- Founder and former Chief Organizer of the community organization ACORN
- Former draft-resistance activist for the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)
- Former activist in the National Welfare Rights Organization
- Has close ties to the Tides Foundation, the Tides Center, and the SEIU
Born on August 5, 1948 in Laramie, Wyoming, Wade Rathke hails from a family of prosperous orange ranchers in Orange County, California. He attended Williams College in Massachusetts from 1966-68 and then dropped out of school. Rathke also worked as a draft-resistance organizer for the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) until 1968, at which point he heard a member of the Progressive Labor Party urge students to initiate a worker-student alliance, on the theory that workers on their own were blinded by a “false consciousness.” Disgusted by this suggestion, Rathke thought: “The idea that workers were looking for alliances with students, and that students would lead them to the Promised Land, was bullshit.”
In 1969 Rathke, inspired by Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven‘s 1966 article titled “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty,” was hired as an organizer for George Wiley’s National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), which strongly supported the use of the “Cloward-Piven Strategy” for (a) forcing political change through orchestrated crisis, and (b) advancing the overthrow of capitalism by overwhelming the government with entitlement demands.
Rathke believed that in order to truly transform America and its economic system, it would be necessary to build a powerful poor-people’s organization that included not only welfare mothers and their children (in the tradition of NWRO), but also members of the working class. Persuaded by Rathke’s logic, Wiley in 1970 sent the young man to Little Rock, Arkansas to begin organizing NWRO chapters in the South. By that time, Wiley — who was African American — was coming under attack by black militants who opposed his policy of placing whites such as Rathke in leadership positions with NWRO. Rathke, perhaps sensing that he might soon be demoted or released entirely, formed a new organization called Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). He began training members of this group in the tactics of the famed community organizer Saul Alinsky, who preached that community organizers “must first rub raw the resentments of the people” and “fan the[ir] latent hostilities … to the point of overt expression.”
Later in 1970, the group’s name was changed to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, but the acronym ACORN remained the same. Rathke gave ACORN a wider mission than that of NWRO. Instead of focusing solely on welfare recipients, ACORN would address issues touching all low-income people — most notably “living wage” ordinances, “affordable” (i.e., taxpayer-funded) housing, mortgage lending, and voter-registration drives. Rathke went on to serve as ACORN’s chief organizer for the next 38 years, during which time he created more than 300 ACORN affiliates.
In 1980 Rathke founded United Labor Unions – Local 100, a chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in New Orleans. He has been a chief organizer for Local 100 ever since, and even served a stint as its president.
In 1980 as well, Rathke became a board member of the Tides Foundation. He held that post until 2009, and today is a senior advisor with the Foundation. He was also a co-founder of the Tides Center and served for some time as its board chairman.
Rathke’s union activities have also included three terms as Secretary-Treasurer of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO; eight years as an executive board member of the SEIU; and a stint as co-founder and president of the SEIU Southern Conference.
In 2000 Rathke founded what later became a Tides Center project called the Organizers’ Forum, which provides a venue where “senior organizers in labor and community organizations” can network, brainstorm, and strategize. He continues to serve as board chairman of this Forum.
The Florida recount crisis in the 2000 presidential election imbued Rathke and his fellow ACORN activists with a heightened sense of urgency to advance their political agendas as aggressively as possible. Initially, Miami-Dade County’s all-Democrat canvassing board moved the recount into a room too small to accommodate reporters or Republican observers. At the same time, the board announced that since its members lacked time to hand-count all the ballots, they would only count some ballots — presumably, Republicans feared, a disproportionate number of ballots that had been cast for Al Gore. The ensuing uproar, which featured Republicans pounding on the counting-room door and an angry crowd of Cuban-Americans gathered outside the building demanding entry, persuaded the nervous canvassing board to back down from its illegal plan — and perhaps prevented the Democrats from stealing the election. “[W]e allowed conservatives to steal pages from our playbook and do actions on us in Dade County,” Rathke later lamented in an article he wrote for Social Policy, a magazine focused on labor and community organizing. “We need an edge, some harder steel on the rim.”
With new resolve, Rathke and ACORN thereafter pushed into high gear their efforts to help Democrat candidates win political elections by any means necessary. Toward that end, ACORN’s mass campaigns of voter-registration fraud would reach unprecedented heights in subsequent election cycles. Indeed, ACORN’s paid workers, tasked with registering as many pro-Democrat voters as possible, submitted many tens of thousands of fraudulent voter-registration cards in key voting districts across the United States. For details of these illicit activities, click here.
In September 2002 in Washington DC, Rathke spoke at a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) event entitled “Confronting America’s Low-Wage Economy.” Three years later he spoke at DSA’s national conference in Los Angeles.
On June 28, 2008, ACORN voted that Rathke “be terminated from all employment with ACORN and its affiliated organizations or corporations,” and “removed from all boards and any leadership roles with ACORN or its affiliated organizations or corporations.” Soon thereafter, ACORN publicly acknowledged that: (a) Dale Rathke — Wade’s brother — had embezzled $948,000 from ACORN and its affiliated groups in 1999 and 2000; and (b) for eight years, ACORN executives had known about Dale’s activity but had kept it secret from almost all of their board members and from law-enforcement authorities. According to the Capital Research Center: “[Wade Rathke’s] senior colleagues at ACORN allowed the Rathke family to quietly and privately pay restitution at the meager rate of $30,000 per year. Observers note that it would have taken more than 30 years to pay off the debt. Throughout the eight years of the cover-up, Wade Rathke kept his brother on the payroll as his $38,000 a year ‘assistant’ at ACORN headquarters.” Wade Rathke explained that he had engaged in a coverup so as not to give right-wing adversaries a “weapon” with which to destroy the organization.
In a July 25, 2008 blog post titled “Herr Obama,” Wade Rathke celebrated the excitement that had attended Democrat presidential candidate Barack Obama‘s recent tour of Europe, stating that “there is an excitement — and hope — around the world that America as the world’s leader, might actually be a leader and have a leader that the world is willing to respect and hear differently.”
In his 2009 book Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families, Rathke resurrected the old Cloward-Piven Strategy crusades of NWRO by advocating a so-called “Maximum Eligible Participation Solution” (MEPS) which exhorted all Americans who were eligible for welfare payments to make “full utilization of existing programs” and thereby advance Rathke’s dream of a massive welfare state. In the book, Rathke explicitly hailed “Cloward and Piven’s exciting call to arms,” adding: “[I]t is hard to believe that we cannot assemble the troops to mount a campaign for maximum eligible participation that harvests the opportunities and dollars already available if we could achieve full utilization of existing programs.”
Rathke revisited this theme in a July 2009 interview with Daily Kos blogger Robert Ellman, asserting that “if we just did the job that we needed to do to make sure everything that’s legally entitled to people actually finally gets to people, we would make a huge difference in creating citizen wealth and family security.”
Despite his expulsion from ACORN, Rathke remained involved with numerous ACORN affiliates. In 2009 he changed the name of ACORN’s international consultancy, ACORN International, to Community Organizations International and has served as its leader ever since. In the Capital Research Center publication Organization Trends, author Michael Volpe writes that ACORN International was originally “created [in 2004] to allow ACORN to apply its corporate shakedown techniques against Western corporations as they expand into rapidly developing markets such as India”; that “ACORN International agitates overseas, stirring up tenants and working against huge U.S. corporations such as Walmart”; and that “the group also fans the flames of discord in the microfinance and cross-border remittance industries.” Regarding the remittance industries, Volpe adds: “Remittance is the process by which ex-patriates of impoverished nations send money back home from wealthy nations like the United States. In fact, remittance payments sent to Mexico by Mexicans working in the U.S. account for a significant portion of the Mexican economy…. Western Union and other companies that process remittance transactions have been targets of Rathke. ACORN International’s Mexico, U.S., and Canadian affiliates are all involved in campaigns to limit the fees such companies may charge.”
An October 2010 posting on the Organizers’ Forum (OF) website indicated the group’s chairman (Rathke) was putting together “An International Dialogue in Egypt” slated for the week of September 25-30, 2011, “to determine leadership transitions in what has been an autocratic regime [of Hosni Mubarak], now challenged by the Muslim Brotherhood and succession and democracy issues.” The post at OF noted further that “we will strive to have a mix of both community and labor organizers/leaders from a variety of community organizations and unions … meet in Cairo.” Perhaps sensing the implications of the timeline, in which his effort to organize Egypt’s people preceded the January 2011 revolutionary uprising there, Rathke denied any involvement in the movement that eventually came to be known as the Arab Spring.
In March 2011, Rathke issued a call for “days of rage in ten cities around JP Morgan Chase.” That call culminated in the formation, later that year, of the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street movement, whose street protests were part of what Rathke described as his “anti-banking jihad.” Rathke’s efforts were supported by Stephen Lerner, an SEIU board member and radical-left organizer who candidly aims to “destabilize the folks that are in power and start to rebuild a movement”; “bring down the stock market”; “bring down [the] bonuses” of executives in the financial sector; and “interfere with their ability to … be rich.”
Since October 2011 Rathke has been the owner and director of the New Orleans-based Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, which markets “100% fairtrade coffee and tea and local baked goods and sandwiches.” It also allocates 5% of its gross revenues to Latin American community organizing projects of Community Organizations International (formerly ACORN International). Rathke regards his coffee shop not merely as a business, but as a “nexus of activism.”
In September 2013, Rathke’s labor vehicle, United Labor Unions – Local 100, announcedon its Facebook page that it was gearing up “to do mass enrollment and help navigate people into the marketplaces in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas under the Affordable Care Act.” As journalist Matthew Vadum noted ominously: “These community organizers will have access to Social Security Numbers and tax information, and HHS isn’t even planning on running background checks before sending them out into the field.”
Since 2013 Rathke has been the station manager of KABF, a community radio station based in Arkansas.
Rathke describes himself as a man dedicated to “winning social justice, workers’ rights, and a democracy where ‘the people shall rule’” — i.e., socialism. He disseminates his political views by means of a blog at ChiefOrganizer.org, formerly called WadeRathke.net.