ACORN’s Bottom-Up Democracy

ACORN International Organizing

            Sheffield           All of the branches of ACORN in the United Kingdom have an annual general meeting in October.  By chance, both ACORN India’s Dharmendra Kumar and I were in Sheffield and were invited to the AGM and jumped at the chance to see a local in action.  By total coincidence, this would be the third Sheffield meeting I had attended over the years, so I was excited about the opportunity.

In the UK, ACORN’s 7500 dues-paying member families are organized into about fifteen branches in England and Wales and more than thirty local groups.  A branch is formed at the point a local group has over one-hundred members.  The Sheffield branch has an impressive resume and notable history.  Our aggressive tenant organizing and landlord struggles over evictions had prompted a retaliation SLAPP suit by one of them, which cost us more than one-hundred pounds to finally settle and make go away.  We had launched a lively campaign to try and force the council to take the bus service public again in order to lower costs and improve service, which had scored several victories, even while failing to make it public before the pandemic ended that effort.  The branch had produced Rohan Kon, the dynamic president of the organization, who led ACORN through its first national conference during her term.

We had been warned to keep our expectations restrained.  The branch was still rebuilding after the pandemic and some leadership and staff transitions over the last year, so organizers were unsure of the numbers.  No matter, twenty members came out in foreboding cold and wet weather on a Halloween night, ready to do their duty.  Looking at the agenda, their responsibilities were real, because this was the meeting where they would vote for the coming year’s officers and, perhaps more importantly, hear and debate, the priority issue campaign for 2024.  The chair opened with brief remarks about the crisis being faced by the working class of Sheffield both at home and work, and then went straight ahead to the elections.  Each of the candidates for chair, secretary (who represents the branch in regional and national meetings), treasurer, membership, and communications officers gave brief remarks about their commitment to do the job, serve the members, and carry on until replaced.  There are candidates running for president in the US who present themselves less sincerely and seriously than any of these Sheffield members standing for office in the branch!  The dedication and commitment to purpose was inspiring and moving.  Each member raised a red card to vote, and we had our team for 2024.

Then onto the campaigns.  Three were on offer.  One was council or public housing repair, another was a return to the bus campaign to finish the job, and the last was called “tax the rich,” modeled on a victory nearby where the Leeds ACORN branch had won a more aggressive council or property tax assessment on second homes, garnering three million pounds that they now had a voice in appropriating.  After members and staff presented the outline of each campaign, all the members seated at each individual table debated and discussed the issue, and then after a period of time, they each reported on their views, pro and con.  After the debating and reports concluded, the chair called for a vote on each issue, one by one.  The bus campaign got no support, with the consensus being it should wait for another year to ripen.  Council repairs got a good vote, but taxing the rich was the winner with the caveat that a lot more research needed to be done on the number and value of second homes, the revenue it might generate, and how ACORN would shape its demands for its use.

The last item on the agenda I would bet is a standard feature of all branch meetings throughout England, regardless of whether it was the AGM, and that was member defense.  The secretary reported on three active cases where tenants were being abused either with unfinished repairs, neglect, or harassment.  He laid out potential actions including a jaunt to the home of one particularly well-to-do landlord living elsewhere in Yorkshire.  He brought enthusiasm to the call, while asking for participation by the members once dates were settled for the coming month.  He warned there were other cases also in the queue. The meeting ended right on time, perhaps even ten minutes early, as the members milled around, talked to each other, and in some cases, headed for the pub to cap off a job well done.

For the members, this was routine, but for me, it was invigorating to watch ACORN membership democracy in action.  There was no artifice here.  I’ve been to weddings where people made their vows with less seriousness than these members brought to their candidacies and their vote on their future campaigns.  All ACORN organizers, from me to the greenest new recruit, have had to pushback at wisecracks from the cheap seats and armchair and couch sitters about whether ACORN is really member-run and member-led, and whether our claims of a democratic process from the bottom up of our membership is baloney or brass.  If the meeting had been filmed, people wouldn’t believe it and would try to spin it as staged.  All I, or anyone, can say, is “you should have been there” when ACORN members in Sheffield, like ACORN members everywhere around the world, did their business with grace, solidarity, and intelligence and put grassroots democracy in practice, just as they do at hundreds and thousands of meetings every year, as they build their organization to fight and win on their issues.