posed for pictures with each other at the end of the hearing.
Whether it is Iraq, Vietnam, or New Orleans the home team has a huge advantage and can only be beaten by overwhelming troops, permanent commitments, and huge expenditures of resources and capacity. Once an organizer understands this fully, an organizer also understands why the only program is the ability not to convince the local leaders and members on the facts and the strength of sweet reason, many warnings, and due process. If none of those things are in evidence and the play is one of purported brute strength, then you really have to be prepared to deliver that as well.
An organizer could look at the highly controversial decision by SEIU to trustee old Local 250 in the Bay Area which was now called United Healthcare West. I agree with all of the tut-tut’s about how unfortunate all of this is and has been for the members and for everyone involved, but as an organizer, I am also crystal clear that former UHW President Sal Rosselli brought this all on himself. This was not a New Orleans ACORN sneak attack. This was a situation played out over years with ceaseless provocations, attempts to negotiate formally and behind the scenes, and finally an outside review done by former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall that still gave Rosselli a way out of this situation. Essentially, he would have had to learn to live with a local union of 80 or 90000 members rather than 120,000+ and concede the loss of his home health care membership. I’m sure there’s a long argument I can get from all sorts of people about how there were issues of principle involved and this and that, but that’s how leaders and their egos get into the game. For an organizer whose job one is protecting and advancing the organization, making a deal to retain a local of 80000+ members (which still would have been one of the 10 largest unions in the US labor movement I would wager) to fight another day and build more for the members would not have been that hard.
And, as controversial and ridiculous as all of this has been, SEIU and its leadership understood the problems of a home town advantage especially after having given the UHW dissidents years to prepare for the war they had declared, so when SEIU trusteed UHW they did so with overwhelming force, parachuting hundreds of organizers and members into the fight, spending precious resources unstintingly to win. None of that is over yet, but like it or not, as an organizer, I cannot argue that SEIU and its leaders did what was necessary on the front end and on the back end of that terrible situation.
ACORN seems to have not learned either the front end or the back end of the kind of public lessons that SEIU to its great embarrassment is giving all progressive forces for better or worse. In New Orleans they seem to be trying a simple power play without principle, purpose, people, or anything else and creating a situation where the local leaders and local organizers will surely pay the price, but ultimately prevail.
Most organizers would find themselves, as I did last night as I watched young goblins running up my street and turned the camera off and stopped watching the film, scratching their heads and wondering what could possibly be the point other than to damage ACORN itself.