11 Apr 2012

Social activist groups can form powerful
'One Big Campaign' to take on Harper

Picture this  . . . .  The directors of 25 or 30 of Canada’s leading social activist organizations, unions and grassroots groups are hived away in a secluded location for a long weekend. At the conclusion of three exhausting days of discussion and argument, they announce they have created the framework for a new and powerful public interest co-operative movement.

They explain that they expect the co-operative venture – let’s call it One Big Campaign (OBC) for the time being – will expand to include thousands of organizations that will work together to challenge the destruction being carried out by the Harper regime and its right-wing allies.

The movement would be a non-binding, co-operative process, not a new formal organization. Partner groups would be able to opt in or out of any number of campaigns. When campaigns were conducted the resources of partner groups would be used.

There is no getting around the fact that Canada’s progressive organizations, whether campaigning individually or in small groups, are having a very difficult time fighting back against the Harper regime and its right-wing supporters. The Conservative’s right-wing allies in business and finance are very powerful. They control all the key levers of power – access to billions of dollars to promote their beliefs, control over the federal government, and ownership of most of the mainstream media.

I sympathize with the thousands of groups and unions that work so hard to help build a better Canada. They rank among the best in the world. Unfortunately, while the rules of the game have been changed by the brutal Conservatives, practically all of our progressive groups which are opposed to this right-wing ideology are still playing by the old, let’s-be-nice rules, and they’re being left behind.

The progressive/liberal/labour/grassroots/”progressive” conservative participants have the potential to become an extremely powerful force.  Canada has more than 15,000 public interest groups and more than 4.2 million people belong to unions.  If they launched a major campaign it is possible to imagine nearly six million Canadians supporting the action – more than the 5.6-million votes received by Harper in last year’s election.

Organizations struggling to take on Harper need to realize that their current, traditional campaigning approaches are falling short and, as a result, the country is being seriously
damaged. It makes no sense to try to influence the Harperites with well thought out, logical proposals. Because of the immoral, unprincipled behaviour of the Conservatives, we need to develop new, tougher and more aggressive strategies.

In fact, the Conservatives have been so virulent with their attacks on environmental and other groups that the leaders of some organizations appear to be afraid to become involved in major aggressive campaigning activities that target the government.

Only a small percentage of the groups involved in One Big Campaign would need to be cautious. Groups fall into four main categories:
  • Organizations with charitable status, such as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and Friends of the Earth, benefit from gifts from people who receive a charitable tax receipt for part of the donation – meaning that government funds make up part of the contribution to the organization. Because groups have this privilege under the Income Tax Act, they must be careful not to allocate more than 10 per cent of their resources to direct political activities. Indications are that many groups do not come close to reaching the 10 per cent limit;  
  • Groups that receive government grants and other funding but do not have charitable status;
  • Non-profit groups without charitable status, such as the Council of Canadians (CoC) and Greenpeace, can take part in any campaigning or protest activity as long as it is legal; and
  • Labour and grassroots organizations, such as Occupy, are totally independent of government and should not be afraid of confronting the Harperites. 
So when front-line action, such as picketing or “occupying” against the Conservative government is required, activities would be carried out mainly by groups that do not rely on the government for financial support such as unions or the Occupy Movement.

At the same time, all groups would, as usual, work with their preferred political parties to hopefully defeat the Conservatives in the 2015 election.

Taking part in huge co-operative campaigns would not mean that individual groups would give up their regular campaigning. But groups might want to trim back on their less productive activities for a period of time and channel those resources to the co-operative campaign.

The formation of such a body would create some important firsts:
  • The first time that as many as perhaps 15,000 public interest groups come together under one umbrella in Canada; 
  • The first time that hundreds of progressive groups from different sectors – such as health care and poverty alleviation – join forces to work together for common causes; and
  • The first time that groups from the progressive community, labour, grassroots, and “progressive” conservatives join forces and work on major national issues.
Assessing the current situation
No matter whether groups continue working in isolation or, hopefully, as part of something along the lines of One Big Campaign, there are a number of areas where substantial improvements in the progressive movement and labour are required.

For some time now the Harper government has been doing a better job than its progressive/labour counterparts in getting its message out to the public, particularly to its loyal supporters. Too often the social activists are caught off guard and put on the defensive by a Harper announcement that has been in the works for months.

Only a handful of progressive groups and unions are highly skilled at organizing and carrying out all the complicated and sometimes aggressive components of a strong campaign.

Greenpeace happens to be one of the most successful campaigning organizations in the world. While some people disapprove of Greenpeace’s tough tactics, its strategic planning and its determination to stick with a well-targeted specific campaign for the long haul are central to the group’s many successes around the globe.

Too many Canadian organizations, particularly unions, put too little thought and effort into developing effective campaigning strategies.  For instance, if an issue emerges in Canada that involves a sector of the progressive community, the response all too often is three-fold: a news release expressing “shock” is issued, their members are asked to send an e-mail to the government expressing concern, and maybe there is a one-time protest march of about 200 or 300 people.

As the expression goes, “How’s that working for you so far?”

Not even the largest organization in the country, the highly regarded Council of Canadians (CoC), is able to win many victories on its own or in co-operation with just a few partners. The impact of the CoC’s campaigning may be diminished because it spreads itself too thin by working in six large program areas such as water and health care.

Another issue: The duplication of effort in many areas of social activist community work results in an excessive waste of resources. While I haven’t counted them, there must be six to 10 national magazines or newsletters serving each of a half-dozen different sectors. There also is a duplication of effort when it comes to areas such as administration, research and, to some extent, campaigning.

Too many organizations are involved in very similar activities. While there is a definite need for small, local organizations, many regional or national sectors – for instance, the environment and poverty eradication – have too many organizations that are small, poorly funded and, as a result, ineffective. The existence of so many groups also means that issues are often fractured and supporters pulled in different directions.

It would be a step forward if some of the groups which have been hard-hit by the lack of support during the economic downturn merged with other groups.

Unfortunately, some organizations – segments of the labour movement in particular – have lost their way and are too often just going through the motions when it comes to supporting progressive causes. Members of these “fallen” groups need to push their leaders to become active and effective again.

Which groups will show some leadership? 
Given their inability to take on Harper, organizations from all sectors need to evaluate their real contribution to society. After all, groups exist for the benefit of society not to just perpetuate themselves. In this regard, two more serious challenges remain:
  • While many labour organizations have age-old rivalries and often fight each other for members, they must find some way to co-exist within the One Big Campaign; and 
  • Labour organizations and social activist groups must work closely together, overcoming the fact that they approach change differently and getting past some of the jealousy on the part of the progressive movement that labour has far greater financial resources with which to work. 
The formation of a new co-operative venture depends on the courage and determination of our community leaders to fight for the kind of Canada they believe in. Our leaders need to launch a process that will result in a meeting to discuss the formation of something along the lines of One Big Campaign.

If a new co-operative movement really captured the country’s imagination, and thousands of groups and hundreds-of-thousands of Canadian became involved, this new entity could become a significant force in the country’s fight for positive change.
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