“A massive campaign of serious disruption” – the way forward for the environmental movement?

Next Sunday, July 5, Toronto will play host to a March for Jobs, Justice, and the Climate. The march aims to unite labour, the environmental movement, and activists from First Nations and racialized communities, and organizers hope to draw thousands of people to the streets. From their call to action:

This July, Toronto will host a Pan American Climate Summit and an Economic Summit, where politicians will face a choice: listen to corporate leaders from across the Americas gathering to advance an economic austerity agenda that is increasing inequality and causing a climate crisis felt disproportionally in the global south – or listen to the people.

On the eve of those summits, let’s make sure they hear our demands:  a justice-based transition to a new energy economy, in which corporate polluters pay and ordinary people benefit.

The only way to overcome a small, powerful group who have a lot to lose is to build a massive movement of people with everything to gain.

That final line got me to thinking about an excellent piece on mass movement building by Steve D’Arcy I read earlier this week. The article, titled “A Path to Victory Against Austerity in Ontario?”, examines the history of resistance to the Mike Harris government’s austerity regime in the mid-1990s in an effort to create strategies for anti-austerity activists going forward. One of his main points is that large numbers of people in the street is not by itself sufficient to force governments to alter their policies:

Big business would never allow an elected government, of whatever party, to reverse the policy trajectory of recent years — the “austerity” agenda — simply because that agenda is unpopular and lots of people are protesting it. No, only a massive campaign of serious disruption could force the hand of elites and raise the political cost of austerity to the point where proceeding with austerity would be judged by big business to be too dangerous to their interests.

This is critically relevant for the environmental movement to take note of. The past year has featured numerous massive marches for the environment, and precious little actual progress.

Last September, hundreds of thousands of people around the world took the streets for the People’s Climate March, coordinating the action with an international summit on climate change in New York City. Unlike the march, which was the largest climate-focussed rally in human history, the summit was a failure, with no major action announced.

In March, Londoners again took to the streets in the tens of thousands to urge action at this winter’s Paris Climate Summit. Naomi Klein, speaking by remote video link, urged protestors to be the change they wanted to see:

“Here we are, with just nine months ahead of those critical climate talks in Paris. It’s not nine months to pressure our leaders to act. We have nine months to act ourselves. Nine months to become the leaders we need. To lead from below, from the streets, from the neighbourhoods, from the smallest towns to the biggest cities,” the author said.

Then this past April, thousands gathered in Quebec City outside of a meeting of premiers to demand immediate action on climate change. Mike Hudema, a Green Party climate campaigner, had this to say:

“Even though there’s been a lot of awareness about climate change, there hasn’t been the type of action that we need to see happen, especially at a provincial and a federal level,” Hudema told CTV News Channel on Saturday.

“So one of the biggest messages that the rally will carry is that our provincial and national leaders need to start acting to combat what is a global crisis,” he added.

In the months since, no such action has been evident at a federal level, with national regulator NEB last week giving Enbridge a final go-ahead to reverse the flow of its Line 9 pipeline through Ontario and Quebec, conditional on the result of hydrostatic testing. And while there have been some encouraging signs that Alberta’s new NDP government is going to increase taxes on the tar sands (eventually), and is opposed to (some) pipelines, the type of action they’re considering falls far short of what environmental activists insist is necessary for the long-term well-being of the planet.

In short, all that mass mobilization hasn’t exactly led to a lot of concrete results. And it’s not the first time that huge movements have learned this painful lesson – just look at the millions who marched worldwide in the weeks leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This is where D’Arcy’s analysis becomes relevant – it may be time for the environmental movement to escalate their tactics and begin a “massive campaign of serious disruption”.

D’Arcy’s article details the history of the anti-austerity Days of Action (DoA) campaign from 1995 to 1998. Containing as it does important lessons about the power and pitfalls of the labour movement, it’s perhaps appropriate to revisit this history in the run-up to this major labour-environmental march and see what lessons can be learned and applied to today.

For those without long memories, the DoA campaign was a response to punishing austerity measures instituted by the Mike Harris government which affected working people of all stripes. Massive cuts to health care, education, and welfare cut into the living standards of millions. And it didn’t take long for the labour movement to push back:

The DoA campaign was a series of single-city, two-day protests, in which the first day (a Friday) would see a general strike by unionized workers, and the second day (a Saturday) would see a mass demonstration, in which unions would be joined by community organizations, including feminist, anti-racist, Indigenous rights, disability rights, environmental and anti-poverty organizations that shared organized labour’s interest in resisting and reversing the profits-first, anti-justice policy agenda of the then Mike Harris (Conservative) government in Ontario.

In the years since the end of the DoA campaign, the sort of disruptions we have seen by protesters in Ontario have paled in comparison, with the sole exception of impressive outbreaks of Indigenous protest and disruption (a point to which I return below). Otherwise, however, post-DoA disruptive protests in Ontario have typically involved a few dozen people, sometimes fewer, blocking traffic or occupying a construction site or a government office, etc. In rare cases, the numbers participating in disruptions have numbered in the low hundreds. But during the DoA, disruption operated on a vastly more potent and threatening scale. Thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of workers participated in strike action. During each of the eleven Day of Action strikes in 1995-98, workers brought public transportation systems grinding to a complete stop for the day. They shut down Public and Catholic school systems. Federal, provincial and local government offices were in most cases completely closed. Hundreds of private sector employers were shut down by striking workers. Universities and Colleges were shut down in each DoA city, with students joining campus workers to picket the campuses. It was a dramatic — and now, nearly forgotten — demonstration of just how disruptive protesters can be, if the necessary scale, organizational capacity, and determination can be mustered.

Critically, the campaign didn’t originate with the OFL leadership, which was reluctant to take on a newly-elected premier with a fairly solid mandate, but instead from the grassroots:

[T]he “Embarrass Harris” campaign, for instance, which was initiated by a small group of anti-racist feminists within the National Action Committee (NAC), and organized mostly out of mass meetings held at the 519 community centre in Toronto. They launched a “June 26 demonstration against the Conservatives’ swearing-in,” which drew 2,500 protesters (Kellogg, p. 126), setting an important precedent of determined opposition. A few weeks later, in July, they “rallied several hundred people outside government offices in downtown Toronto to denounce the attacks on the poor and on social programs” (Kellogg, p. 125). At the same time, a series of potent and inspiring mass marches and disruptive protests were held by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), including the first March on Rosedale, on August 22, 1995. “The message, from the left-wing OCAP, couldn’t have been clearer: Harris was ruling for the rich, and [attacking] the poor” (Kellogg, p. 126).

These grassroots initiatives had the effect of stimulating a demand from within the unions for a more robust response from organized labour, and eventually the OFL found itself pressured to seriously step up its response, especially after it became clear that the future of collective bargaining hung in the balance.

It’s D’Arcy’s contention that while the grassroots was responsible for initiating and providing momentum to the campaign, ultimately it was the senior labour leadership which killed it. This betrayal by leadership is of course hardly unique in the history of the labour movement; in fact, it’s a problem so significant that it could in large measure be blamed for labour’s steadily declining influence over the past several decades. D’Arcy proposes a way forward:

Of course, in the end, most of that disruptive power was squandered, when the divided and irresolute Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) leadership decided to cut the movement short, refusing to escalate, as most movement activists had advocated, to a 1-day or 2-day province-wide general strike, and ultimately to an unlimited province-wide general strike. When the movement was demobilized, the Harris government had weathered the storm, and regained its footing, with most of its agenda still in place.

We should learn from that disappointing outcome. The next time we pursue a DoA strategy, grassroots activists should work hard to build structures of popular deliberation and decision-making from below — a system of assemblies or councils — as a counter-weight to the formal structures (and the “backroom” informal decision-making) that dominate the institutional level of the labour movement. This would allow grassroots organizers in the unions and community organizations to play a role in trying to shape the strategic direction of the movement, and to ensure that the rightward pressures on the OFL from the most conservative union officials are countered by the leftward pressures of an activated, organized, emboldened grassroots.

Such an organizational structure will no doubt be familiar to anybody who followed the Quebec student strike of 2012 closely. The student strike was without question the most successful large-scale activist disruption of the past decade. (The fact that the students won at best a partial victory says a lot about what a bad decade it’s been for Canadian activists.) The students were able to maintain pressure on the state through nightly noise-making, weekly mass mobilization, and an almost-complete shut-down of on-strike campuses across the province. Attempts to escalate their tactics by enticing sympathetic unions to declare one-day general strikes were ultimately fruitless. Such an escalation, by putting even more pressure on capital, would have also greatly increased pressure on the Quebec government to resolve the dispute on whatever terms they could.

If the environmental movement wants to start seeing more results than positive press coverage and great turn-outs, they’re going to have to start considering similar escalatory tactics. They’ve proven time and again that they have the capacity to bring large numbers of people out into the streets, and this newfound partnership with the labour movement connects them with the capacity to bring out many more. But mere marching is not enough. If the environmental movement wants success, they need to make capital squirm.

And let there be no mistake – capital is the main obstacle the environmental movement is facing. Serious action on climate justice does not lack in popular support, and we have all the technical tools we need to begin immediately transitioning away from fossil fuels. It’s business interests which stand firmly in the way of action, and so it’s business interests that the movement must pressure.

No more effective way to accomplish this has been discovered than the general strike. It’s not the type of goal that can be achieved overnight, but it’s within the movement’s power to achieve if it organizes towards it. This is not the kind of approach that folks need to wait for big names in the movement to put forward – the main takeaway from D’Arcy’s insightful analysis is that such a movement of widespread disruption is best achieved through a dispersed bottom-up grassroots organization of assemblies.

Regardless of which direction the movement takes, I wish the organizers of next week’s March all the success in the world. Their causes are righteous and noble, and the need to address them is urgent. Solidarity!

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