Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Problem with ACORN

Serwer notes that a Pennsylvania county is charging ACORN workers with submitting falsified voter registration forms.

The conservative talking points about ACORN subverting our democracy are totally absurd. Falsified voter registration forms mean nothing because no one can actually vote based upon them. But ACORN does have serious problems. Serwer gets toward the major problem when he says "ACORN workers stealing time by filling out fraudulent forms is not evidence of a vast criminal conspiracy to tip election results, it's mostly evidence that ACORN doesn't do a very good job of vetting or controlling its employees."

But that's not all of it. The problem with ACORN is their organizing model. They employ people to work really long hours with low wages to fulfill quotas in whatever task they are assigned, often voter registration. Most of the time, ACORN workers don't have a chance to move up in the organization, play a role in decision making processes, or feel like they are part of a larger movement. They have extremely high turnover because the job basically sucks.

Other major progressive organizations such as PIRG use a similar model to the same shaky results. In PIRG's case, there isn't anything like falsified records, but it does burn out young idealistic people on organizing, giving them no chance to advance, or any sense that they are contributing to a larger project. In fact, PIRG reminds me of a cult in the sense that they are collecting money and sending it on to a larger organization who may or may not be spending it wisely. Even labor unions do this to some extent--there is no weaker labor union in the AFL-CIO than the union the organizers have (which I can't remember the name of now). Labor organizers are, again, often young people who are forced to work very long hours for minimal compensation. Turnover is rapid here too. But when people burn out working for ACORN, PIRG, or labor, there are always more 19 year olds on college campuses to take their places.

What's disturbing is that what all these volunteers show is a clear desire to make a difference. The question then is how to harvest all of those volunteers and all of that energy and channel it to something positive that keeps them engaged for a long period of time. The Obama campaign showed us that it can be done. Now, if only we could develop organizational models that could build upon this.