activist notes


6.2 Groundwork

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6.2 Groundwork

6.2.1 Precursors

6.2.2 Activist connections

6.2.3 Media

6.2.4 Groundwork as basis for action

6.2 Groundwork

Groundwork means talking to people about the issues and problems using any of the many ways we can make connection with one another today – the media, the internet, meetings, just chatting with friends and neighbours, university and college settings. And it means the build-up of people who are used to idea that as citizens they can be part of making change from below.

6.2.1 Precursors

Most communities have a history of trade union and community organization. This local culture and connection is an invaluable base on which the groundwork of a campaign can be built.

Campaigns are struggles. Support and public interest garnered in previous campaigns on related issues are important as groundwork for developing a campaign focussed on a single, specific issue. Groundwork often comes from multiple sites of political organizing not focussed on a specific, concrete objective such as getting a municipal Council to pass a policy.

In the kind of groundwork that can be located in the background of the passing of an Ethical Purchasing Policy in Vancouver, we can find multiple initiatives from various bases in the community. Key, however, is the role of university students, of union support, and the organizational capacities of a not-for-profit organization such as Oxfam.

[Activist Note: Part of the groundwork of the successful passing of an Ethical Purchasing Policy in Vancouver is to be found in initiatives and organization in the local universities, Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia. University student activism has given leadership. In addition, not-for-profit organizations such as Oxfam as well as locals of unions such as the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) have been significant in providing support as well as organizational resources to student activists. Conferences were organized that reached into the larger community; news releases associated with these introduced Fair Trade issues to a wider public. Fair Trade coffee is now well recognized in stores and coffee houses in Vancouver.]

Notice that groundwork activism based in universities or regional colleges is various. In the student setting, meetings, lectures, articles in the student newspapers, articles by faculty prepared for local media, as well as conferences linked into local communities. Demonstrations may be organized to focus public attention around an issue. Confrontations, when successful, can be energizing but they may also leave a history of antagonism between police and demonstrators. They can also create the problem that news media, particularly television, focus more on the visually dramatic scenes of police in full riot gear struggling with demonstrators than on the substance of what the demonstration is about. Remember the news images of demonstrators struggling with police in Quebec City in 2001?  Makes good media stuff, but often represents only a very small part of what’s going on and what matters to activists.

Where the municipality and activists have worked in cooperation, the history laid down as a basis for future organizing work creates better groundwork for future activism. Where activists in the past have been clear about their objectives, have organized successfully, have avoided creating unnecessary difficulties for civic authorities (they may have even developed good working relations with police and city staff), and have been able to reach out successfully to the larger community in having the issues they are representing understood and perhaps even supported, the foundations for future effective organization have been laid. In Vancouver, for example, the histories of Earth Day, of large peace demonstrations as well as the gay pride parade have been effective in developing positive relations between activist organization and City authorities (this history is even beginning to be seen as a support for the local tourist industry).

Building public support is the most important groundwork to be done. It’s obvious to say, but municipal Councillors are elected. If the issue looks good, they look good supporting it.

With a bit of luck, a lot of the groundwork will already be done before you move to the campaign stage.

6.2.2 Activist connections

Where there is a history of community activism there’s a storehouse of experience and connectedess. What are the other organizations out there who might support your objectives? What kinds of organizations might be supportive as well as able to supply resources? This is important when it comes to figuring out where you might find support and where coalition members come from if you decide to go that route. Councillors, members of the provincial legislature or members of parliament may have themselves been active in community organization at earlier stages of their lives. There are existing organizations of many kinds focussed on specific issues, some arising out of the women’s movement or movements for gay and lesbian rights, some raising other social justice issues, some organized around specific issues such as disabilities. Don’t assume that those with a specific focus will not be interested – connect with them, phone or email. One disabilities activist described to Dorothy how the activist experience of disability activists goes unrecognized by other community organizations.                                                                                        

Then there are those that represent specific groupings in the municipality such as trade unions and faith groups.Some faith groups have a special interest in social justice issues; there may also be faith groups associated with sections of a community, such as an ethnic group, who may have a special interest in an issue. Then are organizations in the community that have a specific focus, such as residents organized to resist municipal development policies.

And then there are those local organizations that hook you up with national or international organization. Again trade unions, organizations like Oxfam, Make Povery History, the Maquila Solidarity Network, faith groups – many more than you’d think        

6.2.3 Media

News media presentation of issues makes a big, big difference. They make a difference to popular support and they make a difference to Councillors who see that the issue may count in the next election.

You should be aware that there will also be local organization of opposition to what you’re trying to bring about. Opposition may appear in the media and in council.  Again, your best bet is consultation and connection with people with experience of organizing and working politically in the community.  

You probably won’t be able to afford a consultant, but there’ll be people around who have background or connections in this area, talk to them about how to present the issues you’re concerned with. Some of your connections may have direct or indirect connections with people working in the media with more than advice to offer. They could help you shape your message and advise how best to get it across. 

Worth doing some research if you’re giving a journalist an interview or doing an interview on radio or TV to see how the issues you’re concerned with are being framed. Particularly be concerned with the direction of changes and with how local media are treating them.  

The notion of frame is useful here. News media work with particular frames in organizing their news. Getting hold of and changing the frame can make a big difference. When Fair Trade issues were first being raised in Vancouver, the local newspaper presented issues of fair trade in terms of the damage it could do to principles of free trade. The perspective was from the side of business. As described in the box below, two activists got together and reframed the by stressing issues of child and forced labour, working conditions and related concerns.  It’s easy to see that the latter frame would make it difficult for businesses to come out in public opposition to fair trade.

[Activist Note: Frames. When it was known that Vancouver City Council might be going to adopt an Ethical Purchasing Policy, a major local newspaper published a critical article arguing that the policy would be costly for Vancouver taxpayers. ‘Cost to the taxpayer’ was the frame they put around the proposal. Within the ‘costing the taxpayer’ frame, the ‘Ethical Purchasing’ campaign didn’t look good.

Two members of the coalition involved in the campaign for the Ethical Purchasing Policy responded in an article in the same newspaper.  They changed the frame by describing the use of child labour and the virtual slavery of workers under sweatshop conditions in factories. The City of Vancouver was already implicated in buying uniforms produced under these conditions; it had nothing in place to prevent the City from purchasing from such sources; within the new frame, the City’s existing practices didn’t look good.]

Building media interest and support is also groundwork. Sometimes it takes a while. Watch out for happenings that may be of media interest to see how they can be framed in ways that support your issue. Again in Vancouver, it was discovered that the Fire Department clothing was manufactured in Myanmar (previously Burma). Canada has joined in sanctions against Myanmar because of its tyrannical government. Buying clothing made in Myanmar is a City no-no. A big media showdown ensued. The City looked bad. Fair Trade looked good.

Remember news media are always in search of what can be made news. There’s always a time pressure to find what will attract people’s interest on television, radio, and in the newspapers. Watch for times of shortage!  You may be able to come up with a story that will work for you but might be overlooked when bigger stories are being followed. 

6.2.4 Groundwork as basis for action

The Activist Note below shows in the Vancouver example how the history of previous campaigns, the groundwork specific to the campaign to get Ethical Purchasing established as a City policy, and the media publicity built the basis for action.

[Activist Note:

Precursors: In 2000 the Canadian Labour Congress launched a ‘no sweatshop’ campaign among its membership. Burma or Myanmar was a particular focus. It is notorious for having sweatshop conditions in its factories, and for the use of child labour. It has been proscribed by the International Labour Organization (an international organization founded in the time of the original League of Nations. It specializes in social justice issues and labour rights – Canada is signed up to the ILO). Because of Myanmar’s record, Canada also discourages Canadian firms from investing in or purchasing manufactured goods from Myanmar and places restrictions on exports to that country.

Groundwork: While the Committee of Progressive Electors (COPE) held the majority of Vancouver City Council seats, a labour member of the executive was able to check out a tip from the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network that the winter coats of firefighters and police in Vancouver might have been manufactured in Myanmar. 

Media: The firefighters’ union local threatened to take action. A press conference was held. The publicity from this put pressure on the COPE Councillors.

Action: The COPE executive committee met and decided to press for a task force to look at the practicalities of introducing an ethical purchasing policy. Two COPE Councillors took leadership in introducing into Council a resolution to that effect.]


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