The Attack on Community Organizing: Who’s Next?

public employees unionsThe Attack on Community Organizing: After ACORN, PIRGS and Public Employees, Who’s Next?

In September 2009, I wrote an article arguing that ACORN’s potential demise would create a void for community organizing. Eighteen months later, the situation is worse. ACORN, long the chief recruiter of new organizers, is gone. Public employee unions face challenges to their collective bargaining rights, and lack the resources to bolster community organizing. Campus PIRG chapters are being defunded by a coalition of school administrators and conservative student politicians, including last fall at the University of Wisconsin only a short distance from the ongoing protests in Madison. Organizing for America is offering summer positions for organizers, but this is about building a field operation for President Obama’s re-election campaign, not community organizing. Community organizing played such a pivotal role in building the groundswell for a progressive agenda and election victories in 2008 that a conservative backlash was foreseeable; the problem is that liberal foundations and other donors have not helped community organizing groups’ fight back.

It is hard to believe that it was only two years ago when our first “community organizer” President took office, raising the profile of those who organize on the ground for progressive change. Instead of Obama’s election proving the type of launching point that conservative groups experienced after Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election, community organizing opportunities are less available today than in past decades.

The Conservative Strategy

Conservative interests brought down ACORN through manipulated videos whose central premise – that the group was encouraging child prostitution – was false. The same trick was tried against Planned Parenthood recently, and failed, as the group as far more mainstream and influential defenders than did ACORN.

It’s not longer any secret that the attack on public employees is designed to weaken a constituency that mobilizes for progressive issues and candidates. But even if collective bargaining is saved, conservative interests have forced unions to spend considerable resources of a defensive struggle.

The attack on the campus PIRGS involves a single theme: the claim that too many of the groups beneficiaries are not students at the school. As ridiculous as it sounds to penalize the PIRGS for addressing issues that helps students beyond the campus, the group’s broader reach is used by conservative students to justify de-funding.

Since campus PIRG’s typically win campus-wide plebiscites on funding, student government’s and administrators prevent such elections, which are a better gauge of student support. This allows a relatively few and unrepresentative group of students to vote on PIRG funding requests, leading to recent defunding decisions at two longtime campus strongholds, WISPIRG and OSPIRG.

Since the Heritage Foundation adopted the strategy of “defunding the left” as part of Ronald Reagan’s original presidential transition team, conservatives have used their power to weaken those fulltime organizers for their adversaries. Unfortunately, Democrats only seldom use their power to weaken their political opponents, which is why abstinence education ($250 million allocated to such in the Obama health care bill) and other right-wing funding streams continue through Obama’s presidency.

Internet’s Impact

Have progressives prioritized the Internet over grassroots organizing? That would be a mistake. While email lists and Facebook are helpful mobilizing tools, there is no substitute for personal contacts; that’s why conservatives target organizing groups – rather than progressive bloggers or websites – for elimination.

randy shawThe lack of organizing resources helps explain why Wall Street got away with creating a fiscal nightmare, why voter turnout among young people plunged in 2010, and why the nation’s policies are much more conservative than respondents’ opinions in public polls. Most progressives in the United States are not assembled in large groups or federations, which makes organizing imperative.

I hear from a lot of people who believe that Facebook “made” the Egyptian revolution, and that social media and the Internet can be great instruments for change. Yet without grassroots organizing, the base for creating real change does not emerge.

Let’s hope the foundation world and private donors begin to understand this.

Randy Shaw
Beyond Chron


  1. Martha says

    Oh Yea, we unfairly brought Acorn down. Barrack Obama came out of that pile of dung. There are enough social agencies to help people . Barrack Obama had 17 months as a elected official. He voted present on most issues. He locked up his past with good reason. He has never had a real job and our press gave him a pass. No questions from the press about this or his law license ,why know one knows of his actions for several years.Blank pages that have been covered up (or never looked for) by our press.

    • Ray Bishop says

      Martha, I am sorry to say that you are writing some things that do not make sense. I do not know what you mean about “unfairly bringing Acorn down”. The President does not become involved in every issue that affects you. You are not stating specifics of what your issues are, but clearly seem to want to blame the President for everything.
      Are you a Republican? Is that why you want to be like Perry and play by suggesting that he does not have a “law license”.
      I suggest that if you are going to suggest things in a public forum you write clearly and write about factual information that you know about. The President has written several books that you might want to read. Also he has had more scrutiny than almost anyone in public life. What blank pages are you referring to? If you do not know you should not make suggestions – we really don’t need it.
      Most of us believe he has been a great President regardless of the overwhelming odds against him from the time he came into office. It does not help our Country by insinuating things that you know nothing about and to be so negative towards him.

  2. Don Duitz says

    Shaw makes real sense. It seems to me that Obama used media but, it was the young voters that organized and put him over the top. I, too, don’t understand why he doesn’t follow the instincts that he reveals in his speeches and get rid of some of the Washington insiders/advisors in the process.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *