Water & Whole-Worker Organizing

As I write this, tens of thousands of activists are delivering jars of sea water from Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet to more than 60 MPs’ offices across the country to make the point that water is sacred and must be protected. Together, they’re applying massive pressure on all parties to reject the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

Regardless of whether you support or oppose the Kinder Morgan pipeline, there are valuable on-the-ground lessons to be learned here. Unions would do well to study and embrace the strategies and tools of the environmental movement and to work with its activists.

The March 23rd day of action, called Defend the Water, was part of a larger campaign by environmental groups to block the pipeline. The day was organized by two non-profit organizations: Leadnow & Neither group has local chapters or even formal members. That is, beyond a mailing list and a handful of paid staff, they have no infrastructure in place to mobilize people.

How did small organizations with few staff (let alone an entire political action department) and little funding get thousands of people into the streets on short notice, including a number of high-profile MPs and the leader of a federal party?

First, they announced the campaign and framed the day of action in a compelling way that inspired people to take action. They made water central to the campaign. By sending jars of water from the Burrard Inlet across the country and getting people to deliver them to their MPs, they ensured that the focus and all of the media coverage would be about water, not oil. And for good reason — who doesn’t support protecting water, especially Canada’s beautiful coastlines? Doing so underscored what was really important and the issue was communicated clearly, in a way that many would agree with.

Then the groups launched a website where anyone could sign up to host an event and encourage their neighbours to join them. The groups created toolkits to walk people through every step of hosting an event, meeting with an MP’s office staff, and getting media coverage. It was simple, made sense, and encouraged people to take initiative. That meant that instead of staff or previously trained volunteers, people with little to no political experience were the key organizers for the majority of the demonstrations.

It’s very likely mistakes were made: people might have said the wrong thing to the media or their MPs, or forgotten to promote the event, for example. However, those mistakes would have been minor compared to the impact of the campaign: in less than five weeks, the newbie organizers got thousands of people to join them and to lobby their Members of Parliament. In addition, several NDP MPs and the leader of the Green Party joined them in civil disobedience and got arrested at the site of the pipeline.

Imagine if that happened on behalf of child care, or pensions, or pharma-care. And why shouldn’t it? If anything, those issues seem even more immediate to most Canadians than the threat of climate change. Plus, unions already have the infrastructure in place to reach and mobilize members across the country, with shop stewards, locals, labour councils, regional caucuses, committees, and more. Not to mention that unions have exponentially more resources at their disposal than most issue-based organizations do.

In her book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, Jane McAlevey argues that unions have become insular, focusing solely on bargaining for better wages and working conditions for their members. Crucial as bargaining is to the well-being of members’ lives, McAlevey credits this narrow focus as one reason for the decline of unions’ relevance to the general population, and also, for their diminished power. In the past, when labour movements fought and took to the streets for issues that affected much of society, they were later able to bring those large social networks to bear at bargaining tables, too.

Instead of “business unionism,” McAlevey argues for “whole-worker organizing,” which means taking action on the issues members care about, regardless of whether or not they happen at home, at work, or in their community. For instance, McAlevey ran union-based campaigns for better public housing. Those campaigns earned respect in the community for the union she was working for and, at the same time, taught her members important organizing skills.

The Defend the Water organizations used advanced digital tools — still, those are easy to adopt. What’s harder is the principle behind them, that of whole-worker organizing. It takes a constant commitment to redistributing power downwards to workers, and giving them the opportunity and resources to act — especially on non-workplace issues. It also means relinquishing some control and trusting members to lead. Mistakes will be made, but that’s how new leaders learn and, ultimately, social movements are built.

Social and environmental justice groups have been organizing mass campaigns for years — and winning. It’s time for the labour movement to catch up. By supporting community-based struggles and encouraging workers to participate (workers, after all, are community members), unions could learn the most effective principles and tools for campaigns. And they could build powerful networks to use, both during and outside of bargaining.

James Hutt is a labour organizer, writer, and climate activist on unceded Algonquin Anishinaabe territory (Ottawa).