SEIU Disavows ACORN, but Long History of Ties Won’t Go Away

SEIU logoNo organization likes bad publicity. And when allied organizations create it, disavowing ties to them becomes attractive. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has exercised that option – at least on the surface. On Wednesday, September 30, the union’s secretary-treasurer, Anna Burger, told a congressional panel that her organization no longer has a working relationship with the New Orleans-based nationwide nonprofit “anti-poverty” network ACORN, an acronym for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. ACORN, as almost everyone in this country with a pulse knows by now, has been the target of federal and state investigations into a wide range of criminal activity. A very embarrassing and widely-aired homemade undercover video hasn’t helped its case. Yet all the same, the union’s move looks like a case of bait and switch.

Ms. Anna Burger had appeared before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee. Though the issue at hand was pending consumer protection legislation, the testimony at one point touched upon the SEIU’s longstanding relationship with ACORN. And there was good reason. ACORN has become synonymous with corruption in the service of radical politics. The IRS, the Census Bureau and Bank of America each recently severed ties with the organization. Now, if more out of damage control than high principle, the SEIU has followed suit. The context of Ms. Burger’s announcement was a question directed to her by subcommittee member Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C.: “As of today the U.S. Census Bureau, the IRS, and even Bank of America have severed ties with ACORN and according to yesterday’s – actually the day before yesterday’s – report from the Chicago Sun-Times the SEIU has given ACORN $4 million. Could you clarify to me the extent of your financial and programmatic ties to ACORN?” Her response: “SEIU has also cut all ties to ACORN.”

On one level, Burger’s announcement is gratifying. It shows that even ACORN’s partners, however grudgingly, are responsive to public pressure over the group’s long trail of shady and often illegal behavior. ACORN members, including its leaders, have been implicated in documented cases of voter registration fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion and other felonies. In the case of voter registration fraud, low-ranking ACORN operatives in Missouri, Ohio and other states have pleaded guilty. But on another level, her announcement should induce a high degree of skepticism. If nothing else, Burger appears to have a fuzzy memory. When Congressman McHenry asked her for specifics about the termination of the partnership, she responded: “In Illinois, I believe that I’m correct, that the ACORN institution, the consumer protection, the community organization in Illinois cut its ties to ACORN two years ago and so in Illinois there was (sic) no ties in the last two years between any SEIU work and ACORN.” That’s something less than a full-throated disavowal. And her words sidestepped the issue of why ACORN and the SEIU have operated so closely, and for so long, in the first place.

The Service Employees International Union, unlike most of organized labor, has been growing rapidly. It represents more than 2 million employees – about 1.8 million full-fledged members, plus a few hundred thousand fee-paying nonunion workers who belong to an SEIU affiliate called “Purple Ocean.” Back in 1996, when current President Andrew Stern assumed the top spot, the figure was only roughly half that. In 1980, when John J. Sweeney took over, the figure was 625,000 (the late Richard Cordtz served several months as interim president after Sweeney left office to become AFL-CIO president in late 1995). This ramp-up is no accident. Stern’s philosophy – and he rarely hesitates to express it – is that numbers matter more than anything else. Pressure to create labor-friendly legislation or policies, he believes, is futile unless accompanied by a huge increase in the unionized work force. This conviction brought him in direct conflict with his former mentor Sweeney, culminating in a walkout by Stern and the leaders of several other unions (including the Teamsters and UNITE HERE) from the 2005 AFL-CIO convention in Chicago and the formation two months later of a rival labor federation, Change to Win.

But Stern’s grand gesture has proven largely pyrrhic. His “new” labor activism has incorporated various old-style union practices such as placing dissenting locals under headquarters-dictated trusteeships and cutting deals with employers to allow them to pay workers low wages and benefits in return for union recognition. That’s made him enemies within the SEIU, especially California health care leader Sal Rosselli. And UNITE HERE (the portion remaining in that union following co-leader Bruce Raynor’s departure) recently left Change to Win and re-affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Neither logic nor opposition, however, has deterred Stern from his goal of building a politicized army of unskilled public- and private-sector service workers. Boldly wearing SEIU team colors of purple, yellow and white at every opportunity, members would fit right in at a Minnesota Vikings home game.

And without stretching the metaphor too far, Stern likes playing smash-mouth NFL football. It was he and John Sweeney who in the mid-Eighties launched the union’s “Justice for Janitors” campaign that periodically inflicts itself on cities across America. You’ve probably encountered its foot soldiers at some point, screaming, chanting, and shaking noisemakers, all the while blocking sidewalks or streets. Their goal is capitulation by the targeted nonunion employer to recognize the SEIU as the sole bargaining representative, but without a federally-supervised election. The union also has spearheaded any number of “corporate campaigns.” These campaigns are coordinated attacks, often of a highly personal nature, against company management, board members, employees, shareholders or suppliers. Union activists typically bring in allied groups to employ disruptive tactics such as boycotts, leafleting, negative advertising, defamatory letters and frivolous lawsuits. For the last few years, for example, SEIU organizers have set up camp in Houston with the intent of destroying the brand name of a nonunion firm, Professional Janitorial Services (PJS). One top organizer recently admitted it was his desire “to kill” PJS.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. These are hallmark traits of ACORN activism. Street action in a variety of guises from below, central coordination from above – it’s the agitprop blueprint laid down decades ago by the late Saul Alinsky. And Anna Burger is a Stern loyalist. Not only is she his right-hand person at the SEIU, she also heads Change to Win and serves as an official with the Democracy Alliance, a project launched by Leftist multibillionaire financier George Soros and other assorted “partners.” Outside of Stern himself, there is nobody better qualified to explain the Service Employees’ ties to ACORN than her. At Rep. McHenry’s request, she supplied a few dollar figures. She stated that in 2008 SEIU paid $190,000 under the category of “Contributions” and in 2009 thus far has paid $25,000. Under the category of “Contracted Services,” the respective figures are $1.4 million and $220,000. But these figures barely scratch the surface. Official Labor Department filings show the SEIU spent about $9 million during 2005-08 on ACORN training programs and contracting services.

But it’s about organization, not just money. The SEIU during this decade hired ACORN founder and now-deposed chief organizer-CEO Wade Rathke to coordinate the union’s national organizing programs. Rathke some 30 years ago founded a union representing several thousand workers in Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas, which in the mid-Eighties affiliated with the SEIU to become its Local 100. A top Rathke lieutenant, Keith Kelleher, around 30 years ago founded SEIU Local 880, which in 1983 began using ACORN volunteers in organizing drives. The Chicago-based union, now representing more than 80,000 workers, recently merged with SEIUHealthCare Illinois Indiana (HCII). How close is Local 880/HCII to ACORN? It’s located on the floor immediately below ACORN Housing Corporation’s national headquarters and rents office space from an ACORN front group, Chicago Organizing and Support Center (COSC). It happens that COSC is registered at two separate addresses, one in Chicago at the same address as Local 880 and one in New Orleans at the same address as ACORN New Orleans. A report released this July by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., lead Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, cited COSC as a member of the ACORN Council.

There is more. In 2008, the Chicago-based SEIU Local 1, with more than 50,000 janitors and other property service workers in the Midwest under its wing, moved $78,000 to Houston ACORN. Local 880/SEIUHealthCare was especially active, in recent years transferring the following sums to ACORN-affiliated outfits: Chicago Organizing and Support Center ($248,000); Illinois ACORN ($60,000); Illinois ACORN WNB ($92,006); Citizens Consulting, Inc. ($191,820); Citizens Consulting Inc. Legal ($31,745); and ACORN Chief Organizer’s Fund ($5,894). And there’s the Wade Rathke-run SEIU Local 100. The union’s 2006 filing with the Labor Department, for example, reveals $5,670 paid to Citizens Consulting, Inc.; $71,899 in “gifts” to the Service Workers Action Team, a political action committee housed at ACORN’s New Orleans chapter office; and accounts payable totaling $138,516 to other Rathke-controlled entities.

This is a mere sample of how SEIU rank-and-file dues money has wound up in the coffers of ACORN and any number of its 360 fronts. The staggering complexity of the ACORN organizational structure is the result of a deliberate strategy of circumvention of tax, campaign finance and other laws made possible through friendly lawyers, accountants and politicians. The Chicago SEIU-ACORN connection played a key role in the Senate seat-for-hire scandal that brought down former Illinois Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich late last year. The SEIU was cited in the U.S. Attorney’s indictment of Blagojevich and his chief of staff John Harris, who, along with four other persons (including Blagojevich’s brother), were arrested in December.

Having an almost incomprehensibly complex structure has an added advantage of enabling ACORN’s top people to proclaim their innocence. The Capital Research Center’s Matt Vadum explains:

When affiliates get into trouble, ACORN can always try the plausible deniability defense. It’s always a rogue employee or a subsidiary acting without permission from the top, ACORN claims. Trying to get the goods on ACORN and affiliates turns into a game of political whack-a-mole. Titles change, people move around, money is transferred, and outsiders often give up investigating ACORN out of sheer frustration.

So when Anna Burger, renowned as the “queen of labor,” announces to a congressional panel that her union has ceased aiding ACORN, in all likelihood she’s truthful in letter but false in spirit. In theory, the SEIU could permanently cut off ACORN, and still give large sums of money to any one of its hundreds of affiliates who in turn transfer the funds back to ACORN. What Ms. Burger means is that her union has ceased direct aid to ACORN. Fully exposing the larger flow of funds will require enormous effort, especially in winning cooperation from internal whistle-blowers such as the ACORN 8, a group of persons headed by former national board members Marcel Reid and Karen Inman expelled by current ACORN chief Bertha Lewis for asking too many questions.

The Service Employees International Union is playing it safe for now. “We have suspended all contracts and active work with ACORN,” said union spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette, who added that the action is pending the results of an independent panel of inquiry. Guess what? SEIU President Andrew Stern is among the panelists. As probes of the furtive and corrupt ACORN continue, they are likely to provide the SEIU with more bad publicity than it ever bargained for.


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