April 14, 2017
Wade Rathke 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. After beginning with 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.
Rathke also was the founder 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.
Rathke is also the Chair of the Organizers’ Forum, which brings together labor and community organizers. 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.
Rathke is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Social Policy, a quarterly magazine for scholars and activists. He also writes regularly for the New Labor Forum as well as other essays, books and publications on social justice, policy and workers rights.
Up In Your Business is a Radio Show by FlagandBanner.com
[0:00:03.2] TB: Welcome to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy. Be sure to stay tuned till the end of the show to hear how you can get a copy of this program and other helpful documents.
Now, it's time for Kerry McCoy to get all up in your business.
[0:00:17.9] KM: I’m Kerry McCoy and it’s time for me to get all up in your business. By that I mean to say share my business knowledge and wisdom with you, our listener. For the next hour, my guest, a fellow entrepreneur and a community activist will be discussing how we maneuvered the path of leadership and entrepreneurship in pursuit of our dreams.
Now, you may be asking yourself, “What qualifies this lady to do this?” The answer is easy; experience. I started my company, Arkansas Flag & Banner over 40 years ago. During the last four decades, Arkansas Flag & Banner has grown and morphed from door-to-door sales, to telemarketing, to mail order and catalog sales and now relies heavily on the internet. Each change in sales strategy required a change in company thinking and procedures. My wisdom, confidence and my company grew. My initial $400 investment now produces nearly four million in annual sales.
In this next hour you will hear a candid conversation about real world experiences of determination and luck on topics I hope you’ll find interesting. Be prepared to hear our truth. It’s not always easy to hear. For example, with success comes the burden of responsibility. Not just to yourself, but to others too. Also, there are very few overnight successes. Starting and owning a business takes persistence, perseverance and patience. I worked part time jobs for nine years before Arkansas Flag & Banner grew enough to support just me. It’s now grown and expanded so much that to operate efficiently we require — Are you ready? A purchasing, manufacturing, graphic, shipping, technology, accounting, marketing, sales and customer service department, plus a retail store. 25 people make their living from working at Arkansas Flag & Banner.
I am super excited and pleased to have my guest today, Wade Rathke, a community and labor activist who, in 1970, founded the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known as ACORN, the largest organization of lower income and working families in the United States. 10 years following the launch of ACORN in 1980, he also founded the Service Employees International Union that helps organize and give voice to public workers, school employees, head start, healthcare workers, hospitality, janitorial and other low wage workers in the private sector.
In 2008, Wade resigned as ACORN’s chief organizer, but he continues working and organizing their international arm. ACORN International has offices in 11 countries some of which are Peru, Canada, India, Kenya and Italy. He is the publisher and editor of Social Policy, a quarterly magazine for scholars and activists and has published three books.
Currently, when not traveling, he lives in New Orleans where he owns the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, a limited liability corporation. This social venture business experiment is donating profits and available gross revenues to the developing countries from where his coffee beans are grown. The beans are then imported directly to the Port of New Orleans and roaster locally. Thus, benefiting community jobs and union workers. This is the continuation of a calling he has had all his life.
Welcome to the table, superstar, activist, socially conscious, Wade Rathke.
[0:03:43.7] WR: Kerry, I’m so glad to be here, because I also act as station manager of KABF and your show has just been a hit for us. Everybody is so proud of the work y’all do.
[0:03:55.9] KM: Really?
[0:03:56.7] WR: Oh, yeah!
[0:03:57.8] KM: Thank you so much. You have a show.
[0:04:00.6] WR: Yeah, my show is every Friday morning.
[0:04:03.2] KM: And it’s called Wade’s World?
[0:04:04.3] WR: Wade’s World.
[0:04:05.6] KM: What is its premise?
[0:04:06.8] WR: We interview the most interesting people in the world.
[0:04:08.9] KM: Why have I not been on?
[0:04:10.4] WR: Probably because I just hadn’t scheduled you yet. Tim, what’s the right answer here?
[0:04:15.7] TB: You just gave it.
[0:04:16.4] WR: Yeah, good. Good! Good! I know somebody sent me an email and said, “Remember that you’re on so and so and so and so.” If I just had some help, I could have — I’m lucky to have a guest sometimes on Fridays [inaudible 0:04:29.0].
[0:04:29.3] KM: You do it on New Orleans, I guess, be I know you don’t live here.
[0:04:32.2] WR: I don’t live here. When I’m here, I try to do a live show, and then the miracles of modern technology. I have a little recorder I take with me and record people wherever I am and then I Dropbox it in and Russell Carpenter here puts it on the A/V and, boom, there it is.
[0:04:51.7] KM: Do you have a secretary or an assistant? How do you do so much?
[0:04:56.6] WR: The key thing in terms of particularly international work is it wouldn’t be possible without things like Skype, which is a free phone call system, email, which means that you can communicate very quickly with people. The fact that English has become lingua franca in the world now, so there are many people who know English even in India. India obviously, English is a secondary language, but Kenya is also. My organizers in Italy and France all speak English. For me, who’s trying to barely get through on English, that makes a big difference. You have to be well-organized.
[0:05:38.3] KM: You didn’t even graduate from college, did you?
[0:05:40.4] WR: I left running.
[0:05:42.1] KM: Yeah. You know, I didn’t graduate from college either. Do you think you can do that today?
[0:05:45.9] WR: I think they try to claim if you want to create a tech startup, want to be Mark Zuckerberg or something that finishing school is a liability. I don’t know. I was in school at a time where the world was changing in the middle-late-60s and you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution, and by God I thought the world was changing. If I didn’t get out and do my part, what was going to happen? It turned out it was a marathon, not a sprint. Once I had dropped out of school the second time to organize, it turned out this is something I could do. I found my calling and I didn’t need to go back to school.
[0:06:27.9] KM: That brings me to my first question. You’re born in Leramie, Wyoming.
[0:06:30.7] WR: Leramie, Wyoming.
[0:06:32.4] KM: You grew up in New Orleans.
[0:06:34.2] WR: I went to high school in New Orleans and never going back. I was raised in the west. That was too flat and too hot for me, and then in 1978 I moved to our national office from Little Rock to New Orleans just because we were expanding so much in the U.S. You couldn’t catch a plane in Little Rock without going to Memphis or Dallas, so we had to go somewhere and ended up in New Orleans.
[0:07:01.9] KM: Then you were schooled in Massachusetts.
[0:07:04.7] WR: Briefly, I went to — I did two years off and on school in Massachusetts, Williams College.
[0:07:10.0] KM: Then you came somehow to Little Rock and founded ACORN in 1970. What could have led you to Little Rock?
[0:07:19.5] WR: June 18th, 1970. I had been working in Massachusetts, organizing welfare recipients who were trying to achieve their rights and against the stigma of being on welfare in the late 1960s. The National Welfare Rights Organization was headed by a guy named George Alvin Wiley. He was a Ph.D. in physics. He’d been a professor at the University of Syracuse.
He left to be part of the Civil Rights Movement. He’s deputy director of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality and he’s founded around 1966 National Welfare Rights Organization. The long story is they’re trying to win adequate income and he had raised money in New York for what he called a Southern Strategy, because the two congressional people that were key to increasing welfare benefits were Russell Long, who is a senator in Louisiana at that time, and Wilbur Mills in the second congressional district of Arkansas.
[0:08:19.8] KM: Little Rock, Arkansas. Yeah.
[0:08:21.4] WR: Right. He knew I’d spent time in the south. He was speaking — I was running Massachusetts Welfare Rights at the time and he was speaking at Harvard and I saw him about 20 feet behind. It was a very bitterly cold night and he was talking to a woman who’s my X-wife and I asked her later, “What was George — Would you like to go back south?” Because she was a New Orleans girl. “You don’t want to live in Massachusetts, do you?”
Once I found out what he was talking about, he was trapped. He raised his money for a southern strategy and he didn’t have anybody who is willing to go to the south. I wanted to try this thing that it was in my mind called ACORN given the experience I had. I wanted to broaden it from welfare recipients to a larger organization of low and moderate income families.
I talked to people in Georgia. They weren’t as interested. I looked at California, it didn’t make sense. I talked to people in Arkansas and they were enthusiastic about this idea of ACORN. I told George, “Yeah, I’ll go do this thing.”
June 18th, 1970, I showed up to satisfy their commitment to do something in the south and with George’s blessing and the leadership’s blessing at the time to try this multi-issues, multi-constituency organization ACORN.
[0:09:45.4] KM: I don’t think anybody realizes that ACORN was born in Little Rock, Arkansas.
[0:09:49.5] WR: Well, it’s not something we’re holding secret, but they may not put her down the Chamber of Commerce news.
[0:09:54.5] KM: They should. There should be actually a bust of you with a plaque talking about Arkansas and ACORN and what a great thing it is. It is the largest organization or lower income and working families in the United States. Is it still?
[0:10:08.7] WR: It isn’t still in the United States, because of the sort of Breitbart news and other attacks in 2009, 2010 after I left.
[0:10:19.8] KM: We need to talk about those after the break. That’s going to be a good story, I bet.
[0:10:22.8] WR: Well, I don’t know if it’s a good story, but we’ll talk about whatever you want to talk about, Kerry. That’s [inaudible 0:10:27.8] show.
[0:10:28.8] KM: Was Association for Community Organization for Reform Now ACORN’s original name?
[0:10:34.5] WR: Flying out of Little Rock, the first time I ever came to visit, and I’ve never been here even though I’d lived in New Orleans. I started scribbling on a back of an envelope what possible names could be. I was looking for something that was a good acronym and something that people could draw, and came up with ACORN. Originally, it was Arkansas Community Organizations Reform Now, and then in 1975, when we expanded out, we just slipped that association on and away you go.
[0:10:59.7] KM: I’ve heard that. The A originally was for Arkansas.
[0:11:01.8] WR: Absolutely.
[0:11:02.6] KM: That should be on your plaque under your bust in your story.
[0:11:05.8] WR: I’d need to think in Little Rock where they would put that bust.
[0:11:08.9] KM: I think we should put it in the parking lot of Dreamland Ballroom when we get Dreamland.
[0:11:12.1] WR: There you go. You better put a fence around it because it could get rough around there. There’s still people in Little Rock and around that see me just as a dangerous person.
[0:11:20.4] KM: I don’t believe that.
[0:11:21.3] WR: We’ll talk to Brother Glen Beck or some of the — Bill O’Reilly or some of the bright [inaudible 0:11:25.6].
[0:11:26.0] KM: I don’t think Bill O’Reilly is going to be on the air anymore.
[0:11:28.6] WR: Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?
[0:11:30.2] KM: I don’t know. I have no opinion. This is a great time to take a break.
I’ve lived in Little Rock all my life and only recently learned ACORN was founded in Arkansas. I want to make sure everybody realizes that, and that the A in ACORN used to be for Arkansas.
[0:12:00.0] WR: For many years.
[0:12:00.8] KM: Were your parents service oriented, or where does your social justice ambition stem from?
[0:12:06.8] WR: My mother was from Drew, Mississippi. My father was from Orange County, California. They met during the war and the way that so many people — They weren’t that socially conscious, but the times that I was raised in, particularly it was in the era, the Civil Rights Movement, concerned about Vietnam and things like that. You had to make decisions in your life in the middle of 1960s that you weren’t necessarily prepared to make.
[0:12:35.5] KM: You went from Leramie, Wyoming, to Mississippi, to New Orleans, to Massachusetts?
[0:12:39.6] WR: I went from Leramie; to Wilson Creek, Colorado; to Rangel, Colorado; to Irvine, Kentucky; to New Orleans, and then I went to Massachusetts.
[0:12:50.4] KM: Was your father in the service?
[0:12:52.2] WR: No. He worked for an oil company.
[0:12:54.5] KM: How old were you when you became an activist?
[0:12:58.3] WR: I first dropped out of school to organize against the war when I was 19 and went back to school for one semester and then dropped out to organize with Welfare Rights when I was 20, and then I was 21 when I started ACORN.
[0:13:15.3] KM: That’s very young.
[0:13:17.4] WR: When you’re that age, you think you know everything. It’s only as you get older and you realize, “Oh! My God! I didn’t know a damn thing,” and here I was. Yeah, we really thought we knew something at 21 back in the 1960s.
[0:13:32.3] KM: I think you’re idealistic. Why do you think ACORN was so successful?
[0:13:36.2] WR: I think we had a very disciplined organizing model that was easy to replicate in a lot of places in the county. The fact that it was based on membership who paid dues, like a labor union and the community, if you will, was very important. I think what we were trying to do attracted fantastic leaders and organizing staff. People wanted to build a mass organization that stood up and stood with — And had created a platform for a lot of [inaudible 0:14:12.3] income people to find their voice.
[0:14:15.7] KM: I think it kind of was the time also.
[0:14:18.9] WR: There’s no question.
[0:14:20.1] KM: Because I think people are leery or institutions today, suspect of them.
[0:14:27.9] WR: We were building something new. I think, in a funny way, you’d like to believe that this particular moment right now, in 2017, you can’t tell where this might all lead to. It’s not a movement. In the 60s, there was a real sense of movement and I think ACORN benefited from that sort of sense that more things were possible. This is a time where a lot of people don’t think that much is possible, but we’ve seen since the election last year is certainly something different. There’s a movement. There’s a level of activism. People I see and hear from around the country, if they’re looking for a hundred people, all of a sudden 300 people will be there. If they’re looking for 300, 500 — There’s people really looking to participate in a different level. Whether or not there are organizational formations and people respond to that now, I don’t know, Kerry, but it does seem like an opportunity to me.
[0:15:28.9] KM: Yeah. I think people, maybe the grassroots way is a way to start again, because I think there’s a diminishing trust in institutions. Maybe why ACORN failed in 2010 that we were talking about, because ACORN had an excellent record for decades and did enormous amounts of good work and goodwill for lots of people. I know it had to be disheartening. It was your brainchild and it faltered in 2008. Did it make you want to quit on being socially active, or did it give you more resolve to work harder?
[0:16:02.6] WR: More the former. I’m a kind of person who goes to work every day. This is difficult work and there’s no shortcuts than doing the work every day. I had left my work at ACORN in the U.S. sort of determined to do more on the international level as well the other project I was involved in. Once you leave an organization, as I did as chief organizer of ACORN, you really can’t do much even when they’re under attack. You can’t jump back in. You can’t sort of whisper from the back. You’d got to hope for the best.
[0:16:43.0] KM: Why can’t you?
[0:16:44.5] WR: Because leadership in ACORN had a governing board that was elected. I had a lot of confidence in leadership. They had made some decisions around staff management, many of whom had worked for me 20, 30 years. I had a lot of confidence in them. At the same time, I think they got caught by a perfect storm and in some ways once they were wrong footed in that storm, it was a level of attack. A lot of the people I think was disoriented for them. A lot of our friends and allies ended up not standing with them, whether in congress or in financial and business sectors. A lot of the agreements we had with banks and others, because they were caught in their own problems and the bail out.
[0:17:39.7] KM: It was exactly when the banking —
[0:17:41.7] WR: Yeah. It was just sort of — You couldn’t have asked for a worst confluence of events. I just think building an organization is always a fragile and tenuous kind of enterprise, but in the ACORN situation where you had an aggressive direction action mass organization, it was never going to rank high on everybody’s popularity poll. God love you for the nice things you’ve said already, Kerry.
We weren’t going to win a contest or we would have been right there in the Trump popularity polls, 30% and 40% perhaps accept in our constituency where ACORN is still a golden name. If I go into neighborhoods where we organized anywhere in the last 45, 50 years, it’s welcome and hello and hugs and kisses and when are we going to start again?
I just think once they’d gotten a couple of bad hits, they just couldn’t get up fast enough. Then as some of the money became more difficult for them to manage, I’m not saying it was the same decision I would have made. I would have been foolish enough. I’m old school. There used to have a rule in unions, rule of seven. As long as there were seven, because when the union is on strike and you got beaten, there’s go the union. There is a rule in the many union constitutions that the rule of seven, as long as there were seven member still ready to pay dues and say there was a union, then you had a union and you could come back. I’m just more of that old school.
I’ve often said if I’d still been running ACORN when it went through the attack in 2009 and 10 I’d probably be the last person collecting the last $10 a month dues. Would it have been different? I don’t know, but the important thing is that you have to keep working for change. You have to keep trying to organize. You have to keep going to work every day. You know that as a small business.
[0:19:35.1] KM: How do you stay optimistic? I do find sometimes that stuff after the 2008 banking crisis and the fall of ACORN that sometimes I do get a little listless and kind of think, “What’s it all about?” How do you stay motivated to keep striving for change?
[0:19:48.6] WR: I think the important thing people often used to ask me, “Well, what do I get from my dues?” You get the opportunity to work together with other people and the opportunity to fight. You have the chance to fight for change. There’s no guarantee you’re going to win. In fact, the whole notion of fighting for social change is you’re going to lose more than you win.
I was either foolish or lucky enough to always believe the odds were against us, not for us. The first years in Arkansas or the first organizing committee we ever put together and Pine Bluff was broken up by the clan.
[0:20:24.2] KM: What?
[0:20:25.4] WR: Boyce, Alfred was a legislator down in Pine Bluff. Used to go in a legislature in the early 70s, demanding a resolution to be passed that we had to deliver our membership list to him. None of that was constitutionally legal, but it was all red-baiting and the communist scourge. There were all in the early 70s, wild and foaming at the mouth and that’s just the way these things are. I just had a different perspective. Part of conflict is what comes with building an organization like in ACORN, not like a radio station or not like a coffee house, but certainly within ACORN, you know that you’re in for a hard slog.
[0:21:10.9] KM: And you don’t mind. Now you’re work internationally. Can you tell us about that and how many days you’re out of the states?
[0:21:16.2] WR: I travel about half time, whether it’s here or abroad. That’s been the way it’s been for me since 1975 so it’s not something I don’t know how to do. It’s not my first rodeo so to speak.
Internationally, there are two kinds of programs we’re involved with. One is we work in mega slums. Part of what I wanted to do more of when I left ACORN U.S. was organize in the poorest communities. San Juan de Lurigancho outside of Lima, La Mantanza outside of Buenos Aires, the [inaudible 0:21:51.2] out of Mexico City. These are the largest — Korogocho and other slums outside — In Nairobi, Dharavi in Mumbai, in India. These are among the top 10 largest slums in the world.
[0:22:07.2] KM: What do you do for them?
[0:22:08.8] WR: We don’t do anything for anybody. We organize membership organizations.
[0:22:13.4] KM: Then you become a voice, because you’re a big membership?
[0:22:15.4] WR: Right. Not a voice. More of an active presence demanding change.
[0:22:21.7] KM: You go to lobby for them. You go to — You use that money that you drew [inaudible 0:22:28.6] as a membership to go and spend it with politicians.
[0:22:35.7] WR: No. We don’t spend it with politicians. Just spend it in the organizing process, which is communication with members, hiring and training organizers, getting transportation for people to go to action, buses, or whatever it is. What people do with the organizations is identify issues that have been longstanding grievances.
[0:22:55.1] KM: Then they show up for a march where they think their political figured are going to be?
[0:22:57.5] WR: Some marches, some rallies. Sometimes we can get political and corporate figures to come look at the issues we’re talking about. Mumbai is an interesting situation. We work in Dharavi. We have a variety of programs from very direct action to a thing called Dharavi Rocks, which is a rock band of young people who live in the Dharavi slum who it’s largely percussion instruments all in recycled materials. They’ve been invited to perform all over India and get a huge amount of publicity.
[0:23:32.8] KM: What are they trying to change?
[0:23:35.9] WR: Dharavi is — Mumbai is an 18, 20 million mega center of a city and Dharavi is under a huge pressure because it’s a slum of close to a million people. It’s right in the middle of Mumbai. If I’m standing at our recycling center, where we organize waste pickers, if I’m standing there, I’m looking at giant high-rises or luxury apartments that are being built sort of out of the mangrove swamp all around there.
What Dharavi is a slum where people both work and live. You have the recycling industry and tanning industries and other things and you have people living right next to it. The problem is there’s huge developmental pressure. One of the things that we’ve had to fight for along with many others, not ACORN itself by any means, is delaying the relocation of people, because Mumbai, they call it the Bombei Municipal Corporation, wants to allow development of high-rises in that slum.
[0:24:49.3] KM: Then the people are displaced?
[0:24:51.1] WR: Exactly. It’s worst problem than that, Kerry, because it’s one thing to move people 15 miles out to the suburbs, but here they’re living where they’re working. Even if they’re out here, you can’t necessarily relocate their work. It’s been one of those things where even Prince Charles when he visited Dharavi said, “This is sort of the ideal sustainable community, because you’re living and working even though it’s obviously a very desperately poor slum. That’s been part of the problem is how to allow people to continue to have workspace and living space that’s decent and affordable to be able to maintain livelihood.
[0:25:33.7] KM: How do you pick and choose of all the things that are wrong all over the world? How do you pick and choose which ones? Do you have somebody where you have a connection with somebody or a conversation a somebody and they say, “You come here,” kind of like you did when you came to Arkansas.” You have somebody who’s got funds already and needs somebody to organize there and that’s how you pick and choose where you go or how do you decide? Everywhere has got problems.
[0:25:55.1] WR: Everywhere does have problems and there’s only so many resources and there’s only so much time in a day. You can’t — The tragedy is you can’t be everywhere you need to be and want to be. We never are able to grow as fast as we’d like to grow. We’re in about 18 countries now, but one that has to do first-world countries, like Italy, or France, or U.K. There, we just train organizers. We don’t have to raise the resources. Where it has to do with India or Honduras or Kenya, we have to raise the resources to be able to support the organizers and support the work. That’s a harder slog, because a lot of people don’t care about what happens in some slum in Nairobi or some slum in Mumbai.
[0:26:40.9] KM: Right.
[0:26:41.6] WR: That’s part of why we created a social enterprise, the coffeehouse as you mentioned earlier, Kerry, 5% of their gross goes to ACORN International, support those organizers in India and Kenya and Latin America.
[0:26:57.4] KM: Oh! I’m starting to see the connection.
[0:26:59.0] WR: Yeah. It’s all organically connected.
[0:27:02.8] KM: You’re super busy during the 70s and 80s. You started this radio station. Why did you start a radio station? The voice of the people.
[0:27:10.8] WR: Very simple we tried to win lifeline utility rates in 1976.
[0:27:15.7] KM: What does that mean?
[0:27:16.9] WR: We had a proposal, the inflation was high at that time both Arkla gas and APNL at that time were raising their rates through the roof, and we proposed lifeline rates which should mean a fixed amount of money for the first 400 kilowatts of electricity used so that senior citizens and low-income families had a fixed cost could at least be sure they could have lights as a necessity.
We put it on the ballot. It was amazing at the end of the campaign, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to beat us, which was part of our come back to it. We ended up winning that election handily. We didn’t lost in court, because it turned out there were 13 or so customers were part of the first Arkansas Electric Cooperative that we’re able to go to court. Hillary Clinton was one of their lawyers represented them.
[0:28:14.1] KM: Hillary.
[0:28:15.8] WR: Well, she was a young rookie lawyer with the Rose Firm. She was just there for the ride. Regardless, it impressed on me that we didn’t have the resources to contend on an election like that with media. There was a guy trying to build a non-commercial station in Dallas who we were working with somewhat with our Dallas office named Lorenzo Milam who sort of I later came to know as the godfather of commercial radio. I went down. Our staff in Dallas wanted me to meet with him. I met with him. He wanted us to help run his Dallas station. We ended up taking that over the years.
One thing led to another. He said, “Okay, look. You have an office in Tampa. There’s about to lose their license in Tampa. If you could find this guy in Tampa, you could do it.” I said, “How about Little Rock?” He said, “I’ll have the engineer look.” He found there was a frequency here in Little Rock, it’s 100,000 watts. We applied for this in 1978 and then it took us quite a while to get on the air, because the station at UALR didn’t realize there was 100,000 watt frequency.
[0:29:27.6] KM: Available.
[0:29:28.4] WR: Available, and only 12 of them in the country for non-commercials. They pitched a snit and delayed it with the FCC hoping they could convince the FCC they should have the 100 — 35 years later, so I have no hard feeling, but the long and short of it is we’d finally got on the air 32 years ago with 100,000 watt station. We did build the station in Tampa and in Dallas and now we’re putting a small station on the air in New Orleans. It’d be [inaudible 0:29:57.1] June 1st. Yeah.
[0:29:58.3] KM: Boy! Great. Congratulations.
[0:30:00.9] WR: We founded the United Labor Unions in 1980 and it had 5 locals. It came right out of the experience of ACORN members. We used to tell them, “Hey, If you have this problem with a job, contact so and so union. The hotel worker, contact the Hotel Workers Union,” or whatever. We were naïve community organizations. We didn’t realize a lot of the major unions didn’t have organizing departments in the mid-late-1970s.
Finally, when our members kept raising it, fools go where wise men and women fear to tread. We said, “We’ll just organize these unorganized workers ourselves.” Homecare workers we kept finding in Boston and Chicago, small shops in Detroit and hospitality workers in New Orleans. We organized locals and those five cities.
We quickly learned through ’80 and ’84 we’re caught in some battles that were bigger than we can handle with ACORN support. At that point we affiliated all the five locals that we’d organized with the service employees. For 25 years our local, like the one in New Orleans I’ve worked with, Local 100, was part of the service employees.
[0:31:17.8] KM: Is it still around?
[0:31:18.7] WR: Yeah, but in 2009 we went back to being Local 100 United Labor Unions.
[0:31:24.5] KM: Tim, didn’t you say you worked for them?
[0:31:25.7] TB: I worked for SCIU. I did.
[0:31:28.0] WR: Yeah. SCIU is a great union. I was on the international board for eight years. When ACORN started having its time of trouble in 2009 with James O’Keefe and we have Jyles the secretary of treasure happened as the first videos came out to be testifying to a congressional committee, Anna Berger, and she was asked by somebody, “Do you have any connection with ACORN?” For some reason sister Anna just wasn’t thinking and said, “No. Not at all.” Of course I was at the board and we did four or five million dollars’ worth of contracting, organizing campaigns for SCIU.
[0:32:13.8] KM: It looked like she was covering something up.
[0:32:15.6] WR: No. I was in Toronto at that time and I got a call from the secretary treasurer — I mean from the vice president saying, “We’ve been talking for a long time. We know we owe Local 100 money and your local is sort of multistate and it’s not just in one jurisdiction. You work in SCIU. They like all healthcare, all these.” We were all everything, because at the time we started in the 80s we were all there was.
You know what? We’ve decided, the officers, “Let’s just go back to being independent. We’re going to let you have all your members, all your contracts. We’ll just call it even Steven.” I said, “Look. I’ve been busy a long time, so I know you could have tried trusting me. I know you could have tried to merge me. I think it’s a pretty good deal being independent again. I’m happy as I can be. Yeah, send me the letter. I won’t complain to President Stern. That’s my boy!” We were delighted to go back to being independent.
[0:33:18.0] KM: Oh! Good. I think this is a great time to take a break. When we come back, I want to ask Wade about his quarterly magazine, Social Policy, and I want to talk to him about what he thinks the biggest issue that’s facing American workers today.
You’re listening to Up In Your Business with Kerry McCoy. I’m speaking today with Wade Rathke, a community in labor activist who started ACORN and is currently working in the international arm of ACORN. He also writes a quarterly magazine, Social Policy, and I want to know what the mission and why you started this magazine.
[0:34:05.7] WR: Social Policy is a quarterly journal that, thank God, I don’t have to write at all. I just have to edit and make sure it comes out on time every quarter. The journal has actually been going 47 years. We just put out 47 number one.
[0:34:22.3] KM: You didn’t start it.
[0:34:23.8] WR: No, we didn’t. We took it over maybe 12 or 13 years ago and it’s one of those things where it was — You know how this works, Kerry. It was just an opportunity that we were smart enough to be in the right place and catch the ball as it came into our hands without fumbling it. A colleague, community organizer in the west coast had somehow ended up taking it over from one of the founders, and I never quite understood how that evolved. He’d gotten into a situation where he wasn’t keeping up with the finances. He calls me and says, “I need to talk to you.” I was in Japan. I said, “Look. I’m flying right through SFO and way back home. I’m glad to meet you and have a cup of coffee.” This turned out, first he wanted us to see if we could straighten out the finances for him. He hadn’t built anybody for a year. He hadn’t put out issues. It was a hot mess.
I was familiar with social policy. I’d read it from time to time and knew the history and so we said, “Sure,” and then took it over and then one thing led to another. We got it back on schedule. It wasn’t too long before my friend Mike Miller said, “Why don’t you make me just a contributing editor and y’all take the whole thing over?” We were glad to do it. It’s been a great journal. I’ve had a good — Once you cleaned all the mess up, it had a great business model.
[0:35:54.1] KM: You get to talk about what your passionate about.
[0:35:58.3] WR: We get to have people right about it’s got — It’s in libraries all over the world. We have a large academic readership. We have a lot of activists and obviously organizers who read it. It’s a way that people kind of look at policy questions, organizing trends, where unions are going.
[0:36:17.9] KM: And how to organize? Does it kind of help you learn how to organize something? Because how you would go about starting a movement today?
0:36:23.7 WR: Social policy can’t tell you how to do that. It can tell you why you should or what might happen to you, but to actually look at starting an organization, you need to talk to people and work with people who are doing the work itself.
[0:36:38.4] KM: In your local community?
[0:36:40.5] WR: Yeah. We end up training a lot of people around the world who want to organize and that’s how we build organizations, is people who tried this, that and the other and come to us and say, “Okay. We’re in Bristol, England and here are the issues and we’ve tried X, Y and Z. Could you work with us to help build an ACORN here in Bristol? That could make a difference.”
[0:37:04.5] KM: Are you still open to suggestions on new idea?
[0:37:07.7] WR: Every day. One of the exciting things about doing the work I do is you literally learn something every day. That’s meeting new people. If you don’t — If you’re not growing, you’re dying. If you’re not adopting to new technology and new ways of doing things, you’re not able to build an organization.
[0:37:31.4] KM: Getting ready for this show I was like, “You know, they’re doing this show every week.” It kind of take some work.
[0:37:38.6] WR: My interview show, people call me, I said, “52 weeks a year. I can fit you in sometime.”
[0:37:44.0] KM: Yeah. You’re like you have to do your homework. It’s kind of like going to college. You’re like, “Oh! I’ve got Wade on. I’ve got to go do research and learn about Wade.” Every time I put it off and then when I do it and the show comes I am so happy to do the show, because I learn so much. I did not know ACORN was founded in Arkansas. I did not know anything about you until I read about it and I’m so inspired.
[0:38:06.5] WR: I am a well-kept secret, and if you didn’t have such a great show here, I would have been able to keep that secret longer.
[0:38:13.9] KM: What does it mean to be middle class today?
[0:38:16.3] WR: To keep up by reading a lot of newspapers, to keep up with a lot of news. The definition, middle class, keeps going up higher and higher.
[0:38:26.4] KM: There are a lot of misconceptions about what middle class is.
[0:38:29.0] WR: I think so. To the degree of Ivanka Trump believes that there’s a childcare credit it ought to go to people making a half million dollars. If a half million dollars isn’t rich, it’s not middle class, I don’t think.
[0:38:39.5] KM: I think every American should try to educate themselves like we were talking about, and I feel that a lot of people are lazy and turn on whatever shock jock or whatever they want to hear, whatever aligns with what they want to believe instead of trying to learn more. I am a documentary lover and I recently watched Robert Reich’s documentary. He worked for Nixon, he worked for Carter, and he worked for Clinton as his labor secretary.
For you listeners out there that really want to know what’s going on with the middle class, you cannot find out in today’s mainstream media, but if you watch this documentary, he is a Harvard teacher and you get to watch his class. It is easy to understand with lots of graphs and some good music, which always makes things good.
[0:39:30.7] WR: Actually, it’s University of Berkeley.
[0:39:33.2] KM: Berkeley. You’re right. Not Harvard.
[0:39:34.0] WR: He was at Harvard for a long time.
[0:39:36.4] KM: Yeah. Have you watched that, I guess? You probably read his books.
[0:39:39.2] WR: No, but I had to deal with Reich when he was labor secretary.
[0:39:43.1] KM: Tell me.
[0:39:44.1] WR: An organizer who worked for on welfare rights in Boston was his deputy secretary who ran the department. Literally, we started the living wage campaign and ACORN because Reich was on an elevator coming down to the Department of Labor when I was there to have lunch with my colleague, Thomas Patrick Glenn III and I said, “What’s the chance of increasing minimum wage?” He said, “President,” which was President Clinton had decided everything was healthcare, so he didn’t think there was any chance of a raise in the next year or two. By that point we’d been through — The ringer already waiting, so we were convinced there wasn’t an increase in minimum wage coming, so we had to find a way locally or at the state level to do it, and that’s what ended up. Years later, we had a hundred campaigns.
[0:40:35.0] KM: I think that this is really profound that I heard that I had no idea, and they talk about this divide in America’s riches. In America, 400 people have more wealth than half of the population of the United States. If you take United States, the map, and divide it straight in half, 400 people have half of the wealth of America and all the rest of the people in America have the other. Did you know that? I did not know that till I started researching.
[0:41:03.0] WR: I have to do this people’s daily news that played right before your show every day. Those kind of factoids, that’s part of the people’s daily news.
[0:41:10.1] KM: It cannot trickle down ever. If they had a bank of secretary spending all their money as fast as those 400 people could, there’s no way that it could get down — They could not buy 25 pairs of jeans a day. They could not buy a car a day. They could not buy pillows or sheets. They could not buy towels. They could not buy food. They could never —
[0:41:29.2] WR: They couldn’t buy flags and banners.
[0:41:30.8] KM: They could never spend enough money for it to trickle down and get into economics.
[0:41:36.4] WR: It’s the divide, inequity of wealth is obviously is one of the critical issues of our time. It’s never been good, but it’s gotten terribly worse. Many people argue, certainly prominent economists, that this is going to cripple our ability to grow. Part of this has to do with the amount of — For all of our goodies in the Silicon Valley, part of this concentration has to do with so much wealth going to so few people in the valley. That just doesn’t spread.
[0:42:11.7] KM: We are richer I think than we’ve ever been. Isn’t that right?
[0:42:15.1] WR: Certainly.
[0:42:16.0] KM: Our GDP.
[0:42:16.9] WR: Yeah, gross national product is very high.
[0:42:19.9] KM: And our productivity is very high.
[0:42:21.1] WR: It’s through the roof, particularly compared to how little we pay.
[0:42:24.9] KM: Yeah. It’s odd to think that the middle class doesn’t have any money. Today in 1978, the average man made $48,000 according to this documentary I watched. Today he makes $33,000. A CEO in 1970 made $350,000, and today makes millions.
[0:42:47.9] WR: Ten times at least. Yeah.
[0:42:49.6] KM: Millions. Without the middle class buying, selling and shopping, there is no economy, right?
[0:42:58.8] WR: Well, I think certainly part of the political argument is that this sort of alienation of a lot of the middle class and their desperation about their situation is part of what led to Donald Trump being elected president. Frankly, it was sort of ironic that some of his economic arguments were to the left of what Secretary of State Clinton’s were. You just have a —
[0:43:24.7] KM: What do you mean by that?
[0:43:26.1] WR: I mean he was arguing about trade and jobs and creation of jobs for the middle class and the rust-belt in a much more aggressive way than she was.
[0:43:35.5] KM: Do you think that he’s got the ability to do that?
[0:43:38.2] WR: No.
[0:43:39.7] KM: Do you think that his policy —
[0:43:41.2] WR: He runs a family business. That’s what he knows how to do, and he’s making the White House into a family business. God knows what we’re in for. Yeah, I’m not optimistic that he can deliver on this. I’m just saying if you talk about the anger and alienation of the middle class, this has been a country that prided itself on a lot of people being part of the middle class and now that middle class feels disenfranchised, underemployed, etc., etc.
[0:44:10.3] KM: I hope that people will go and watch his movie, Inequality for All. It’s really educational and I don’t think — I didn’t realize —
[0:44:19.6] WR: Is it on YouTube?
[0:44:20.7] KM: You can watch it on Netflix. You can watch it on Demand.
[0:44:25.7] WR: This is Robert Reich. He was a former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. Was a road scholar comrade of Bill Clinton’s when they were both in England and he’s become sort of a critique or some of those policies and was a critique or some of the Obama policies, but he’s not at the University of California Berkeley.
[0:44:47.9] KM: The documentary is called Inequality for All and it’s really easy to understand. You’ve done so much wait. We’re at the end of our program. What are you most proud of? It’s got to be ACORN.
[0:44:57.6] WR: Oh, absolutely.
[0:44:58.6] KM: Or is it your coffee shop in New Orleans?
[0:44:59.6] WR: No. I drink the coffee. I work with ACORN. People said, “Are you at the coffeehouse?” No. I’m never at the coffeehouse.
[0:45:08.0] KM: Are you really not ever?
[0:45:10.1] WR: Luckily we opened the second location. It’s downstairs from my office. Next door to me is going to be our new radio station so I can say I’m there more than I’m here and down below. I can go down and get a cup of coffee. Life is good, but certainly I’m proud of everything I have done with ACORN and continue to do it with ACORN. I just hope I’m able to work as long as I can to see what —
[0:45:35.7] KM: You’re going to work forever.
[0:45:37.1] WR: I’ll have my boots on. There’s no question about that.
[0:45:41.7] KM: Your mother is 94. Mm-hmm, you will.
[0:45:44.6] WR: We’ll see.
[0:45:44.7] KM: If you go to New Orleans, go to the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse. It’s Wade’s limited liability corporation and it’s a social venture business experiment and it donates it profits and available gross revenue to developing countries where his coffee beans are grown, and it’s imported directly into the Port of New Orleans and roasted locally. Thus, benefitting community jobs.
Wade, this cigar is for you for birthing so many businesses.
[0:46:09.2] WR: Thank you. Kerry, it’s a great show. I’m so glad you twisted my arm to be on. We had a lot of fun today.
[0:46:14.5] KM: Thank you so much for joining me.
[0:46:16.0] WR: My pleasure.
[0:46:16.9] KM: Tim, who’s our guest next week?
[0:46:18.8] TB: It is Jean-Paul Francoeur from JP Fitness.
[0:46:22.4] KM: Jean-Paul Francoeur, JP Fitness. Yes, he is a personal trainer. If you have a great entrepreneurial story and you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you. Send a brief bio and your contact info to email@example.com and someone will be in touch.
Finally, to our listeners, thank you for spending time with me. If you think this program has been about you, you’re right, but it’s also been about me. Thank you for letting me fulfill my destiny. My hope today is that you’ve heard or learned something that’s been inspiring or enlightening and that it, whatever it is, will help you up your business, your independence or your life.
I’m Kerry McCoy and I’ll see you next Friday. Until then, be brave and keep it up.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:47:01.9] TB: You’ve been listening to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy. Want to hear today’s program again or want someone else to benefit from it? Jot this down. Next week a podcast will be available flagandbanner.com. Click the tab labeled “Radio Show”, there you’ll find today’s segments with links to resources you heard discussed on this program. Kerry’s goal: to help you live the American Dream.