activist notes


6.1 Getting things going

Page content 

6.1 Getting things going

6.1.1 Designing objectives

6.1.1.1 What can a municipality do?

6.1.1.2 How a municipality works

6.1.2 Building forward

6.1 Getting things going

6.1.1 Designing objectives

Your aim is to persuade the municipality to adopt a policy that realizes, at least in part, objectives your organization is working for.

Organizations vary very much in how specific their objectives are. ‘No Sweat’ campaigns, for example, are pretty specific: they aim at stopping the municipality from purchasing supplies that are manufactured under sweatshop conditions. In a large city like Toronto or Vancouver, there could be problems with goods that are locally manufactured. The bigger problem is with goods manufactured in other countries. There could be sweatshops in these places, but they may be covered by the country’s labour laws. But organizations concerned more generally with issues of Fair Trade cover a wide range of products, many different agricultural products and clothing are the most obvious, but the range could be wider.

Some people prefer terms such as project rather than campaign, perhaps because project doesn’t carry the idea of opposition. But we’re using campaign throughout because there is very generally some opposition, even if it’s only from those who recognize that making change is struggle; there is going to be resistance somewhere along the line. But more importantly because a campaign means work – real time, real energy, real resources, thought and strategy. And success doesn’t just mean gaining your objectives; the goals of your organization go beyond them and your success in a particular project builds bases for the future. It’s not over when it’s over.

Your organization may decide to go after a narrower objective in the City than the more general one that it represents. Sometimes this is seen as a betrayal. But political objectives don’t begin and end with one campaign. Any campaign in contemporary Canada comes out of a past sometimes of several generations of activist organization. Some organizations are well known and well established as a result in part of campaigns in the past. Building successes, connections, and energizing volunteers builds bases for future activism.

In Vancouver, the story of the successful campaign for an Ethical Purchasing Policy in the City can be traced back to earlier ‘No Sweat’ campaigns at local universities and to the move by Mountain Equipment Coop to adopt ethical trade practices in its own source of supplies.

[Activist Note: Take the history of the peace movement in Vancouver. It goes back to a successful campaign to get the City to adopt a ‘nuclear free zone’ declaration in the 1980s. The Cold War was still on and peace marches drew many people to the Vancouver streets. A period of relative quiet followed the end of the Cold War; the City continued to give public support to peace issues but there were no major demonstrations. But when the US invaded Iraq, the peace movement in Vancouver was re-ignited. A peace forum was organized, sponsored and partially funded by the City. Earlier activism had laid a basis; the City was publicly identified with the peace movement; there were activists with experience to help a new generation of activists get going once the issue came again to the fore.]

So it’s a good idea to look at what piece of what you want to ideally achieve can be done locally. What within the scope of municipal government could be won? This doesn’t mean hedging. It means learning about the municipality, how the municipal government works, and how the municipal staff operate. It’s no good, for example, aiming at objectives that involve both municipal and provincial or municipal and federal levels of government. Funds for low cost housing trickle down, if at all, from federal to provincial to municipal level. And at the municipal level, there are issues of zoning, how to mix low cost with other housing, and so on.

And even when you’re successful in the municipal Council, you’ll still have to keep an eye on things in the next stage known as implementation, which is always problematic. You get something passed in Council that is close to what you want, and then what happens? Nothing. Or only a very partial realization of what you had intended.

Implementation isn’t just a problem for activists. It’s a general problem in democratic government. Legislators can vote something into policy reality, but what happens to it then is another story.

Municipal staff take over and they have to figure out how to carry out the policy along with ongoing responsibilities, policies, and procedures. Municipal policy priorities may already be clearly established and not necessarily favourable to policies passed in Council. In minimum wage campaigns in the United States, some successful campaigns ran into problems at the implementation stage because the municipality was giving priority to policies promoting business investment. Increasing the minimum wage even when it only applies to businesses with contracts with the municipality doesn’t accord too well with that overall priority. So the policy was successfully passed, but never implemented.

And sometimes there’s an election and the new Council doesn’t support the policy voted in place earlier.

So there can be problems that arise even after success on a vote in Council. So you want to keep in touch with what’s going on and be prepared to mobilize to intervene.

6.1.1.2 What can a municipality do?

Your project has to be lined up with what a municipal government can actually do. Municipalities differ a lot and so do municipal governments. But even if big cities are organized differently than smaller municipalities, they cover pretty much the same kind of ground.

[Activist Note: What municipalities do. The bigger the municipality, the bigger the Council and the more municipal functions are organized as distinct departments or divisions (administrative, managerial and policy departments or divisions have been left out of the following lists).

Woodstock (New Brunswick), population 5,300+, departments of Business Development, Development and Inspection Services, Fire Department, Police Department, Public Works Department, Recreation Department. Woodstock has six Councillors, plus a Mayor.

Woodstock (Ontario), population 35,000+, has departments of Community Services, Economic Development, Engineering and Public Works, Human Resources, Land Use Planning, and Protective Services (includes Police, Fire and Emergency services). Woodstock has six Councillors, plus a Mayor.

Vancouver (British Columbia), population approximately 600,000, has departments of Community Services, Corporate Services, Engineering Services, Fire and Rescue Services, Human Resource Services, Legal Services, Library, Parks and Recreation, and Police. Vancouver has ten Councillors, plus a Mayor.

Toronto (Ontario), population approximately 2,500,000 has these divisions: Affordable Housing, Toronto Building, Children’s Services, City Planning, Court Services, Economic Development, Culture and Tourism, Emergency Medical Services, Facilities and Real Estate, Municipal Licensing & Standards, Parks, Forestry and Recreation, Public Health, Public Information and Creative Services, Shelter, Support and Housing Administration, Social Development, Finance and Administration, Social Services, Solid Waste Management, Special Events, and Special Projects. Toronto has forty-four Councillors, plus a Mayor.]

What the Activist Note above shows us is the many ways in which municipal government connects with its citizens’ everyday lives. Its presence in our daily lives is much closer, more intimate, and more specific than that of any other level of government. Does the snow get cleared from your street? Is the garbage collected every week? Is the water drinkable without boiling? Is a house across the street from you being rebuilt as condominiums? Does your kid get to play baseball in the local park? Have you had to take someone to small claims court? Can you rely on your favourite cafe being a safe place to eat and drink?

6.1.1.2 How a municipality works

Municipality work is rather like housework — keeping the municipality tidy, getting rid of waste, keeping streets clean, free from snow and ice, keeping order and keeping streets safe, responding to emergencies, keeping the parks nice and inviting, keeping control over how people use public places (streets, parks, publicly owned buildings, etc.), controlling how land is used, providing public transportation, and so on and so on. Tasks are multiple and the divisions and departments listed for the four municipalities in the Activist Note above indicate an organization of specialized responsibilities set up to respond to them.

Municipal staff is organized to make this complex of the everyday running of a municipality work. It’s not like an army under one command with a hierarchy from the top down. Apart from the work of centralized management and leadership, many of the jobs are front-line jobs, that is they have to respond to what’s happening on the streets, with people, in public places, both routinely and as new situations or emergencies arise. They are also all in competition with one another for City funds and City funds come mostly from taxes on individual householders and businesses. Changes in City policy means something different for each. Problems of implementation are in part problems of coordinating in an organization in which the jobs of different departments aren’t coordinated.

You also have to keep in mind that a municipality is directly subordinate to the provincial government and indirectly to the federal government. The precise way it’s governed from above varies from province to province but there’s always the boss government there controlling what a municipality can do (in the case of Woodstock, Ontario, referred to below, it is subordinate first to the county and then to the province). 

Campaigning for policy changes in cities the size of Toronto (population more than two million)  is quite a different matter from campaigning for policy change in Vancouver (population 600,000 plus) or Woodstock, Ontario (population around 35,000) or Woodstock, NB (population around 6000). The campaign itself has to be up to the difficulties represented by size. The box above shows also another kind of problem. The bigger the municipality, the more its functions are divided up among different departments (just compare the divisions in Toronto with those in Woodstock, NB). Different departments compete with one another for funds as well as coordinating functions. This is significant when it comes to the implementation stage of the campaign. After the policy has been approved by Council, staff have to take over and implement it. Recognize that there are always problems at the stage of implementation – it’s not only when community organizations have initiated change. Even legislated policy changes may fail to be fully implemented (more of this later). But the complexities that go with size means that activists need to think ahead to how to set objectives that are practicable as well as building overall support, energy, and towards a future in which more can be done.

6.1.2 Building forward

Building forward means developing your campaign to make a specific change in how the municipality functions in a way that builds your organization’s strength for the future.

When people get involved in a campaign, they get interested; they begin to see more possibilities, they come to know more about how the municipality and the political process work. A successful campaign doesn’t just achieve specific objectives; it builds activism in the community and lays the basis for future action to make change from below.

It may seem that posing an objective that falls short of the ideal is a kind of betrayal of principles. What is achieved may be less than the ideal (it almost always is), but if it strengthens organizational capacities and strengthens public support, it has built bases for moving beyond it.


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