The American Civil Liberties Union, impacted by the unfolding economic crisis, laid off ten percent of its national workforce this week. Thirty-six staffers lost their jobs, including five in the Washington, D.C. legislative office, a source familiar with the firings told the Huffington Post.
A source in the ACLU's Washington office confirmed that there had been layoffs, but couldn't confirm the details. The ACLU has two separate Washington offices: a local branch that works on District of Columbia issues and an arm of the national ACLU, which works on legislative issues. The layoffs impacted the legislative office -- though the District office is not necessarily immune to a budget shortfall.
The loss of the staffers means a likely reduction in influence for the civil liberties organization just as Democrats begin to push a legislative agenda as ambitious as any since the mid-sixties. Liberal advocacy organizations have been hit hard across the board by the economic downturn, as donations have fallen off and returns from investments have gone negative.
UDPATE: Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, issued a statement to the Huffington Post explaining the layoffs. Two foundations that had heavily backed the ACLU were wiped out by fraudulent hedge-fund manager Bernard Madoff.
"Like many organizations today, the ACLU is feeling the impact of the tough economic climate which has resulted in a decline of our assets and reduced the donations and grants that we rely upon to fund our activities, including those from two foundations that were wiped out by the Bernard Madoff scandal. We take very seriously our commitment to our donors and members who count on us to defend the constitutional rights of all Americans, even in difficult financial times. To safeguard the fiscal health of the ACLU and ensure that the vital work of defending civil liberties continues, we have taken a number of steps to cut expenses and streamline our organization, including instituting a hiring freeze, limiting travel, cancelling conferences, and reducing non-personnel costs, resulting in savings of more than $9 million. Unfortunately, additional measures were needed and as a result, the ACLU National Office has been forced to eliminate 36 staff positions, which represents 10% of the current staff. Although we did everything in our power to avoid taking this painful step, it was necessary in order to protect our long term viability and ensure that the ACLU has the flexibility and strength to meet the challenges ahead. In addition, we are freezing salaries for the next fiscal year, which will save an additional 11 positions, and our executive director has voluntarily reduced his pay by 15%. We are confident that making tough financial decisions in the short term will serve to strengthen the organization for generations to come," said Romero.
UPDATE II: Sources familiar with the ACLU's situation say that the two major foundations were the JEHT and Picower Foundations, which were wiped out by Madoff. Another major ACLU donor, Peter Lewis, has also been pounded by the economic crisis. Lewis' centrality to the funding of progressive organizations is hard to overstate. The name of the ACLU's Washington office is "The Peter B Lewis Center for Civil Liberties."