The Electric Pencil

Wade Rathke: Healthcare, Neo-McCarthyism and the need for a progressive pushback

with 2 comments

Last Tuesday, I had the opportunity to hear Wade Rathke speak at Concordia University, as part of the Too Cool for School alternative orientation, and organised by the 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy and the School of Community and Public Affairs. I’m not a student there anymore, but I’m glad I can take advantage of these kinds of events.

Rathke is the founder and former chief organiser of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now; he stepped down after 38 years at the helm in 2008. Like any organisation, it has had it’s fair share of ups, downs and scandals*; but it has also had some pretty major successes, including working to ensure living wages in at least 15 cities across the US, and on issues such as housing, immigrants rights, and voter registration.

I was curious to hear Rathke speak; I didn’t know much about him, except for his long tenure at ACORN, or much about ACORN, except what little I had heard during the last presidential election around their efforts to sign up voters.

He gave an interesting, wide-ranging talk on everything form the history of ACORN, to voter registration reform, to housing laws and protections, to areas where Canada is lagging behind the US in social policy (there are a few). He also highlighted that there is, in fact, ACORN Canada, which I had never heard of, and that they are campaigning for a living wage in Ottawa, which is great to hear.

I’m being intentionally vague here – I recorded the talk for CKUT 90.3FM radio, and we’ll be playing it next Wednesday from 5pm to 6pm when the Avalanche Collective hosts Off The Hour. But to give you a sneak peak, I thought I’d put up this short, 4 minute clip:

It’s a response to a question that came up a few times: how is it the right-wing seems to be more organised and mobilised around health care? And is anything being done about it? Wade was at times more positive, at times more negative, but he was clear: the left became to complacent after Obama’s election, and it needs to stand up – together – or right-wing, anti public health care forces will definitely win on this one – and who knows what else. In particular, he took called out the Neo-McCarthyism he sees in the media, and called for progressives rally together in a pushback, or be ready to loose on this.

*Those scandals have erupted recently with the posting of ‘sting’ videos allegedly showing ACORN employees in several offices providing income tax advice to a prostitute and her pimp. The two were in face undercover right-wing activists. I won’t post directly to the videos here, but Bertha Lewis, Chief Organizer with ACORN, responded to the allegations on Democracy Now yesterday. She makes it clear that while ACORN takes these issues serieously (they have fired the employees involved) there’s a lot more to this story than the media is saying. Watch her response here. Wade has also written a bit about this on his own blog.


Written by Tim McSorley

September 18, 2009 at 8:09 pm

2 Responses

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  1. “They have fired the employees involved.”

    Even ACORN’s workers caught in the scandal deserve some due process. A union could help, except ACORN brass – people like “chief organizer” Wade Rathke — have a history of busting unions at ACORN. Background to this from the IWW site, dating back to 2001, is here:

    Also, more info here:

    More generally, I think there’s need to be more critique of the ACORN model, which superficially might be seen to be mobilizing large numbers of working class and poor people, but could just be yet another in a line of organizations that stifle grassroots initiatives in the name of union bureaucracies that preach mobilization, but really stifle it (and settle for voter drives, and party machine politics).

    I hope this context gets expressed. In the US context, with right wing demagogues like Glenn Beck attacking ACORN, maybe we can’t talk about these nuances. But certainly, on CKUT, and in Montreal, we should. Especially with “ACORN Canada” moving in.


    Jaggi Singh

    September 18, 2009 at 9:45 pm

  2. Great to see Wade getting some love in Montreal. He’s one of the most important voices in serious community organizing in the last generation.


    September 21, 2009 at 9:43 am

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