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Author: Amanda Tattersall

Episode 2 – How to win

Episode 2 – How to win

When the largest rally in human history in 2003 didn’t stop the Iraq War it makes you wonder what does it take for a coalition to win?

Bentley Blockade, Photo credit Brendan Shoebridge

In the second episode of ChangeMakers podcast we look at Brexit and examine how the types of coalitions used by each side influenced the outcome of the referendum. Then we go to the Northern Rivers in regional Australia look at how a different kind of alliance against Coal Seam Gas sought to organise across the entire community.

Click on the play button above to stream it here. Or listen to this episode on PodcastOne, or Stitcher  or Apple Itunes.

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Full transcript of episode 2:

Episode 2 – “How to Win”

HOST: In the months and years after 9/11, many of my friends thought that George W. Bush would be the worst US President of our lifetime. Yeah. I know.

I was working in the union movement at the time. My job was to help the unions establish meaningful links with other sections of the community – a job nobody but me took particularly seriously.

But then February 2003 comes around. George W. Bush places in my lap the most extraordinary reason for the union movement to talk to and join together with churches, mosques, sports clubs, synagogues, student groups and everyone else across civil society.

President Bush was baying for war with Iraq. His pretext was clearly fraudulent. If only we could mobilise everyone to voice our opposition, then surely our government would have to listen. This was winnable.

I jump into action. Together with a group of community leaders, we set up the Walk Against the War coalition. We decide to join a global protest march against war.

15 February 2003 was the largest protest march in the history of humankind. At least 10 or 15 million people marched. Some say it was 30. The Sydney march was the largest in my city’s history. The route went on a large loop around the city but there were so many people that day, the front of the march arrived before the back of the march had left, gridlocking hundreds of thousands of people in an infinite loop of protest. There just wasn’t enough space in the city for all the people who opposed war that day.

I doubt I’ll see a mobilisation that big again in my lifetime. Probably because… we didn’t win. Far from it. A bit over a month later, the coalition of the willing invaded Iraq. By the end, 100,000 Iraqis were dead.

But it begs the question – if mobilising the largest protest in human history doesn’t work, then how the hell do you win?

Hello. I’m Amanda Tattersall. Welcome to ChangeMakers – the podcast about people trying to change the world. Changemakers is supported by our launch partner Mobilisation Lab.

First up, I’m in England, where they recently had a poll to leave the Europe Union that nobody expected would win.

GARETH: Even the people that voted to get out didn’t believe we were going to get out. Nobody believed we were going to get out.

HOST: Let’s go

NIGEL FARAGE: Ladies and Gentlemen, dare to dream that the dawn is breaking on an Independent United Kingdom! (CHEERS)

HOST: That’s Nigel Farage sounding like he’s doing a “hero speech scene” in a B-grade action movie. His nation has just voted to tear up the way it had been making laws for the past 40 years, so he’s trying to sound historic.

You might think you’d need a pretty broad coalition to convince a nation to take such a huge step. The truth is a little more surprising.

NIGEL FARAGE: Let June the 23rd go down in history as our independence day!

HOST: Thanks Nigel. Right from the start, campaigners who wanted Britain to leave the European Union had a couple of problems.

First — Europe was actually relatively popular. The side that wanted to remain inside Europe had an 18 point lead at the start. And that’s because it had tangible benefits — especially for business.

INTERVIEWER: When you take it into your own business, do you think that UK’s relationship with Europe has affected your business?

GARETH DAVIES: Well, it has, very positively… a business I’m doing an awful lot of work for, an old hotel is being turned into units, I’m doing all the painting it’s going to keep me busy for months

HOST: This is Gareth Davies he’s a small business owner based in Southern Wales.

GARETH DAVIES: … And they had a girl, a Polish girl, who has a degree in Interior Decorating. She wants to move to the area.

…she’s allowed to be here. She can be here. It’s an opportunity to have somebody working within our business who could be fantastic. … Though I wouldn’t have had the opportunity before if we weren’t in Europe.

HOST: This is the story of how Britain got to the point where a  small business owner in South Wales could easily tap the talents of a Polish interior decorator all starts forty years ago.

When Britain joined the European Union in 1973, they were, let’s say, politely late to the party. It had already been going for 20 years. Part of the reason for this is that just a few decades earlier, Britain had been the largest empire in the history of the world, ruling over one-quarter of the world’s population.

Britain had become accustomed to telling other countries what to do. Now they were joining a community that basically was going to tell them what to do. But most people accepted it.

INTERVIEWER: So when Britain initially joined the Common Market, what did you think?

GARETH DAVIES: Couldn’t have cared less. When was that, Seventy-three. So I was a teenager who was probably more interested in sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.

HOST: As the decades went on, the European Union became part of the furniture in Britain. Labour standards were established across the continent, environmental laws were standardised. Polish decorators moved to South Wales and found gainful employment. There was however, one fly in the ointment.

WILL STRAW: You had a virulent Euro-skeptic right wing media who was strongly opposed to our membership of the EU,

HOST: That’s Will Straw, executive director of the Remain campaign in the Brexit referendum. The side that lost, despite starting out with an 18-point lead.

WILL STRAW: And the right wing press was supported by large sections of the Conservative party who had a drum beat of anti-European sentiment over decades.

INTERVIEWER: Why was the media so Euro-skeptic? [Like] on what basis were they distrustful?

WILL STRAW: I think the main reason comes down to ideology. So the European Union at its best had harmonised standards for workers, for the environment, for corporate governance..

HOST: Basically, it was a way to prevent one country from driving down, say, their wages, in order to be more competitive than everyone else. It avoided what economists call a “race to the bottom”.

WILL STRAW: Now to me as a progressive, that is fundamentally a good thing

… The right oppose that and the European Union was one of the things that was bringing in that kind of protection. They painted it as being bureaucratic, elitist, out of touch, expensive

HOST: So the campaigners who wanted to convince Gareth Davies that Britain should leave the European Union had a few problems.

GARETH DAVIES: Politics has never really interested me.

HOST: The people in the middle that the leave campaign needed to convince, weren’t necessarily that engaged. On the other hand, there were a lot of interests with skin in the game in favour of Europe.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: I could see how all the business groups and the main companies speaking in the media were on the pro-European side of things. Saying how leaving the EU would be a terrible idea.

HOST: Matthew Elliott led the campaign to leave the EU. Essentially, in Harry Potter terms, he was Will Straw’s Vodelmort. His job was to convince Gareth that leaving Europe wouldn’t affect his business. Bit of an uphill battle.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: It was obvious that the government would basically wheel out all these big, major business leaders to basically say how it would be terrible for the economy.

HOST: So they needed to recruit some respectable business leaders to their side. Especially since the other major group arguing for leave had tiny bit of an image problem.

NIGEL FARAGE: I was asked if a group of Romanian men moved in next to you, would you be concerned? And if you lived in London, I think you would be.

HOST: Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party.  You might call him racist. But apparently that’s just a boring media obsession.

NIGEL FARAGE: Your media obsession with attempting to paint UKIP out to be a racist party is something I’m getting really rather bored of.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: I could see how UKIP and their leader Nigel Farage only really had a limit in terms of their popularity, of about 1/3 of voters

HOST: To win, Matthew needed more than half the voters.  So the campaign decided it didn’t want to be associated with its single biggest ally. That’s a pretty huge call.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: The trouble was that some of those messengers who we wanted to get on board to attract those swing voters, such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove…. Those people didn’t want to be part of a UKIP based campaign. There were lots of negatives about UKIP and Nigel Farage.

HOST: Meanwhile over at the Remain campaign, it was the exact opposite.

WILL STRAW: It was genuinely cross-party. It was an open and inclusive campaign, that brought into in people from all party backgrounds and one that brought people from civil society, from businesses large and small, from the Trade Union, from faith movements. It was … we believe the largest cross-country campaign this country has ever seen.

HOST: Remember: this is the side that lost.

WILL STRAW: We had some extraordinary match ups. The two heads of research from the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, … coming together in our campaign.

HOST: So what on earth went wrong for the Remain campaign? And – perhaps more interesting – what the hell went right for Leave?

HOST: It’s not as if the remain campaign couldn’t mobilise its supporters.

WILL STRAW: In December, we started holding community meetings. The first weekend we had four community meetings around the country. By June 23rd we have the referendum, we had an average of thousand events taking place every weekend, around the country.


HOST: And it wasn’t the supporters themselves…

WILL STRAW: What we found is that the people who put themselves forward to work on this campaign came with a brilliant attitude. They were absolutely willing to put aside those party differences.

HOST: In fact, the campaign even found a way to make a virtue of the strange bedfellows it had brought together.

WILL STRAW: We always got new members of staff to introduce themselves, talk a bit about their background … to make a strength of the fact that we had people going right from the Green Party and the hard left of the Labour Party all the way over to some very, very Euro-skeptic Conservative Party, who believed it was in Britain’s economical interest to remain in the EU.

HOST: Compare that to the Leave campaign, who all seemed to hate each other.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: The relationship between Vote Leave and Leave.EU and UKIP and Grassroots Out, was always very difficult. A lot of people within those groups thought there should be one campaign.

HOST: But instead of trying to embrace all those difficult differences like Will Straw did, Matthew Elliott went in the opposite direction, eschewing any sort of formal coalition.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: Because we were a separate campaign, the other Leave campaign never liked us, there were constant arguments, constant disagreements.

HOST: And those disagreements were about pretty  fundamental things, like what the message should be.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: So the message coming out of UKIP was, let’s leave the EU so we can pull up the drawbridge and basically have no more migration to the UK.

HOST: Remember – Matthew Elliott believed message would work on about one third of voters, but alienate the rest.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: We did a lot of market research on what people’s attitudes were towards migration. The point that we made at Vote Leave was actually much more in tune with what voters were thinking. Which was basically, Britain needs a certain amount of migration. We want to have the best software engineers from Silicon Valley and the best engineers from India and China. And on top of that, we need a certain amount of unskilled migration as well. To be frank, many British people don’t want to do some jobs that they would consider to be menial and beneath them. And people recognise that and the people in the northeast where we got high levels of votes, they understand that. But what they want is basically to, to coin our phrase, take back control of migration to the UK.

SOT: Take back control… vote leave on June 23rd.

HOST: So, by not entering into a big, broad coalition with Nigel Farage and UKIP, the Leave campaign was able to turn the message about migration into a far more respectable message around control. By having such a tight say over the message, it was much easier to navigate the dual task of washing migration of its racist associations, while retaining a focused emotional punch.

GARETH DAVIES: Thinking about it now they drove this very simplistic emotional campaign around immigration. Maybe they just got the fever of the people, they got it right. It’s like an advertising campaign isn’t it?

HOST: So with that in mind, what did Gareth – a man who employed a polish interior decorator – think about immigration?

GARETH DAVIES: We just can’t keep taking people in. You know, we’ve got to get this under control.

HOST: There it is. Control. It’s over 12 months later and the campaign slogan is still fresh in Gareth’s mind. Meanwhile, those further to the right could continue with more extreme rhetoric. A message that would bring some voters to the polls, even while the official campaign disavowed any association.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: There was actually one key moment as well, in the campaign, when a lot of people started emailing people to say you’re absolutely right to do it as you did.

HOST: A week out from the referendum, UKIP launched a new billboard advertisement. It’s was a new low, even for Nigel Farage.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: A picture of refugees from Syria walking across some of the East European countries.

HOST: Across the top of the billboard, in large red letters

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: it said Breaking Point. And it’s a very controversial poster, saying that Britain was at breaking point and migrants are marching across Europe to take our jobs and everything like that.

HOST: Then that same afternoon, terrible news breaks.

POLICE SPOKESPERSON (SOT): Just before 1 o’clock today, Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen borough was attacked in Market Street Birstall. I am now very sad to have to report that she has died as a result of her injuries.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: A Labour Member of Parliament, Jo Cox was murdered, was killed by one of her constituents.

HOST: The attacker was a far-right Brexit supporter, who later gave his name in court as “Death to Traitors, Freedom to Britain”.

MATTHEW ELLIOT: So the juxtaposition of Nigel Farage’s Breaking Point poster with the Labour Member of Parliament, Jo Cox’s very sad death, done by somebody shouting “Britain First” couldn’t have come at a worse time for the campaign.

HOST: People now understood the wisdom of not being in coalition with Nigel Farage.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: They understood at that point what a liability he was and understood how badly the campaign could have been thrown off course had we stuck with him or been part of his campaign.

HOST: It was an horrific crime and shows the wisdom in the distance they’d created. Nevertheless, it bears noting that Matthew Elliott’s Leave campaign were still happy to take Nigel Farage’s votes, while distancing themselves the violence that it had stirred up.

HOST: Over at the Remain campaign – remember, the big, broad happy family – the issue of immigration was causing no end of headaches.

WILL STRAW: My view, the view of people who were on the labour side of the argument felt very strongly that we could not ignore this issue. We had to take it on, we had to unravel the misinformation that they were giving about immigration.

HOST: The Remain campaign was hopelessly split. Should they address the issue of immigration head on, or ignore it and instead talk about the economic benefits of Europe?

WILL STRAW: The conservatives on the campaign wanted to move away from immigration and use every opportunity that immigration came up to pivot back onto the economy. And we felt that in the face of the leave campaign relentlessly going after immigration that this wouldn’t work.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think that the campaign’s inability to really make the call around campaigning immigration was partly a function of this very broad political coalition that’s sat at the top?

WILL STRAW: I think that’s right. If you look at the leave campaign, they had a very small number of decision makers at the top of their campaign. …And they ran it by dictat. We didn’t have the same opportunity.

HOST: Every message they put out had to have the support from an absurdly broad group, from the conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to active trade unionists and green groups.

Far from being a virtue, the breadth of the coalition was becoming genuine problem.

WILL STRAW: There wasn’t one clear message that the remain campaign was putting out. It was a mish-mash of different arguments … Whereas the other campaign had this very seductive idea of take back control, which they used again and again.

HOST: And what did the voters think? Well… let’s check in with Gareth.

INTERVIEWER:What did you think about the Remain campaign?

GARETH DAVIES: To be perfectly honest, 12 months on…I … The only thing i can say was that it was obviously not very convincing because it was the exit campaign that actually influenced me. Claire and I had a brief conversation. What are you going to do? I’m going to vote Leave. And I said, or she said, yeah, I’m going to vote Leave as well. And that was it. It became an emotional issue. It was an emotional vote for us …. A lot of people voted on a gut feeling. We voted on a gut feeling.

HOST: Will Straw’s campaign fell into a classic trap. When you are trying to win a majority of people to your side, it seems common sense to want to build your coalition as broad as possible – to match the diversity of the people that you want to influence with the diversity of your coalition.

But with coalitions, less can often be more.

If you have limited time on your hands, the broader you go when selecting coalition partners the weaker the trust between those partners. Without a strong common ground between the different players, the Remain campaign found itself in a messaging race to the bottom to find – something, anything – that they could all agree on.

Instead of pleasing everyone, its slogans became motherhood statements that didn’t offend any of the coalition partners — and in the process, also pleased noone.

The result – a tactical deadlock that meant they couldn’t respond effectively to their opponent.

It was like the coalition that brought millions onto the streets to protest against the war in Iraq. Within months of that protest, the Walk Against the War Coalition I’d been part of had disbanded in acrimony. The only common ground between the marxists, the unionists ,sports clubs and the christians and jews had been a single tactic, and once that had failed, the only thing left to do was to blame each other for the failure.

By contrast, the leave campaign took the opposite route. They had a narrow coalition, that let them developed a clear message about control that spoke to a majority. On the surface, their coalition looked much smaller.

With fewer people to please they had higher levels of trust which meant they could agree on a clear focused message that didn’t have to please everyone within the coalition. Instead they could focus on getting enough swing voters across the line – in order to win.

INTERVIEWER:Do you have any regrets about voting Leave?

GARETH DAVIES: I think so yeah. … the issue was bigger than we realised, I think than everybody realised. The out campaign did a better job. Were louder, brighter. Whatever they did and I can’t even remember what they did now. It must have been, it must have been stronger because the message got through.

HOST: We’ll be back in a moment.


HOST: Now, for a change of pace, a far more hands-on story across the other side of the world in Australia.

MEG: Terrified, absolutely terrified. When the government was saying there was going to be 850 riot squad police coming in, we just knew that it could be disastrous. And let’s face it a lot of us are not as young as we used to be. And not as nimble.

PETER: It could have been ugly. And the police didn’t want to do it. They knew there was going to be fatalities.

HOST: I’m at the site of the Bentley Blockade, visiting a bunch of neighbours who, a few years ago, decided, against all odds, to take on the fossil fuel industry. We’ll see how a hotch potch group that included farmers to firies, environmentalists, indigenous leaders, small businesses and grandmothers tried to stop gas fields from setting up shop around them. It is a remarkable story of brinkmanship that ended in an astounding way. An outcome that has echoed around the world.

HOST: Our story begins back in 2010 with a couple of grandmothers who had Mondays off.

CLAIRE: Well the Nannas got together – we started off as a spy network, if you like.

HOST: A handful of companies had started drilling holes, looking for coal seam gas in the small town of Keerong in New South Wales, on the east coast of Australia. Claire Twommy became concerned after seeing a documentary about it.

CLAIRE: I saw gas lands on telly and that opened my eyes. And so we decided, we both had Mondays off, that we would check them out each week and just watch what was happening.

They were building the evaporation ponds for the waste water, the toxins really that came from fracking and exploration. So we watched that for a while. That was when we were knitting, and that’s when the idea of the Nannas came about.

HOST: Claire and her friend set up a group called The Knitting Nannas. So what had the Knitting Nanna’s stumbled upon?

IAN: There were some flash Brisbane entrepreneurs, Steve Bissell and Mick Davies, got a hold of leases through their company… they drilled 19 holes.

HOST: Ian Gilliard and his partner lived nearby.

IAN: One of them was in our valley, 3 kilometres upstream from my and Vicky’s small patch of dirt on the floor of the valley.

HOST: Ian too, saw the same documentary and became concerned. He’d been living in Keerong for the past forty years, but there was something in his backstory that none of the companies would have known when they started drilling in his backyard. Ian had… well, put it this way. He had a, well, unconventional approach to authority.

HOST: As a young man growing up in New Zealand, Ian had heard the French government was testing nuclear bombs in the Pacific.

IAN: So with a friend, I organized a boat, went across the Pacific, went to Muroroa Atoll, and had a run-in with the French Navy got rammed. We escaped the clutches of the French courts and military in Tahiti. Went on to Hawaii. Provocatively, the US government put a submarine in the area, a nuclear submarine. So we swam out to that on surfboards.

HOST: When the gas companies started drilling in Ian’s backyard, they probably didn’t suspect what they were about to come up against.

HOST: What Ian wanted to find out was what it was like to live with a gasfield around you. Further north-west, gas fields had been running for years. So Ian went up and see the impact for himself.

IAN: The health effects in the Chinchilla gas fields on human and animal populations are devastating. There are people with nose bleeds, there are people with headaches.

HOST: To be honest, when I started this story, I’d heard of fracking, but I never knew quite what it was. Basically it involves injecting chemicals deep underground to break up the rocks to release the gas caught in the seams. The problem?

IAN: You lose your water table.

HOST: The water near the surface drips through cracked rocks and disappears forever. And water is pretty important. Especially on farms.

HOST: Ian came back from Chinchilla, and did what any self-respecting activist would do. He made a placard.

IAN: When I went to put up my own sign on my gate I was nervous. Coz I was one of the first ones, my own Lock the Gate sign. I said to myself, I’m making myself a target here, you know.

INTERVIEWER: What did Lock the Gate mean?

IAN: Lock the Gate means, you put up a sign on your place, it’s got a high court precedent on the bottom of it. And you say: Lock the Gate – to coal and gas companies. And it says you can’t come in here. You’re not welcome here.

HOST: Even though these companies had a licence from the Government to explore for gas beneath the land, they also needed access to the land. The easiest way to stop that is to simply lock the gate.

IAN: And in the end, we got busy and started printing signs, putting out literature. And other groups started coming to us and we formed rallies in Lismore. Didn’t ask any permission, just set up and did it.

HOST: A campaign was born.

HOST: By showing video documentaries, and holding meetings, the Ian and his newly minted Keerong Gas Squad went around the local community, educating people the impact of having gasfields in their backyard. People like Peter and Meg Neilson.

PETER: Peter Neilson, I’ve been a farmer all my life, born and bred on a farm. Yeah, that’s about the size of it.

MEG: Meg Neilson I work here on the farm. I’m sort of semi-retired.

INTERVIEWER: So when did you first hear about coal seam gas in the Northern Rivers?

MEG: Well, initially they were sort of these mentions of this good little industry that was going to come to the Northern Rivers. It was going to give a nice little power station and provide the area with natural gas. Wow, sounds great!

HOST: But right from the start, the gas company’s story kept changing.

PETER: The company that promoted it here, was trying to promote it as conventional.

INTERVIEWER: So how did you feel when you found out that it wasn’t what they told you it was?

PETER: I felt, I I felt that, that’s not…That’s ridiculous. I think the politicians will stop this. That’s what I thought. I thought they were going to bat for us. Because, you know, you have faith in your politicians.

HOST: So that was Meg and Peter’s plan at first. To trust the politicians. Yeah, we’ll see how that pans out.

HOST: But at the same time, Ian’s approach seemed equally futile. Signs and placards and rallies was not going to stop a mining company. If Ian was going to get them out of his valley, the Keerong Gas Squad needed to broaden its alliance. Enter Annie Kia.

INTERVIEWER: How long have you lived in the Northern Rivers?

ANNIE: My partner and I moved here in the beginning of 1985, from Adelaide.

INTERVIEWER: So why did you get involved?

ANNIE: Went to see Gas Lands, participated in a couple of rallies that they organized in Lismore and then, thought it up, this is, this is…This is a terrible, terrible industry. We have to throw everything we have at this to stop it from getting started. And so I thought, yup, I’m in.

HOST: Like Ian, Annie was also a veteran of social campaigning, having been heavily involved in the anti-nuclear movement in Adelaide. And nowadays she was an expert in…

ANNIE: the dynamics of large human systems and how networks and complexity dynamics play out in those systems.

HOST: In other words — how to build a social movement.

HOST: Before we go on, I’d just like to pause here so we can reflect on the sheer firepower that was starting to line up against these unfortunate gas companies. If you’re looking for the perfect example of picking the wrong opponent, this, might very well be it. Anyway, back to Annie.

ANNIE: We gathered together at that time a bunch of other people, a few other people that we knew had a background in social movements. And met in Ian’s place.

HOST: One of the other people at that meeting was Simon Clough, a local councillor.

SIMON: Well, there was over 300 years of political activist experience in the room. And it showed.

ANNIE: I think there were about nine of us around the table and we got some sticky notes and said, okay, what’s our vision, you know. What’s our vision for what we want? And I wrote them up and mapped out what we wanted to see. Which was mass movement dynamics.

HOST: Instead of placards and signs, or even relying on the local politicians, this group was a tiny bit more ambitious.

ANNIE: We wanted to see the whole population involved. Broad, broad support from every political affiliation.

HOST: So they started building not just a campaign, but an alliance.

ANNIE: We put on a public meeting, showed a film, and asked everyone that was there: You can raise your hands for do you want your roads and lands to be Gasfield Free. You can raise your hands for yes, for no, or for not sure. And, much to our amazement, all the hands shot up bar one in a room with a hundred and twenty people.

HOST: But this wasn’t just democracy as voting. This was democracy as action.

ANNIE: I think this tendency of people to receive bad news in their Facebook feed and click on petitions is really debilitating. Yes petitions can be valuable at times but the real juice is in face to face groups.… It’s not only where the engines of campaigns are, it’s where creativity is liberated, where collective intelligence is liberated. But it’s also where well-being is liberated.

HOST: And so they took the meeting literally into their streets.

ANNIE: We said: Look, not everyone’s here at this meeting. How about we give everyone a chance to have a say, get into survey teams and visit every household? And that means visiting people from every political affiliation.

HOST: The strategy worked across political affiliations because the issue was about something they all shared. It was about the ground beneath them. Literally – the ground was their common ground.

IAN: The strategy then compiled all the results and the first successful Gasfield Free community that was formed was here on The Channon. This is a very important point. We did not petition our  politicians or our government. We told them here and now, we will protect our community from gas fields. …this area is declared, self-declared Gasfield Free. Which of course doesn’t have any legal standing but it has powerful community and energetic and moral standing

ANNIE: By that time, the process was going viral. Neighbouring Duneden and places around here, they were picking it up and it was obvious that it was going to be something big. That we were launching, in effect, a strategy.

SIMON: The strategy was very simple. That was building relationships between everyone in the community.

HOST: But wait — wasn’t that exactly the mistake that the Remain campaign made during Brexit, which made it impossible to come up with a message?

INTERVIEWER: What was it about this issue that made, do you think, that helped them connect and agree with each other?

SIMON: The land. It’s just one thing. The land.

HOST: The difference was the common ground that all these disparate people shared, and from which their message stemmed. When it was about the land, they could see their own fate tied up in the message of this alliance. On top of that – these were neighbours fighting together – many knew each other. Trust was easier to forge because they all lived there.

SIMON: Well, because we had tried, initially, to talk about fracking. You know, the horrors of fracking in terms of the destruction of water tables, underground systems and so forth. And we came to the point where we realized that there were incredible limitations to that. And those limitations were around that it did not express the whole problem. And the whole problem was the destruction of rural economy, destruction of these extraordinarily beautiful rural environments, and the loss of water. And when we started talking about that, it clicked.

INTERVIEWER: Did you think you could win in those early days?

ANNIE: I did. Yeah. Coz I believed if we grew a social movement of sufficient strength that we would win. … if you build a social movement of sufficient power, the power resides in the people. It doesn’t reside in the government. Deciding to declare ourselves Gasfield Free, is a spunky kind of thing to do, it’s a feisty thing to do. It’s, it’s saying that we, the people of this place, have a right to self-determination.

HOST: Suddenly in late 2012, the Minister in charge of issuing gas licences Brad Hazzard announced that he was coming to Lismore in three days time, to the centre of the fight, to hold a community “consultation”.

ANNIE I think people had seen Mr. Hazzard in previous meetings and he’s really masterful.

HOST: Based on previous experience, the group feared the meeting would be a whitewash.

ANNIE: Basically, people here decided it wasn’t going to go the way he had planned.

SIMON: I was at the front. It was deafening, you know. To have a thousand people chanting “no CSG!” before the meeting even starts. And essentially what we decided was, we were going to have our voice heard.

ANNIE: The community decided to get hold of the microphone which they did non-violently, through chanting: Let him speak! And pointing to Ian Galliard.

ANNIE: And they persisted in that for a very long time. the community was just saying:  No, we’re not going to play this by your rules your going to play this by our rules.

IAN: And we got hold of the microphone it was given to me. … And then I gave it immediately to Kevin Budda, from the Githambul people because … that’s the protocol of indigenous Australia, you know, you give it to your elders to speak. And he spoke. And then I spoke. And then we started handing it around our PhDs and experts.

SIMON: I mean, we had a PhD in biology who talked about, what benchmark studies had learnt. We had a public servant who said, well, of course we all know that surface water is not related to ground water. I mean the whole thousand people in the hall just started braying with laughter. And then of course there was Mariann Lloyd-Smith who had just come back from the UN meeting on unconventional gas and I mean she just put them in a corner and boxed their ears.

SIMON: And rather than walking out disempowered and cowed, the community walked out of that meeting absolutely triumphant.

HOST: According to the normal story about protesting, this is usually where the story would end.  Sure, if you talk to anyone who was there that night, they’ll all tell you they left feeling utterly empowered. But that’s not uncommon for mass action. Most people have been to a rally at some point in their lives, feeling that they’d made a difference. That’s certainly how I felt after the march against the war in Iraq back in 2003.

And then we were ignored. That’s how these stories turn out, right?

Well this story isn’t over. It’s just warming up.

HOST: Up until this point, the group had tried four times to stop the mining companies setting up exploration sites around the region using non-violent direct action. Each time they’d failed.

IAN: We got smashed by the riot squad at Glenmoogee and Doubtful Creek, you know. They marched in there, at Glenmoogee the first time and started throwing people around, you know. All the people. They didn’t recognize where they were, these gum chewing hyped up young men and women from Sydney.

HOST: Each time, the companies would call for help from the police, and each time, the number of police would grow.

IAN: Bradley came in with an arm that had a pick jammed into it … It was…was bloody, as bloody as anything you’ll see in Australia

HOST: Remember, all these actions were non-violent. As each battle was fought and lost, the campaigners forged strong bonds of trust and respect between each other.

IAN: Our strength became determination and our strength was organization because by this time we had attracted a very strong core group of people who knew how to organize.

HOST: In early 2013, one of the key organisers, Boudicca Cerese was browsing the web and noticed that one of the gas companies, Metgasco, was planning to start drilling on a farm near the town of Bentley.

BOUDICCA: They’d lost a lot of money with the delays from the previous two blockades.

HOST: Frustrated by the delays, the company had changed tactics.

BOUDICCA: The Bentley Well was actually a well that they thought they could bring to commercial production quite quickly

HOST: If that happened, then the company would at last have a viable foothold in the Northern Rivers. It was clear that the community would need to mount another blockade.

ANNIE: I think everybody entering the conflict at Bentley was very nervous … about it because… Non-violent conflict is difficult, it’s non-violent but also conflict.

HOST: Luckily, the campaign already had a head start.

ANNIE: We had built a campaign iceberg, you know… and we had engaged across the political spectrum, the whole community.

HOST:Up until now, the blockades had been on the side of the road, but this time, a local farmer offered the use of his land.

SIMON: He was hardly a red raging radical I can tell you.

HOST: The whole community seemed to be swinging behind it, the campaign, even those who’d initially trusted their politicians.

PETER: The first time we went down and cleared the site, 20 odd people, 30 odd people..

HOST: Like many in the community, Peter Nielson had never been involved in a blockade before.

PETER: And I looked around, and not being involved before, I looked around – What are we going to do? Thirty people… how are we going to stop them coming in the gate?

ANNIE: Metgasco asked a fencing contractor, I think he was based around Byron, if he would do the job, put a fence around the site in preparation for the drilling. And he said no, You can keep your 12,000 dollars, I’m going to join, I’m going down to join the people there, you know.

HOST: The organisers suddenly found they had eyes and ears all over town.

SIMON: Our intelligence system was ridiculous. I mean, when the police would propose to come in, when there was only 200 of them, we knew they had ordered 250 breakfast rolls with egg and bacon. And we knew where they were going to get them from and who was providing them and where they were going to eat them. It was just a crazy degree of information we had.

HOST: And so, several hundred campaigners set up camp, blocking the ability for any trucks to enter.

SIMON: The mornings were really critical in that … Well it became known as the dawn service, we’d get together at about 5 in the morning, and we were usually very fortunate in having some fantastic musicians.

SIMON: We’d generally have a fire, and we would update people on what was going on in terms of the intelligence we had about what the mining was up to.

HOST: For months this went on. The number of police in town started increasing. From dozens, to scores, to hundreds. But as the numbers of police increased, so did the number of protesters.

IAN: Eventually, a camp manager was employed. And suddenly there were charging stations for all the 2-way radios… And there was a coffee machine. Every good protest camp needs a coffee machine. Cappuccinos there, you know.

HOST: As you can imagine, the company wasn’t happy. And so the state government decided to bring in 850 police from all over the state, to force the mining drills through.


IAN: As time built up it became very apparent that the police numbers built up as time went by until we were facing 850 to a thousand police, dogs, horses, riot squads, and all that. And that was pretty scary.

HOST: Meg and Peter were dispatched to Sydney, the state capital.

MEG: We were trying to persuade the premier not to allow the 850 riot police to be let loose on our community.

IAN: … They said get rid of the young people. And the old people. We said, we’ll get rid of the young people, we don’t want them exposed to trauma at this stage in their lives.

IAN: But we’re not getting rid of the old people, we know why we’re here, you know. We know exactly why we’re here.

IAN: This is our job.

HOST: That night, the lookouts were placed on high alert in case the police decided to come early. A showdown looked inevitable.

MEG: And the phone rang…about quarter to six in the morning

IAN: I was up at Gate A at the blockade site. I was there as I was in the mornings with the loudhailer at my hip ready to give the briefing.

PETER: …one of the TV crews. And they wanted to interview us under the Tree of Life out at the back of the Parliament  house.

HOST: It was not the news that anyone had expected.

PETER: They said: They pulled the pin. And we didn’t know. And this was quarter of six in the morning. Yeah, that real brought me unstuck.

HOST: They’d won.

MEG: we couldn’t believe it, we were laughing, and crying. It was just…We had been so – you talked earlier about fear? If we ever felt really frightened. It was just this extraordinary relief and…I’ve never felt anything like it.

IAN: I couldn’t quite believe it but…big smiles on my face. And on everyone else’s as well. And there was a feeling of sheer relief because if those 850 police had come, or more, with all their dogs and riot gear, there would have been fatalities. … these senior police that came actually put in a report to the government. And this report said there will be fatalities because there are lot of older people.

HOST: The blockade was over. The victory was comprehensive. Over the coming months and years, the government ended up buying back the licences they’d issued to the mining companies. Today, Northern Rivers remains Gasfield Free.

INTERVIEWER: So is the fight over?

SIMON: It’s never over. Never ever over.

HOST: It’s an extraordinary tale, really. It’s easy to mistake this sprawling, messy coalition of farmers, greenies, firies and business owners as being an unwieldy coalition, the opposite of what was effective during the Brexit campaign. But in fact, the common ground that these people shared was narrowly defined. Their land. Literally, their common ground.

No one was trying to convince someone else that “their way” was the only way. Farmers and environmentalists have a different way of loving their land – and in this space – where people spent years getting to know each other better – they let those differences be. They could set aside their differences and agree on their commonality – defend the land that they all lived together on.

ANNIE: I think there is a misunderstanding and a misuse of the word ‘movement’ in recent times. I’ve often heard the word ‘movement’ used for what seems to me a tight and focused campaign.… to me, movements are messy, they’re turbulent, they’re generative, they’re creative and, you know, if you’re not tearing your hair out in a movement, you ain’t got one, you know. All you’ve got is a campaign.

HOST: Unluckily for the mining companies, some of the key organisers of this campaign were veterans of social movements. They were die hard, highly skilled, baby boomers all living in a beautiful space – many of them knew each other already which made it easier for them to organise together.

And their experience taught them they couldn’t do this alone. They needed to spread the leadership for the campaign across the whole community. Their alliance included 18 Action Groups. The coalition actively distributed leadership in ways that enabled lots of people to be part of the action. It was complex, but not chaotic – there were high degrees of trust built over years of working together that held the relationships together even when it was tough. By the time of the Bentley Blockade they had built a huge movement. A real movement. A messy, creative movement that had the power to win.

SIMON: And you need to have an overall strategy, and that strategy needs to start from the very beginning…

HOST: Talking of which, remember the meeting that kicked things off, at Ian’s house? The plan they wrote down to build a movement?

ANNIE: It’s quite amazing. I looked back on it after the Bentley blockade, I found the document and had a look at it. Just one page. We virtually achieved nearly all of it.

HOST: Changemakers is hosted by me, Amanda Tattersall. It is produced by Caroline Pegram and Catherine Freyne. Written by Charles Firth. Our researchers are Tessa Sparks, Iona Rennie and Amy Fairall. Our audio producers are Uncanny Valley.  Our music is by Justin Shave. Our launch partner is Mobilisation Lab. They are a global learning and collaboration network powering the future of social change campaigns.

Our sponsoring organisations are Australia for UNHCR,, the Fred Hollows Foundation and the Organising the 21st Century City project funded by the Halloran Trust based at the University of Sydney.

Remember to subscribe to this podcast to catch all our episodes, like us on Facebook at changemakers podcast and checkout for transcripts and updates on all our stories.

Episode 1 – Making the Impossible Possible

Episode 1 – Making the Impossible Possible

You might think it’d be easier to ask for something achievable in a campaign, rather than demand the impossible. But sometimes the opposite is true.

In the first episode of ChangeMakers podcast, we look at the famous Fight for 15 campaign in the United States, which is radically changing the way low-wage workers fight for better conditions. Then we look at the roots of the radical politics that is sweeping Barcelona – and examine their attempts to “empower the street”.

Click the play button above to stream it here. Or listen to this episode on PodcastOne or Stitcher, or Apple iTunes.

(Or use any Podcast app with our RSS Feed).

Full transcript of episode 1:

Episode 1 – “Making the Impossible Possible”


ROBERT WILSON JNR: We have this idea as long as we have a job and we’re not in the streets that we’re doing good. And that’s sometimes how we can get exploited

HOST: That’s Robert Wilson Jnr, who used to flip burgers for McDonald’s. For years he got paid.

ROBERT: 8.25

HOST: $8.25 an hour. And so did the rest of his family.

ROBERT: me, my mom, and my brother was working at that time living all in the same household, splitting the rent amongst each other

HOST: This is the story of how Robert decided that 8.25 wasn’t enough.

But instead of arguing for 9.25 or even 10.50, he and thousands of his co-workers decided to campaign for $15 an hour. Almost double his pay.

The movement’s called the Fight for 15. And it’s spreading across America, succeeding where literally hundreds of other campaigns have failed.


Hello. I’m Amanda Tattersall. Welcome to ChangeMakers – the podcast about people trying to change the world. Changemakers is supported by our launch partner Mobilisation Lab. Over the coming episodes, we’ll be visiting anti-Putin activists in Moscow, taking on powerful oligarchs

GRAB – Yaraslov

Meeting pro-democracy dissidents in Hong Kong, one of whom is facing 21 years in jail simply for organising a rally

GRAB – Kinman Chan

And talking to the brand new organisers who’ve been leading one of the most effective challenges to Donald Trump.

GRAB – Indivisible quote

HOST: All of them, Changemakers.


HOST: Before we get back to Robert and the Fight for 15, let me explain who I am.

Like Robert, my first job was flipping burgers for McDonald’s. Since that awful experience, I’ve done a lot of things to try and make the world a better place. I started out by attending more than my fair share of rallies, holding placards, knocking on doors and signing petitions. Remember the large rallies around the globe against the War Iraq in 2003? Yeah — I helped organise one of them.

When that didn’t work out so well, I tried to be more strategic. I co-founded GetUp, which pioneered digital campaigning in Australia and also set up a massive coalition called the Sydney Alliance, in my home town.

At one level it’s great. The other day, my name got put on a meme, linking me to a world-wide Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. You know you must be doing something right when you’re on a meme?

But recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact my constant campaigning has had on myself, and those around me.

I have literally sent myself to the brink of madness trying to make the world a better place.

And for what? Look at the world in 2017. I’ve spent my adult life trying to improve the world, and this is the result?

The thing is, change is possible. Victories happen everyday. You just don’t hear about them. So I’ve decided to do this podcast and meet some of the more extraordinary Changemakers. I want to find out what they’re doing, but most of all, how they’re doing it.

Let’s go.


HOST: The way I remember it, Fight for 15 had a pretty modest beginning. It was 2006, and I’d travelled across the world to research how Americans campaign.

Madeline Talbott was one of America’s top organisers at the time. She and her husband Keith were organising a campaign against Wal-Mart – the largest retailer in the country.

INTERVIEWER: What was it called?

MADELINE: The big box living wage campaign

INTERVIEWER: “Would it be fair to describe your office as more functional than style?

MADELINE: Yes is would be fair to say. Keith actually has a good story of Michelle Obama coming to visit … she was discussing whether to place a volunteer with local 880. And as they were talking, a cockroach started its way up the wall. It wasn’t pretty.

HOST: Like Fight for 15, the Big Box campaign was about  improving the lives of low wage workers. But for the campaigners taking on Walmart, there was a catch.

MADELINE: (after muffle, what happened) They were hugely popular because of their discount pricing.

HOST: Walmart’s stuff was so cheap that the company had genuine support amongst the very low wage workers that Madeline was trying to mobilise against Walmart.

While this is annoyingly ironic, it was also a big problem for the campaign, and Walmart knew it. At every turn, the company tried to divide the community from the unions. Walmart presented itself as a friend to its customers – who were in many cases living below the poverty line, even while working full time for Walmart.

The unions and the community organisations found themselves locked out.

A new strategy was needed. So instead of focusing on Walmart they decided to take an industry-wide approach. They wanted all Big Box retailers to pay a wage that workers could live on, rather than just the minimum. And that would include Walmart.

MADELINE: After talking to our members we felt that Wal-Mart could come to the city but if it did they should pay a living wage.

HOST: A Living Wage. Instead of a saying “No Walmart” they developed a positive demand, complete with a social justice sting in its tale. Asking employers to pay a wage that workers could live on was a pretty reasonable demand, and had the added bonus of implying Walmart’s wages were so terrible, nobody could actually live on them.

The plan was to pass an ordinance at City Council. It was perfect timing. It placed pressure on the whole Council in the lead up to their election.

MADELINE: We ran a huge fight to win a standards ordinance and it was a huge coalition.

HOST: Even though the mayor opposed the measure, they had won.


HOST: and then… the Mayor vetoed it.


HOST: They lost. The veto meant that the measure was dead in the water. But the campaigners didn’t see it that way.

Madeline and her team had a hunch that the Mayor might veto the ordinance. That’s why they had timed the campaign ahead of the election. Their campaign had put the spotlight on the issue of low wages. For the Mayor to save face with voters, he now had no choice but to do something about the issue.

So they offered the Mayor a way out. Instead of turning him into an enemy, they said to him, “Okay, you don’t want to deal with this at a city level, but what if you supported a state-wide increase to the minimum wage, which includes Walmart workers.” Essentially they were offering him the opportunity to make it someone else’s problem.

MADELINE: To give you an idea of the impact of that, every dollar above the minimum that we could win is a $2bn transfer of wealth. That kind of increase was a transfer of $4bn wealth per year. It was amazing.

HOST: Remarkably, they won. Eight dollars twenty-five. State-wide. But the campaign had hardly been a worker uprising. It’d been a clever piece of politics – with some sturdy coalition building – that allowed Walmart to set up in Chicago, in return for slightly higher wages.

It showed the value of always thinking a few steps ahead. When the mayor vetoed the ordinance, they had a back-up plan, to leverage their position in the next battle.


HOST: The following year, I left the US and went back home to Sydney, Australia. But I kept in touch with Madeline. The big box campaign had been hailed as a triumph, but it wasn’t perfect, and I was keen to see where it went next. I went away, reflected on what I saw, and wrote a book about it. Well — it was one of the case studies.

MADELINE: What we learned from your book was enormously enlightening to us we had not really involved the members of each of the coalition participants in the decision making and in real ownership of the campaign …

HOST: So they decided to change tack.

MADELINE: This time we wanted to build the campaign from the right base, from the base of the workers themselves.

HOST: It was pretty cool. I’d written something, and they’d listened.

And let’s be clear what was happening here: a community organiser heard a critique of her organising and didn’t get defensive! Instead Madeline worked with her team to think about how they could shift their strategy to take the criticism on board.

Madeline quickly discovered that her Chicago team were not alone in wanting to organise differently.

Similar organisations in Washington DC and New York were all asking the question “how do you organise the low wage worker community?”

In 2011, this group of organisers came together and committed to changing the way they worked. Madeline was amazed to hear about what her colleague Jon Kest had been trying in New York.

MADELINE: they were starting to put together campaigns that had at the leadership of those campaigns the workers themselves (carwashes, retail stores, meeting with some success)

HOST: Putting the workers at the centre of the strategy. That was the key.


HOST: Instead of paid organisers alone deciding what to do and then telling the workers, here the organisers and the workers jointly figured out how to try and win.


HOST: Back in Chicago, Madeline decided to experiment with this model. One of the first things the workers decided was they wanted to hold a rally along Chicago’s Iconic Magnificent Mile.

MADELINE: Going in and out of stores talking to workers as we went.

HOST: That’s right. Instead of having a march and then listening to union staff make speeches, the rally that the workers planned went and talked to actual workers, as they were doing their jobs.

And they didn’t just talk to them. They signed them up. Not to a union, but to the cause.

HOST: It was a complete rejection of the normal union script. Hell, the workers, like Robert Wilson, even made up their own songs.

ROBERT: (singing) 8.25 just ain’t fair, we started from the bottom, now we’re here.

MADELINE: We had never done anything like that where we were recruiting workers as we went.


HOST: Meanwhile, in New York, Jon Kest started organising in migrant communities and found the workers were pretty good at negotiating better wages for themselves.

The powerful service workers union, called the SEIU, decided to back in these new organising efforts. It was the first time that a union had backed a campaign that wasn’t about signing people up to a union, but rather about building a social movement of low wage workers.

Over the next year, organisers in Chicago and New York built up lists of tens of thousands of workers, who all wanted radically better working conditions.

The next conversation was about identifying what their demand would be.


MADELINE: Over and over again, the amount we were fighting for was fine but it wasn’t enough. $6.50 was fine but it wasn’t enough. $8.25 was fine but it wasn’t enough.

HOST: So what would they aim for this time? An union staffer might have recommended that an extra $1 or $2 per hour was realistic. But it wasn’t up to union officials. It was going to be the workers together with the organisers who decided what to demand.

MADELINE: We talked in Chicago about what the focus would be and … we said we think we should list an amount that people are ready to fight for.

And somebody said, and it wasn’t me, what would you think of fight for 15?

And I said, that is exactly the right level.

I understood that working directly with the workers involved that 15 would be (both) aspirational (, something worth fighting for, ) it would not be something that we would win immediately but something that would be worth fighting for.

HOST: At first some workers, like Robert, didn’t think it was very realistic.

ROBERT: I was sceptical, and I was just like I’ll believe it when I see it.

HOST: The idea was that the increase would be spread over several years. That way, employers could plan for it, while workers were guaranteed rising prosperity along the way. The demand itself was its own education.

ROBERT WILSON: we’re working, and we’re working hard, but at the end of a day, we’re still not able to afford our basic needs. We still need food stamps.


MADELINE: So we took the fight for 15 demand to the workers at the next fight for 15 weekly meeting. It just took off.

ROBERT: so many people at times feel like where they’re at financially is based on their own individual failures. But when … you’re in a room with so many people who are going through your same struggle, it really shows how much this is a larger issue going on.

HOST: This is key. By talking to each other they escaped their isolation and they were able to realise that their poverty wasn’t their own fault. The systemic underpayment of workers was to blame.

INTERVIEWER: Did the $15 in particular mean anything to you in where you were at?

ROBERT: Yeah. I thought that it would really be a big change in my life.

HOST: So in Chicago they had another rally – this time on Black Friday – the busiest shopping day of the year.


ROBERT: An organiser I remember… was like, “It’s okay. You don’t have to go in there. We wouldn’t recommend anybody strike at their workplace if they don’t want to.” And I remember just saying, feeling like if I didn’t do this, I feel like I wouldn’t win. It was a key moment in my life where I had to define it.

I woke up early …the day after, shaved my face, got ready to get fired. I actually got promoted for a position that I’ve been doing for years but never getting the pay for. So to me, that really showed our working power,

HOST: And it wasn’t just in Chicago. Back in New York, a few weeks later there was a strike of low wage workers. Let me say that again. A strike of low wage workers: Workers who economists had been claiming for years couldn’t strike, because their labour was so readily replaceable.

MADELINE: Their one-day strike at the end of 2012 made national headlines.

HOST: So how did they do it? The first thing they did was they decided to ignore the law.

But don’t take our word for it. This is Collin O’Malley, an organiser at the time.

COLLIN: How did they stand up? Well one, they ignored the NLRB rules that meant to make unionising nearly impossible in this country.

HOST: It’s no secret that the rules are stacked against unions in the United States. Even getting into a union involves complicated workplace ballots.

But thanks to precisely those rules, this strike was not being organised by union members. These were just non-union workers who had signed up to support a campaign.

And thanks precisely to all the anti-union rules, they had very little to lose. After all, what were the authorities going to do to them? Take away their paltry pay? They couldn’t even threaten to deregister their union. Because. It. Didn’t. Exist.

And the brilliant thing is that the people who were going out on strike…

MADELINE: …they were mothers and fathers who had to pay bills. The concept that they were prepared to risk by going on strike was such a hugely resonant concept.

HOST: The law breakers: they weren’t just young, hopefuls. They were lifelong employees. Jonathan Westin was one of the New York organisers at the time.

JONATHAN WESTIN: We were literally thinking that every single one of these workers could get fired. And you know it was very likely that a lot of them were going to get fired.

HOST: This wasn’t a tale of the unions cutting deals to try and get an extra few bucks in return for more members and concessions. This was unleashing the talents and energies of everyone it touched.

And, remarkably, instead of being fired, they set in motion a national movement called Fight for 15.


MADELINE: The slogan came out of Chicago the tactic came out of New York and the backing for this came out of SEIU. …And the rest is history.


HOST: Seeing a winner, the SEIU ended up putting tens of millions of dollar into the campaign.

Within a year of that first strike, Fight for 15 won a commitment to a $15 minimum wage for all workers in New York, in California, in the city of Seattle and in more than a dozen other cities and counties.

And now the Fight for 15 team are going after the largest fast food employer in America – McDonalds – to get them to pay $15 an hour.

They have made the impossible possible – almost doubling the wages of millions of people across the country. How did they do it?

They put workers at the centre of the campaign.

It almost seems embarrassing having to say it out loud. Isn’t it obvious that workers have the most to win in a fight for their own conditions?

Sadly staff-controlled campaigns are all too common across unions and community groups. Paid professionals come in and write the strategy and then ask their army of members to turn out to moments of action. In fact, that’s the usual way of doing it.

The weakness in the original fight against Walmart was that the union was distant from the workers, allowing Walmart to play up that division.

By involving workers and experienced organisers in the development of strategy they built a much, much more powerful army. It took longer, and they had to convince people like Robert to overcome their initial skepticism. But the end result was worth it. It’s taken on a life of its own.

Indeed, with workers involved, the demands themselves became so much more inspiring. The workers didn’t have a technocratic bit-by-bit approach asking for one dollar here and a dollar twenty-five there. An extra dollar an hour wasn’t going to solve anyone’s problems. But a big bold demand like $15 was big. Change your life big. Make the impossible possible big.


ROBERT: We really opened people’s eyes to a $15 minimum wage at a time where people thought we were crazy to say things like that.

HOST: Back in a moment.


HOST: Welcome back. This next story is the housing equivalent of flipping burgers for 8.25 an hour.

HOST: Imagine, you’ve just been told that at any moment – day or night, you could be evicted from your home. No notice. How would that make you feel?

JAMES: One day, I was talking with my neighbours, and I said, you know, I’m, I’m not sleeping very well.

HOST: A few months ago, James apartment building was sold off.

JAMES: And they were like, no, no, neither us.

HOST: It was 3:30 in the morning. He texted around his building to see who was awake.

JAMES: All of us… So the whole building, you know, were awake…

HOST: It’s not a large building. 11 apartments in central Barcelona. All lying awake, thinking about what might happen.

JAMES: … it affects a lot to our healths. It starts with, you know, problems with…that you’re not hungry, and then problems with going to sleep too, of course.


HOST: Today I’m in Barcelona.

…This is a story about how a city’s citizens decided to stop worrying about the interests of those who owned it and instead pay attention to those who lived there.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Only because we are in the door the eviction is stopped…

INTERVIEWER: And today we won.

UW: Yes today we won…

INTERVIEWER: Feels good?

UW: Yes feels so good… I want to cry you know, the emotion.

HOST: It’s pretty extraordinary story, and amazingly, it’s a movement that’s still growing.


(0:09 – 0:12)

HOST: May 15th, 2011. Thousands of protesters flood the Plaza Cataluña in Barcelona. That faint whacking sound you hear above the shouting.

(UPSOT – 0:10)

HOST: There? That’s the sound of a woman in her mid-twenties, with denim jeans and a green t-shirt sitting in the plaza, being beaten with a baton by a heavily armed police man in riot gear. Everyone around her looks on in shock as she clutches her leg in agony.

HOST: On the 15th May 2011, 130,000 indignados – or in English ‘the angry ones’ – took to the streets, camping out in town centres across the country.

HOST: Why were they so angry?

It all starts back in 2009. A few months after the American financial system had collapsed the world entered the so-called Global Financial Crisis.

Spain’s economy tanked, but instead of supporting the economy, the Spanish government supported by the Spanish opposition  slashed its own spending, driving a pretty bad recession into a full on economic depression.

The government called it ‘austerity’. Which sounds harmless enough, sensible even. But millions lost their jobs.

Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of people who’d bought houses in the lead-up to the crash were unable to pay their mortgages. Before, if someone ran into financial trouble…

LUCIA: The people that could not pay, they just selled the apartment and that was over.

HOST: But now, millions of people couldn’t cover their mortgage, and nobody would buy their property. The economists in Brussels called it a housing crash. But that hardly begins to describe it. It was a catastrophe. Lucia Gonzalez lived in Barcelona, and had lots of friends who were affected.

LUCIA: no one knew what happened when you were not able to pay your mortgage.

… The law said that if you cannot sell, you were going to be evicted, …

HOST: One person who faced this nightmare was Mari-Carmen. Her troubles started when her daughter was struggling to pay her mortgage. So Mari-Carmen agreed to guarantee the loan.

MARI-CARMEN: They offered her a loan that was a hoax. Nothing but a hoax. But we didn’t know that.

HOST: Within six months, struggling to pay, the banks came in and took her daughter’s home. With nowhere to go, Mari-Carmen let her daughter and grandkids stay at her house. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end.

You see, with Mari-Carmen’s guarantee, the banks now started pursuing Mari-Carmen for her house too. They announced their intention to evict Mari-Carmen, and her daughter and grand-children.


HOST: By 2010, there were hundreds of evictions like this occurring across Spain every day. Seeing this, Lucia and her friends decided to hold a meeting about the issue. They put up some posters around the city. 50 people turned up.

LUCIA: all of them were like, …we’re here together but all of us has one problem so we want a solution for our problem.

HOST: They formed a group, called La PAH – the platform for people affected by mortgages. It struck Lucia in the first few meetings that all the people turning up seemed to feel ashamed.

LUCIA: All the public voices and this…were saying, this is your fault. I mean, if you have a mortgage, it’s because you decide to have it.

HOST: Carlos Macias  [PRON: Mathias] was one of the organisers at La PAH meetings, where people would share their stories.

CARLOS: People arrive feeling guilty. It was my failure. It was my fault.

…So we discovered that the first one that we have to do was generate…assemblies where there is a, an emotional empowerment. Where you take out this guilty, you…you understand that you are a victim of the bigger scam, the structural failure that is not your fault.

HOST: Just like in the Fight for 15, talking it through together made people realise the problem was systemic. The banks had scammed borrowers, and the law allowed it. It was the law that needed to change.


HOST: By now it was 2010. For a year, Lucia had been organising with La PAH. Every day, hundreds of people were being evicted across Spain. People were coming to the meetings, but Lucia and her friends felt like they were on a treadmill. They were helping people through their misery rather than doing anything to stop the pain in the first place.

LUCIA: Then this man came to our, to one of our meetings. … and said —I’m going to be evicted. And I’m not going to allow it. And if it’s necessary I’ll put fire in the house because I won’t let them take my house, and my kid from there. And we were like, wow, this man is crazy. …  I mean…we want to do whatever we can but not, not to put fire in the house. (laughter)

HOST: The group talked about it. It struck them that both major political parties – the Socialists and the conservatives – weren’t doing anything to stop the evictions. It was up to them to stop it instead.

LUCIA: We told them, talk to your neighbours. Tell them we are going to be there on this day. And tell them that they have to help you.

HOST: The day of the eviction came.

LUCIA: And then we took a… a camera to tape it. … and then 2 Mossos, which is the Catalan police, came there. And they saw all these people.


HOST: In the video, a representative from La PAH talks calmly to the police.

LUCIA: Yeah, we’re here. We’re going to stop this eviction.

…And you have to decide what to do because we are staying here…. and the police was like, hmm, we don’t know what to do now.

HOST: It was by no means a huge crowd. Perhaps 20 people with signs, and some neighbours. There are some old people milling around in support – locals.

LUCIA: And they were kind of, I don’t know, they didn’t know what to do and they just leave.

INTERVIEWER: Hooray! (laughs)

LUCIA: This was our first victory.

INTERVIEWER: Did they try again?

LUCIA: Yeah, they tried again and again. Because this is what the law allows but we…At the end, at the end, we stopped it. But….Our first, our first…victory was this and we put it on the internet. And it went viral.

HOST: The lesson was clear: To protect citizens from the system, bold direct action was required.

But that could only happen once people had talked it through with each other, and come to the conclusion that the whole system was rotten. After all, most people aren’t naturally inclined to disobey the law.

And those who participated weren’t just fighting on behalf of one deadbeat borrower. They were fighting for justice for everyone in this position.

Like with Fight for 15, the sheer ambition made it easier to organise. People could see how they could solve a real problem, not tinker at the edges.



But like all tactics, the direct action that La PAH was engaged in had a shelf life. When the bankers started knocking on her door, Mari-Carmen, who guaranteed her daughter house, enlisted La PAH’s help.

MARI-CARMEN: There were three attempts at eviction that were stopped by la PAH.

HOST: Every time the banks told Mari-Carmen they were going to evict her, La PAH would stand in the way, and physically prevent the eviction.

So the bank changed tactics. Under Spanish law, they weren’t required to name the date of the eviction. So they didn’t. They just told Mari-Carmen that they would evicting her at some point in the next three weeks. It was a despicable  kind of purgatory.

MARI-CARMEN: You can imagine. I was unable to sleep, I couldn’t do anything.

HOST: It worked.

CARLOS: Finally one morning at 8 in the morning 6 vans of anti riot police came

HOST: With no notice so La PAH wasn’t there.

MARI-CARMEN: I said that I wasn’t going to open the door. They told me, if you don’t open it, I will knock it down

…Then I decided to open the door because I had my 3 grandchildren sleeping and my daughter also. (Crying.) And so that they wouldn’t be more scared I opened the door.

HOST: Her grandchildren were 12, 9 and 6 at the time.

MARI-CARMEN: And the kids were screaming at the police, you are kicking me out of my house for the second time again

CARLOS: took the children from the bed and they give them 5 minutes to pick up their things.


HOST: There are so many ironies in this story, but the fact that the Spanish government refused to help victims in the housing crisis is one of the more galling.

And it’s one that was not lost on Carlos Macias, who became involved in La Pah around this time. You see, under Franco it was the government who first started encouraging everyone to buy their own house.

CARLOS: He said we must make Spain … a country of ownership… If you have a mortgage for 30 years, … you are not going to be able to make revolution or go to strike.

HOST: He wanted Spain to be a nation of owners, and that idea was supported by every subsequent government. It was a kind of unspoken guarantee underwritten by the entire political class.

CARLOS: They say … You never will lose with a, a mortgage, with a property.

HOST: So when that guarantee fell through, and people started losing their homes, and the mass evictions started happening – and I mean mass –

CARLOS: half million of families has been evicted in 7 years.

HOST: it undermined a key narrative the government had been telling everyone about itself.

But that’s not the only irony. In 2009, the government had quickly swooped in to help another group affected by the crash.

CARLOS: the banks

HOST: The banks. Who were now evicting people from their home at a rate of…

CARLOS: An average of 184 evictions per day.

HOST: Per day. Still wonder why they were called the Angry Ones?


SFX: Crowd sounds from b-roll

HOST: May 15, 2011. 15M – a day designed to unite the indignados from around the country. Inspired by the Arab Uprising, the idea was to fill plazas across Spain to protest against austerity policies that both sides of politics were supporting at upcoming elections. Essentially it was a protest march against all the major political parties.

PROFESSOR JOAN: 15M is not a movement. Because if you arrive here in Barcelona or Madrid and you try to connect with 15M, there is no one movement. There is no speaker. There is no address. There is no phone number.

HOST: That’s Joan Subirats, a professor of politics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

PROFESSOR JOAN: Is not, it was not a movement but an event.

HOST: An event organised almost entirely through online social networks. Its slogan: we are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers.

PROF JOAN: No political party, no trade union was involved in the process. …there was no flags, no classical flags, no red flags, no Catalan flags, no flags on the square.

HOST: It was a complete rejection of the entire political class from conservatives through to socialists. There was even talk of revolution…

CARLOS: You need to go out and, and try to provoke a revolution or something.

HOST: Those in power were seriously rattled, to the point where in Barcelona, the government, after 12 days of occupation, ordered the protesters be removed from the square by force. 350 police in riot gear, backed by 100 so-called urban guards.


HOST: But every time the police moved protesters on, they kept coming back. Over the ensuing month, more than 70% of the city’s population participated in the protest. 70%.

Naturally, La PAH were there. But unlike almost everyone else, they turned up with a plan. And it was anything but timid.

LUCIA: For us it was like … the perfect storm.

HOST: Under Spanish law, if La PAH could get enough signatures, they could petition the national government to rewrite the laws in favour of citizens, rather than banks. It was an electric idea and it gave the Indignados something solid to try to achieve. They needed half a million signatures.

CARLOS: we achieved 1.5 million because thousands of people every day for 9 months, informing the people, to the people which was the problem, which were our proposals of our solutions.

INTERVIEWER: Can I ask, was that all done on the streets?

CARLOS: On the streets.

INTERVIEWER: So not, no, not using technology?

CARLOS: No. On the streets…. It was a mechanism to spread…what was happening

INTERVIEWER: Oh, sort of mass conversations.


HOST: I just want to take a moment to draw something out. While 15M was organised mainly online, La PAH was mainly offline. And it explains why the demand was so bold. It is hard to overestimate the value of talking face to face with other people to make you feel like you can achieve anything.

CARLOS: Because it is a collective problem so we must fight collectively.

HOST: So they went broad – their petition allowed them to talk to literally millions of people – to raise awareness about evictions and how this problem could be solved.

But they also went deep. With a smaller number of highly committed people, they proceeded to take increasingly risky direct action stopping evictions. This was another key to making La PAH’s members feel like anything was possible.

LUCIA: this empowerment feeling was there and then people that was going to be evicted could say it. Could fight it.


HOST: So Carlos and Lucia and their growing team of people took the petition to the government. 1.5 million signatures. A million more than they needed. And they said — here is the petition. And they pointed to polling which showed that 90% of Spanish voters supported the demands.

Then, one of the most prominent leaders of La PAH, Lucia’s good friend Ada Colau, got invited to address a parliamentary commission about their proposed changes to the law.

LUCIA: It was really famous because it was in the Spanish channel parliament at 8 o’clock Wednesday,

HOST: A man in a grey suit speaks before her. He tells the committee there is nothing wrong with the current system. He’s a banker. Then the camera turns to Ada Colau.



LUCIA: And this went viral.

CARLOS: That moment the opposition of the government was not the Socialist Party, was not another party, was LaPAH in that moment.

HOST: La Pah was the opposition alright. But they weren’t just the opposition party. They were in opposition to the entire political class. All the major parties opposed La Pah’s proposal, even the socialists. The government refused to debate it in parliament.


HOST: … then went one further, sending in the police to break up a protest La PAH had organised.

CARLOS: So they start to criminalize us. They say that we were terrorists.

HOST: It was a devastating blow. Political parties of all stripes had failed them.

LUCIA: So these kinds of organizations wasn’t the solution.

CARLOS: That, that moment you feel angry…


CARLOS: But we couldn’t stay a lot of sad or angry because next day we have an eviction.

HOST: Months passed. Perhaps the government was expecting La PAH to fade away, but the evictions continued, hundreds a day, and La PAH continued to get in their way. So Carlos and Lucia and all the people protesting against evictions decided to try the same idea – a petition to change the law – this time at a local level.

CARLOS: So we started to do the same process, Popular Initiative Legislative, here first in Catalonia, in the parliament.

HOST: They gathered the signatures. And this time they won. The law changed. In Catalonia, at least.


HOST: It was as transformative as the Fight for 15. The law said that anyone who is trying to make money out of housing is trying to make money out of a human need. And as a result, owners can’t just do what they like.

CARLOS: So you cannot be evicted, not mortgage, no rent, no…no squat. You are forced to…forgive the debt to the family. To the suppliers, say: You cannot cut water, electricity to family that cannot afford. And you must… carry with…with the cost of that.

HOST: Pretty radical stuff. Over the first nine months of the law, it had immediate impact.

CARLOS: it was more than 30,000 suppliers cuts were avoid. Thousands of evictions were stopped.

HOST: Across the city — people were at last able to sleep at night. They no longer lived in constant fear of eviction.


HOST: So what did the national government do next?

CARLOS: appealed to the constitutional court and they suspend our law.


HOST: I know. Amazing, right? The national government intervened to allow the banks to get on with evicting people. It was almost like the entire representative arm of Spanish politics had forgotten who they were supposed to represent.

They were now going out of their way to put their own citizens onto the streets – and make them homeless – all to protect the interests of global finance. As a changemaker, how do you work with that. It must have felt impossible, right?

HOST: For La PAH, it was a breaking point. Lucia, Ada Calou, Professor Subirats and a few others decided they had to rethink their strategy. Again.

LUCIA: We had this big power in the street but the institutions were kind of closed.

…So you need a new institution…

…the street had to be empowered

HOST: And they started to think about the one institution that had let them down at every turn: political parties.

LUCIA: I mean, I think Ada and…had, had….different offers before the present moment to be involved in different political parties, of course left parties, no. But…she always declined. Because…I mean, she did believe that it was not a solution, no

HOST: Many in La PAH believed that joining a party wouldn’t solve anything. And for good reason.

LUCIA: This was not a good solution.

HOST: They had long seen what happened when parties absorbed activists and turned them into sellouts.

LUCIA: A person couldn’t change… anything in an old structure.

HOST: But more than that, the parties who did agree with what La PAH were saying were, to put it bluntly,  losers. They were fringe parties, who never won elections.

And La PAH weren’t losers. They were playing to win.

So Lucia and Ada Colau decided that it was time to reconceive what a political party was. Their aim: to create a truly radical party, that would rewrite the fundamental relationship between property owners and residents – and actually win.



HOST: These people knew how to organise. They had friends on every street corner who had been through evictions and won. And they knew the issues that people cared about because they’d been living them – day and night – for the past six years. Now they turned that organising capacity to the task of mobilising votes.

Just ten months after deciding to set up their own political party, running for the first time ever, under the name Barcelona en Comu, Ada Colou won the mayoralty of Barcelona.

It was a stunning repudiation of the political class.

ANCHOR ON TAPE: A long time activist has just been elected mayor of Barcelona, becoming the city’s first female mayor… Ada Colau has vowed to fine banks with empty homes on their books, stop evictions, expand public housing, set a minimum monthly wage, force utilities to slash prices, and slash the mayoral salary.

(0:54 – 1:22)

ANCHOR ON TAPE: She’s been arrested repeatedly for her protests. I spoke to Ada Colau last week.

Were you surprised by your victory?

ADA COLAU: In a way, partly yes, partly no. It was a victory that was achieved in a very short period of time…

But partly it was not surprising because there is a strong popular movement and a strong desire for change.

HOST: Lucia was also elected to the National Spanish Parliament. But remember, Lucia had always thought political parties swallow activists and turn them into sell-outs. So what did she think now?

LUCIA: You are there the whole day, you eat there, you have the media there, and you have meetings and then the media meetings, it’s kind of disconnected … if you get into this routine without changing it you lost your connections with the world

HOST: To make sure they remained connected to the people who got them there, Ada Colau committed to a listening campaign.

LUCIA: Every 2 weeks… she went on Fridays to one of the neighbourhoods of the city with an open meeting. …maybe 2,3,4 hours were neighbours asking what happened with this … and she is like if I cannot do this, I’m lost.

HOST: And that commitment seems to have paid off. In keeping with her roots, Colau started off her term by taking on global financial capital, fining banks who refuse to rent out vacant properties.


HOST: It’s an inspiring story but not everyone in La PAH believes that a shift into party politics is a panacea.

CARLOS: if there is not social movements, there is not mobilisation, you can have the best congressman or politician or mayor that without mobilisation is not going to be able to change.

HOST: Carlos is underselling La PAH there. They don’t just mobilise people, they organise them into small groups with deep connections to go out and stop evictions regardless of what the law says. That’s something that’s very hard to do once you become a law-maker.

But representative politics with the power of organising and mobilising behind it — keeping it honest? That’s when anything becomes possible.

CARLOS: Because if you want to change the things… you can only do that if behind you there is people … demanding these changes.

HOST: Lucia and Ada Colau realised that without representation, all the organising and mobilisation in the world wasn’t enough. But conversely, Carlos believes that without people power behind them, representatives lose their way.

And who knows, Carlos might have a point. Ada Colau promised 80,000 new public homes when she came to power. As of October 2017, her efforts have stalled at just 3,000.

HOST: Remember La PAH’s petition that was supposed to change the law, to prevent evictions? It remains off the table, struck down by Spain’s highest court. But Carlos and his friends in La PAH who decided to stay outside of party politics remain undeterred.

INTERVIEWER: It surely shows the tension, the difficulty. You can win some stuff at a city level but you can’t win everything.

CARLOS: No, no, not now. Not today. After we approve our Popular Initiative Legislative in Catalonia, 17 parliaments in the state, in the regionals, has the PAH knocking the door with our texts saying okay, you must do it here. … At the end, you will have…17…regional parliaments that approved laws to, to protect the housing rights. …

INTERVIEWER: So you are organizing locally to change things nationally?


HOST: Either way, you get the sense that this story isn’t over.

The lesson, though, is already clear. Sometimes the first ingredient to achieving change is getting people to believe it’s possible.

In Barcelona, and in the Fight for 15 — that wasn’t an easy thing, because the change most worth doing seemed impossible.

Even the organisers of La PAH and Fight for 15 didn’t quite believe they could achieve what they were attempting.

They had audacious goals – which made the movements immediately appealing.

But we’ve all seen bold ideas that never go anywhere. Political parties are expert at that trade. Remember Obama? The audacity of hope?

What made La Pah and the Fight for 15 different, is that they had something no political party has. They had engaged people in direct collective actions that made people feel powerful. Impossible goals then started to feel plausible to those involved.

In Barcelona, the very act of preventing a man and his son from being evicted, allowed those involved to imagine possibilities they hadn’t even thought about. They started out as a support group and now they’re challenging the very idea of property ownership.

In the US, the Fight for 15 wasn’t a fight for higher pay. It was fight for social justice, that could only be achieved through higher wages. And they did it themselves, using their own tactics, without a formal union structure.

But they did have dancing…

ROBERT: People had their drums, we danced out in the streets. …

if you’re outside and it’s freezing zero below, you got to do something to keep people’s spirits up

HOST: We dedicate this episode to the memory of Jon Kest, the brains behind the Fight for 15 movement in New York. He sadly died of cancer only days after the 2012 strike.


HOST: Changemakers is hosted by me, Amanda Tattersall. It is produced by Caroline Pegram and Catherine Freyne. Written by Charles Firth. Our researchers are Tessa Sparks, Iona Rennie and Amy Fairall. Our audio producers are Uncanny Valley and our sponsoring organisations are Mobilisation Lab, Australia for UNHCR,, the Fred Hollows Foundation and the Organising Cities project funded by the Halloran Trust based at the University of Sydney.

Remember to subscribe to this podcast to catch all our episodes, like us on Facebook at changemakers podcast and checkout for transcripts and updates on all our stories.


In the heat of #FeesMustFall some reflections

In the heat of #FeesMustFall some reflections


The #FeesMustFall movement was very diverse and rich with dialogue and conflict.

This is a letter written by a student leader in the heat of the movement from Wits University. He gives a live account of some of the tensions that divided the movement. It talks of the centrality of intersectionality as a core value of #FeesMustFall. He identifies potential ‘saboteurs’ who came into the space seeking to lead the movement in directions that created tension and conflict. And he identifies tensions with the SRC, and the between some more radical students and the student wing of the ANC.

As a text it gives you an insight as to what the students were fighting for, but also the struggle it took to pursue their demands around a transformed education system.

By Anzio Cameron

A letter from the chair of #FeesMustFall occupation at Wits

5 April 2016

Dear comrades:

On Wednesday the 6th of April 2016, a meeting was called for all staff, students and workers who felt marginalized by the protest which took place on Monday the 4th of April 2016. The aim of the meeting was to give voice to those who were marginalized at the protest, particularly those who identify as feminist and/or queer. Many questions were raised during the meeting pertaining to who had organised the protest, and what gave the organisers the right to exclude anybody who is interested and affected by the fight free quality decolonised and insourcing. It became apparent in this meeting that the protest was led predominantly by students who were not members of the Wits community, but who had come from various campuses across the country to protest with the intention of shutting down the university.

The meeting was publicised and open to anyone who felt marginalised; many workers who were called to protest articulated a concern for being used by the leaders of that protest in order to push a political agenda. A call for an open letter was made in the meeting to address several questions which arose from Monday’s protest namely:

  • Who organised the protest?
  • What were the reasons for the exclusion of feminist and queer bodies from the protest?
  • Who called on members from other universities to enter the Wits premises?
  • Why were workers called upon and simply used for numbers?
  • Who mandated the protest?
  • And why was there a secret symposium held over the weekend of the 1st to the 3rd of April?

As marginalized bodies all those party to this meeting condemn the mischievous nature of a rogue protest in the name of #FeesMustFall. Our bodies are not to be used as pawns for political agendas.

This letter is an assertion of the #FeesMustFall space as one which will not be used to build political resumes or to bolster anyone’s public persona. Our interests as #FeesMustFall are clear. Our fight is one for free quality decolonised education and insourcing for all vulnerable members of the university in our lifetime  , and for the emancipation of black subjects who strive for a life of dignity. Our identities have been and continue to be intersectional, and for the purpose of realising a society which provides equal opportunities for all in terms of education.

It is a demand for a response from those who act in our name, and for clarity on the events which unfolded on Monday. We refuse to allow misogyny and patriarchy to oppress bodies which live in oppression, this fight is one for the people of Azania. The same people who have been on the forefront during protest only to continuously be hijacked by political opportunists.

Our response to this show of oppression is #NotMyFMF, we will no longer allow our bodies to be used, no longer will we tolerate oppression, no longer will gender based violence be used to keep us silent. Ours line of march is clear, and we will fight!

On the 6th of  April the university renamed the central administration building Solomon Mahlangu House. We have fought in the spirit of Mahlangu and reaffirm our that our fight is for the love of the people who must, as they have no other choice, continue the struggle for emancipation.

We call on the University of the Witwatersrand to respond to the financial exclusion of students despite numerous statements assuring that no deserving students would bear the brunt of financial exclusion. We know that the time has come for decisions to be made around fees, and say in the same voice as last year #FeesMustFall. We cannot sit idle while workers’ demands for insourcing have not been met. It is not good enough that the university has established a task team, we need tangible results. Workers in the canteen continue to be treated as subalterns, working without  payslips and lunch breaks. Much like the other workers in the university, these are our parents, and for too long have their voices gone unheard. Other companies have been removed and the livelihood of the workers of those companies removed with them. We say #EndOutsourcing, for too long have black families suffered in the myth of the rainbow nation, for two long have black lives been built for prisons, for too long have the elite sat silent while the disparities between rich and poor  #NotInOurNames!

This open letter is a call to action. We realise that while the state is responsible for a reshuffling of funds to meet the demands of students and workers, that the university too is responsible for fixing internal affairs. We call on the university to engage with #FeesMustFall to address the funding crisis, to put our heads together in imagining a completely insourced workforce. We call for a meeting of the insourcing task team to answer questions about their processes. We cannot sit idle. We call on the SRC to stop violating the trust of the students, workers and staff, to stop appearing in our name in the media. The SRC have long been on a parallel campaign, which defeats the purpose of a body which is supposed to be for the students, by the students, come out of your ivory tower, and lead in service, the thousands of workers and students at this university need not your faces, but your hearts and minds. For too long have your actions gone unaccounted for, for too long has your leadership been amiss. We are tired of petty politics, you are students before you are the SRC, come and lead by following. We are not here for names sakes or to appear as the face of this movement. Ours are not concerns with the limelight, we feel betrayed by the Student Representative Council – led by the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) – the student arm of the African National Congress (ANC) the same party who deploy police armed with weapons to quell dissenting voices in protest – the same ones who violate our bodies, and degrade our mothers through the use of brute force on us during protests, but we cannot win this fight alone. We cannot action such responses in isolation. We call on staff and students, academics and families who have a vested in the protection of all including minority groups, to come together, to engage, to seek solutions to the many problems recently unearthed.

We need accountability, transparency, respect and to reclaim our dignity.


Comrade C. Anzio Jacobs

Let the blood of Solomon Mahlangu nourish the fruits of freedom, we will fight until we are free.

Grow your movement by working with complexity: lessons from Gasfield Free Northern Rivers

Grow your movement by working with complexity: lessons from Gasfield Free Northern Rivers

By Annie Kia, Gasfield Free Northern Rivers

When it comes to winning campaigns, nothing beats getting an understanding of how social movements work…there are some great resources that people can dip into[1]. As episode 2 of ChangeMakers explains, in the Northern Rivers, a bunch of us were familiar with social movement theory, especially with Bill Moyer and his work[2], and had on-ground experience in campaigns. This was invaluable.

But there’s another type of knowledge that’s useful in growing social movements – and that’s an understanding of how human systems work. This knowledge is sometimes called complexity theory, but don’t get dismayed by that name! It’s a way of understanding practical steps to get things happening on a larger scale.

The basic concept is that natural and human systems are different from machines like your car.  A car is predictable…when you press down on the accelerator; you’ll gain speed in a linear fashion. Your car is not creative. Your alternator and drive shaft don’t suddenly get together and invent a whole new way of driving!

Fortunately, human systems are capable of sudden, non-linear change when social movements get going. Like any natural system, tipping points are reached and suddenly your social movement starts behaving in an entirely new way. In the Northern Rivers we went through several of these tipping points as our movement ramped up, with many thousands of people involved.  Our alliance maximised self-organisation. With 18 action groups and 147 self-declared Gasfield Free communities, creativity abounded. It was a wild ride.

When I threw myself into the Northern Rivers campaign I’d just spent 4 years exploring how complexity concepts can be applied to social change[3]. Here are some practical examples of how I found this knowledge useful in the hurly-burly of the Northern Rivers campaign.

I was part of a Capacity Building team that sought to scale up the movement. Amongst other things, we hatched an idea that grew into Gasfield Free Communities –a process of grassroots democracy whereby communities unilaterally declare themselves Gasfield Free. I pitched this concept to people in The Channon and Keerrong, and both communities did a pilot. In The Channon, we held a public meeting, watched a film, and asked people for a show of hands to the question: Do you want your roads and lands

Bentley Blockade, Photo credit Brendan Shoebridge

Gasfield Free? Hands shot up for YES. Then we asked if they’d like to give everyone in the community their say, by visiting every household, and they organised in survey teams. When the results came in, 99.3% of 432 respondents said YES, and we declared our district Gasfield Free in a defiant, joyful ceremony captured in this video.

Complexity theory helps explain how the Gasfield Free Community strategy spread like wildfire, engaging citizens across political affiliations, mobilised entire communities, and created a sense of entitlement to live Gasfield Free. This process took the defiance embodied in the individual Lock The Gate sign to the level of communal resistance. Victorian campaigners used this process as part of their strong campaign to get an onshore gas ban in that state. Around Australia, there are now 450 Gasfield Free, or Coal Free communities.

In the Northern Rivers, when this grass-roots process took off, I was able to use my knowledge of complexity concepts to help it develop and go to scale:

  • To replicate virally, it needed self-organisation. That won’t occur with tight constraints (many top-down rules). We shared the process in such a way as to empower communities to organise their own surveys and declaration ceremonies.
  • But the converse is also true. Self-organisation won’t occur with zero constraints. We provided some minimum guidelines for a comprehensive survey with reliable data, to give traction to the campaign. For instance, we learnt that the survey needed to be done face to face, not by people posting notes in letterboxes. We strongly nudged campaigners follow this template as it was an important element for engaging each community. If you’d like to understand this concept of constraints, check out the section on Minimum Specifications in Edgeware, a useful, accessible introduction to complexity concepts[4].
  • In my exploration of complexity concepts, one framework stands out. This is the Cynefin Framework developed by Dave Snowden and others. This is all about knowing your context and choosing actions to suit the situation. When in the complex zone, says Snowden, run a series of probes or experiments – amplify the stuff that works, and shut down elements that are not useful. This is exactly how we developed Gasfield Free Communities, through action learning. We started a working group that met one a fortnight in Lismore, a kind of social learning laboratory… an incubator. Through many iterations, we learnt what helps and what hinders this process in communities – this was the space that tested, tried and spread the survey process that so successfully built community support for Gasfield Free. If you’d like to get a taste of Cynefin, watch How to Organise a Children’s Party, or read an article on how we applied it in Health Promotion, prior to my involvement in the campaign[5].

Complexity concepts are applied wherever humans interact: organisations, corporations, and governance. There’s some very interesting writing on its relevance in Development Aid[6].

Throughout history, great campaigners have instinctively worked with the grain of complex systems. The good thing about this moment in time is that we now have a framework, a language. The 21st century is all about networks.. A new paradigm is emerging that understands human systems as adaptive and complex. If we want to grow a movement or get bang-for-buck in an organization, understanding these dynamics is very, very helpful. Above all, we need to understand self-organisation, the special sauce that liberates collective intelligence.

I hope that what we did in the Northern Rivers can have resonance with your campaign. If you’re interested, check out my blog… Networked Agency.3


1 Centre for Nonviolent Conflict. Check out their amazing resources

2 Bill Moyer, Doing Democracy: the MAP model of organizing social movements

3 Why bother with how complex systems tick? One word: agency.[1]

Zimmerman et al, Edgeware: Insights from Complexity Science for Health Care Leaders,

4 Van Beurden et al, Making sense in a complex landscape: how the Cynefin Framework from Complex Adaptive Systems Theory can inform health promotion practice, Health Promotion International Nov 2011

5 Ramalingan et al, Exploring the science of complexity: ideas and implications for development and humanitarian efforts, ODI Working Paper 285 2008


How decades of fast food worker organising lead to “The Fight for 15”

How decades of fast food worker organising lead to “The Fight for 15”

By Keith Kelleher, Founder and Former President of SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas.

The First Spark
“…On Thursday, May 28, 1981, at or about 11:30 am, a number of off-duty employees, in the company of union organizer, Keith Kelleher,…entered Restaurant 768, …moved toward the back of the kitchen in the direction of the manager’s office. Kelleher asked employees…to join them, and a few, including discriminatee Cynthia Diane Williams …did so.
Williams and… employee Luther Wyatt came to the front of the crowd…and entered the office. Williams told Amato, that the United Labor Unions represented the employees, exhibited to Amato a sheet of paper containing a proposed union recognition agreement, and asked her to sign it. …Amato… refused, saying she had no authority to sign. At this point, the crowd took up the chant, “Sign it, Peggy! Sign It!” and continued this chant for about 20 minutes…”
– Extracted from National Labor Relations Board

So began one of the most exciting actions I’d been a part of since I started fast food worker organizing in Detroit 1981. I had been hired on March, 1st, 1980, by the then-fledgling Detroit local 222 (the “triple deuce!”) of the United Labor Unions (ULU), an independent union, unaffiliated with any larger labor federation but which itself had been founded by the national community organizing group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now).

In 1980, US Steel and GM were still major American employers, but McDonald’s and other fast food giants were gaining fast. Oil shocks and economic shocks were throwing millions out of stable union work, but one industry gaining fast was non-union fast food.

Then in the early 1980s an unheard of plan began: workers employed by McDonald’s and Burger King in Detroit started organizing for better wages and benefits.

I was a young organizer working alongside this first generation of fast-food leaders at the Greyhound Burger King inside the bus station in downtown Detroit. After three years, workers won a union contract, one of the first union contracts in fast food settled in the United States. But even with that victory, it was clear that management would do anything to fight off workers’ attempts to organize, and they had the money and resources that workers did not.

I’d been doing it tough: after badly losing my first union organizing election at a different Burger King store, miles away, on the southwest side of Detroit we made attempts at organizing others.

We all got an early lesson in the kind of dirty tactics that the fast food bosses would put into action to

A man addresses the crowd at the the Mag Mile Demonstration

stop us organising a union. Some of the workers at my first store called us back one year later and we reorganized around issues of management harassment and mobilized around the first “recognition action” described at the beginning of this article. The Burger King corporation, knowing they would lose the rerun election because of our overwhelming strength in the newly organized unit; SOLD THE STORE to a supposed “franchisee” who just days before had been a human resources director for corporate Burger King! Even we, who by then were hardened veterans of vicious fastfood organizing drives, were stunned that the Labor Board ruled in this huge corporation’s favor and gave it their blessing.

Our vision was ambitious but simple: organize the low-wage fastfood industry, as well as other low wage industries across the United States and organize low-wage workers everywhere to reap the higher wages, benefits, and working conditions that unionization can bring.

We wanted to “build the movement,” to achieve even more radical change throughout the country: through changing labor laws, reigning in the power of public utilities and banks, fighting discriminatory laws in housing, and change the two-party game of electoral politics. We were young and we really wanted to change the world!
Big visions were nothing new to the ULU and ACORN organizers – many of the older organizers who had hired and trained me were veterans of the anti-war, civil rights, welfare rights, womens’ and community organizing movements of the 60’s and 70’s. Skilled organizers committed to organizing low and moderate income working families to build community power, through direct action like recognition actions, sit-ins, marches, demonstrations, and whatever else worked. ACORN had grown from an idea formed by veteran welfare rights organizers in 1970, to offices in over 20 US states by 1980.

ULU wanted to replicate that growth, but grow faster, by organizing fastfood and other low-wage workers with a new labor organizing model based on community organizing. We would fuse the best of labor, community and political organizing techniques into a hybrid to organize these fast-growing service sector jobs.

By the time, I came on board, ULU was already two years old and had graduated from experiments organizing the unemployed, and household workers, and others and was reaching for something bigger. In two years, they already had four locals in Detroit, Boston, New Orleans, and Philadelphia; and one of the first labor organizing retreats set a goal of organizing 50,000 new workers within the first year!

We were learning on the run and this small effort taught us how the fast-food giants think and that they will stop at NOTHING – even selling a store – to keep wages low, jobs part-time, and zero benefits. Over 30 years later the tactics of McDonald’s have not changed.

I eventually moved to Chicago in 1983 and founded ULU Local 880, which would soon become SEIU Local 880; and eventually organized over 70,000 homecare and childcare providers into Local 880. I also headed up the SEIU Homecare Organizing Task Force from 1996-1998, which eventually led to SEIU organizing over 600,000 homecare workers, as well as organizing another 100,000 childcare providers – one of the largest organizing drives in modern US labor history.

But in 2012, a new generation of organizers and workers took a crack at the industry that had got me into the union movement in the first place– they again wanted to organize fastfood.
I was asked to put together a memo on fastfood organising “best practices” and strategy, gleaned from our early years of organizing fastfood workers in Detroit in the early 80’s – in the hands of the skilled organizers of NY Communitites for Change and Action Now in Chicago, this memo helped guide some of the early thinking and strategy in this new generation of organizers and leaders.

A man addresses the crowd at the the Mag Mile Demonstration

In November 2012 this new generation of courageous fast-food workers called for $15 an hour in Chicago on the Magnificent Mile and then in a one day strike in New York City. Like the earlier effort I was involved in, the workers received critical support from the community— many of them veteran ACORN organizers – this time from SEIU, New York Communities for Change, Chicago’s Action Now and Leadership for the Common Good.
With workers taking the lead and unions and community groups showing support, a movement rose that has expanded to more than 300 cities and tens of thousands of workers. Low wage workers are now organising nationwide for a new minimum wage – $15. Across the country, 20 million workers have won big raises since those brave workers in Chicago and New York City started their Fight for $15 in 2012. The workers in the Fight for $15 are learning the same lesson we learned over 35 years ago—when we fight, we win!

Episode One – Out Now!

Episode One – Out Now!

We are very excited to release Episode One of our new Series the ChangeMakers. You can download this episode from Podcast One in Australia or from Itunes here.

The first two episodes of a new original podcast, ChangeMakers hits PodcastOne Monday 9 October. Hosted by co-founder of GetUp, Amanda Tattersall, ChangeMakers is the first podcast of its kind to mix the story-telling form of This American Life with the topic of social change.

“This represents a new era of big-budget podcasting in Australia. It has been delivered by a team of three researchers, two producers, a script editor and three audio engineers. It shows that the era of podcasting has finally arrived in Australia,” said Tattersall.

The first series of ChangeMakers features stories of people changing the world in 14 countries across the globe. It involved 150 interviews to produce 20 stories across 10 episodes.

“We’ve got a story on anti-Putin activists in Moscow, the pro-Democracy movement in Hong Kong, plus a chilling story about anti-gun campaigners in the United States.”

Tattersall says there are plenty of Australian campaigns that cut it on the world stage. The second episode features the “Lock the Gate” campaign, which has been a template for anti-Gas Drilling campaigns across the globe.

Amanda Tattersall is no stranger to digital innovation, having previously co-founded the digital campaign group GetUp. As an academic, she has written the book on building effective coalitions (Power in Coalition, Cornell University Press, 2009).

Tattersall said: “Whether you’re wanting to stop climate change or defeat the creeping Trumpification of Australia, new ways of change-making are necessary. ChangeMakers is about sharing stories of new strategies that work from across the globe.

What does it take for everyday people to shift an election?

What does it take for everyday people to shift an election?

Andrew Nikolic … sort of

We traveled to Launceston Tasmania to learn how GetUp worked with locals here to shift the last Australian Federal Election in 2016.

There have been many accusations about how GetUp “removed” a sitting MP Andrew Nikolic, one of the more conservative members of Government. GetUp treats such accusations as applause, as they were very upfront about their strategy to remove so-called “blockers” of progressive policy months before the election began.

But what is little known in the public discussion is how GetUp successfully organised in the seat of Bass.

Bass is an interesting seat as it has characteristics that look like the former industrial heartland of United Kingdom or the United States.

In our visit to Launceston, the heart of the seat, we met with a series of local GetUp activists who told us about how they helped win the campaign. Several factors were key, that will be explored further in Episode 8 of the ChangeMakers Podcast. They include:

  • The power of mixing online and offline: GetUp didn’t have an enormous online
    Michael Fox, local GP and GetUp volunteer

    membership in the electorate to begin with (the membership was in the thousands, but relatively small for a million member organisation), so it needed to expand its offline reach to be effective. It did this by getting people offline to participate in online actions, like posting photos of themselves with a puppet of Andrew Nikolic on their Facebook page. GetUp would then share and amplify these posts. This had the power of growing the base of GetUp in the electorate while sharing a successful message (that Nikolic made himself unavailable to talk to constituents).

  • The power of mixing local with national: Most of the campaign was done by a small group of local organisers and leaders. This was critical for credibility and authenticity – the campaign was locally driven, and had a particular punch when lead by local health spokespeople (as the campaign was predominantly about the hospital). However there was power in bringing the centralised resources of a national campaign into a local place. This included national phone banking and money to hire local organisers.
  • Have the local lead the national: There was some tension in the campaign at times about who called the shots. Using the interviews I collected, it appears that the campaign was most successful with the local activists had control over how the campaign would operate in that local space. This went as far as having organisers from the local area – knowing people, the lay of the land, the local politics was crucial for running a campaign like this, especially when there wasn’t much time for relationship building. It went so far as the local team vetoing campaign content, or organising for campaign materials to be drafted differently so they fitted in with the local context.


“Tactics for Mobilisers”: Amanda Tattersall reviews the book “Rules for Revolutionaries”

“Tactics for Mobilisers”: Amanda Tattersall reviews the book “Rules for Revolutionaries”

You have probably heard of Rules for Radicals, an old but still living set of strategies designed for changing the world, written by the grandfather of community organising – Saul Alinsky.

It is that book, or at least its title, that inspired Becky Bond and Zack Exley to write Rules for Revolutionaries following their whirlwind experience working on the Bernie Sanders US Primary Campaign in 2016.

The book is a fast past narrative of that campaign. It is an insiders guide to how they built one of the most expansive field campaigns in US political history. The book documents the way in which these skilled campaigners cleverly intersected digital campaigning, volunteer field efforts, “revolutionary” phone banking alongside some old-school community organising.

But, there are some fundamental weaknesses in the argument it presents. My motivation in writing this review is to caution campaigners, organisers and activists to not take these so called “rules” as gospel.

I have called the review “Tactics for Mobilisers” for a reason. It’s based on my two fundamental critiques of the book. My first concern is that the book’s “rules” can be better described as “tactics” for campaigning. Secondly, I argue that while the book argues that it’s strategy is one of “revolution,” it is much better understood as describing the more familiar strategy of mobilisation.

Lets start with the book’s claim about being a list of “rules.” It’s always bold to borrow from a giant like Saul Alinsky. Bond and Exley’s title bravely makes an allusion to the book Rules for Radicals, and in doing so they imply that they might speaking with the same authority. The 1972 Rules for Radicals is one of the most potent texts about social change written in modern times. This is not because of its occasionally offensive manner or exaggerated stories, but because it sought to identify universal lessons for how we work in public life that can be transported across different contexts. The “Rules” weren’t statements like “hold a rally in this way”, they were more a fundamental commentary about public life – borrowing from social psychology, theology, philosophy, public action and political theory. Alinsky’s rules were statements like “if you push a negative hard enough it will push through and become a positive” or “ power is not only what you have but what your target thinks you have.” The Rules were necessarily obtuse. They required active discussion and translation to make them work. That’s the point of rules; they require interpretation, deep thinking, collective analysis.

The “Rules” in Rules for Revolutionaries do not pass this test. They are instead tactical observations about running a big (electoral) campaign. Don’t get me wrong, they include great tactical observations about how a campaign can be won – but they are not more than that. Rules like “get on the phone,” “the revolution will be funded by small donations” and “barnstorm” are explicitly tactical. That’s not bad. They are a great guide for campaigners who want to run a participatory phone banking system or to organise people into teams using face-to-face town hall meetings. But they aren’t “Rules.” They aren’t concepts that are open to contextual interpretation. They aren’t ideas that can be explored and improved when discussed. They are surface level descriptors of a strategy that was recently implemented. Indeed, I would worry if they were rules because they are internally contradictory and sometimes a little self-righteous.

Take the “Rule” – “the work is distributed, the plan is centralised.” This is an argument for highly coordinated campaigns. That makes total sense in an electoral context where you have one objective – a candidate’s win – over a whole nation. It makes no sense, however, when it comes to running the climate movement. Climate issues don’t operate at a single scale – they run from the neighbourhood, to the state, the nation, the global and to corporations– all have potential targets and there are thousands of potential, integrated campaign strategies. If you “centralised” climate strategy you would risk loosing many of your leaders (at best) if not totally pissing them off. Imagining climate campaigners deciding they were going to centrally coordinate the Standing Rock campaign. Wait, don’t imagine that! Take another example from the US, the amazing living wage campaigns that have raised minimum wages for over 20 years are not “centralised.” They are decentralised to cities and municipalities and only now are scaling out to capture some corporate giants like McDonalds. They would have failed if someone had tried to centrally coordinate all of them from Washington. Yet the Rules for Revolutionaries “rule” argues that this should have been done!

There is a universal rule about how to stage the geography of a campaign, but it doesn’t take a position in favour of “coordination and centralisation” over “localism and autonomy.” The universal is to simply recognise that every campaign has to handle the tension between “coordination versus autonomy” and needs to trade off that tension in how it runs its campaign (Tattersall 2010). Tending towards coordination makes central planning easier, and long term volunteer engagement harder. Tending towards autonomy makes planning more diffuse but meaningful volunteerism easier. Choosing which strategy a campaign needs to emphasise depends on the changing dynamics of the campaign.

The weakness of Bond and Exley’s “rule” played out in the Sanders campaign, if you put it in a longer term context. While the centralisation was able to effectively produce good mobilisation when motivated by a clear electoral goal and a series of transferable tactics, the campaign did not sustain volunteer engagement in an ongoing campaign infrastructure. As Marshall Ganz has noted – it didn’t build long term organising structures, which then lead to the dissipation of the large numbers of people who were initially engaged (Ganz, 2017).

This is a useful segue to my second major concern with the text – and that is its claim about presenting a “revolutionary” method. That too is a bold claim and in the book it is mixed up with a whole bunch of fairly pejorative phases like “big organising” versus “small organising.”

When you call something “revolutionary” you are making a claim that it is new and extremely powerful. The trouble is that the book doesn’t live up to either of these claims. What they describe as new is something I recognise as an older tradition – called mobilising. What they describe as powerful is sadly something that didn’t last (sadly like most mobilising strategies).

Both of these gaps reveal that the authors misunderstand community organising. Indeed the book creates quite a few “strawmen” in order to argue that the Sander’s campaign is something new and different, as compared to the “old ways” of Alinsky style organising.

It’s worth running through some of these gaps.

Firstly, there is nothing new about contrasting face-to-face community organising (“old organising”) and fast paced turn out (“big organising). What is frustrating is that Bond and Exley selectively interpret history to create hard and fast contrasts in this space. For every historical example they use, like Fight for 15 or Black Lives Matter, they use it to prove that big is “better” than small. Sadly there is some inaccuracy and inexperience revealed in their categories. They awkwardly use the term “one on one” to describe relational meetings – yet no community organiser would describe a meeting as “on” someone else (Bond, Exley 2016, 76)! Exley puts union organising and broad-based IAF organising in the same category. As a former union organiser then broad-based community organiser I can categorically tell you they aren’t very similar. What is similar about them is they seek to build organisations, which is a point that is under-explained in the book.

Bond and Exley use the terms “old organising” and “big organising”, but using the traditional terms “organising” and “mobilising” would have better served them. That is what they are describing. Using the term “big organising” confuses the reader. After all, what they describe in the book is how, inspired by an extraordinary candidate, they mobilised thousands of people to work in groups, to undertake fairly simple tasks (mainly phone banking) to turnout people for a primary election.

If they had used less pejorative terms they might have had a more sophisticated analysis. A better way to analyse the difference between organising and mobilising is to say that you need both. The argument, dare I say “rule,” is that there is a time to organise and a time to mobilise. Indeed, any sophisticated analysis of Fight for 15 shows that it was the robust interconnection of one to one work, alongside mass turn out, that made the campaign sing. Indeed, even the Bernie campaign used both one to one organising strategies alongside their mobilising work (for instance much of their phone banking strategy tried to use principles from broad-based organising). Dare I say it, the Sanders campaign used both old organising and big organising!

However, it is also true that both organising and mobilising are not beyond critique. Indeed its quite clear that we aren’t winning and we have some learning to do.

There is a critique to be had of Alinsky style organising. Having set up Australia’s first Alinsky style organisation – the Sydney Alliance – I know too well how hard it can be to turn deep, relational work into campaigns that can move enough people and power to transform the city. We struggled to develop mass action over time. It never felt like we had the time or space to do that work alongside our commitment to putting leaders in charge and training them to lead our work. Indeed, I am currently doing a post-doctoral fellowship exploring this question of what it might take to build bigger organising strategies using a relational approach.

That said, mobilising (so called “big organising”) is riddled with problems too. I felt it in the 2003 Walk against the War movement against the War in Iraq, where in Sydney we had 500 000 people rally against the War, yet they slowly dissipated. We deployed much tactical mastery, including trialling some of the earliest digital organising techniques ever used for activism in Australia, but after the heat went out of the issue and the war went ahead, people’s interest in political activity went too.

This is precisely what happened with the Bernie campaign. While there was passionate interest in his candidacy, when the “heat went out of the issue” and Clinton became inevitable, the people left. The problem is that mobilisation (or “big organising”) uses the issue to organise the people – and when the issue changes and fails, then the people leave. The advantage of community organising (old organising) is that relationships and a broad set of interests engage leaders, and so even if the issues change the people stick around. The obvious sweet spot is having enough people “organised” so that you can “mobilise” a larger number of people around issues – but still – when the issue changes the “organised” group is still committed to ongoing action.

Mobilising strategies are also limited in how they treat people. People are often seen as a deployable army rather than as leaders who have the capacity to create their own destiny. The book, at times, falls victim to the language of seeing leaders as people who “act for you” not “with you.” Bond and Exley argue that you want to find tactics that you can “rinse and repeat.” The idea is that if you find a tactic that volunteers can do and is useful, you just repeat it over and over again. While its understandable that a highly scalable campaign needs patterns of work, the way this is explained in the book raises alarm bells. It implies that “the little people” are out there doing the rinsing and repeating, while the important people sit back and do the important work. It feels mechanical and machine line – it doesn’t feel very dignified let alone revolutionary.

I have strong opinions about this book, and one of them is – its worth a read. This is an interesting tale of a fascinating campaign where a lot of brilliant and creative tactics were used. But you need to take it, and its “rules” with a grain of salt. Don’t hold the categories it presents as “the truth” – bring a critical eye to what you read and use that curious posture to think about the kinds of creative, imaginative, deep and broad organising strategies we need to create a better world.

Breaking bad laws is how good laws get made

Breaking bad laws is how good laws get made

By Amanda Tattersall

The new head of the Australian Union Movement, Sally McManus, came under a fair bit of flak last week after she declared on her first day in the job that she didn’t have a problem breaking bad laws.

The thing is – her comments are exactly the sort of leadership that Australia needs right now. And they reflect an understanding of how democracies negotiate social change.

The reflex action of politicians from both sides of politics to condemn her comments, showed that they were willing to wilfully ignore the key role that civil disobedience has in social change. They did this in order to avoid having to mount an uncomfortable argument – that sometimes breaking a bad law is the only way to change it.

The truth is everyone, even staunch, law-abiding conservatives are the beneficiaries of past law breaking, and MacManus could have provided the perfect opportunity for our leaders to give a Civics 101 lesson on how unjust laws get changed. Instead we got a twitter attack dismissing MacManus’s quip, in order to get it out of the news cycle as quickly as possible.

McManus made her comments specifically about industrial relations laws, and fair enough. It is not widely understood how onerous the laws are on Australian building workers. Building laws currently ban industrial action on safety issues.

Yes, that’s right. There are laws that make it illegal for workers to walk off a job when someone has been killed. So when the union walks people off the job to protect their safety and the safety of other workers, they are breaking the law. A bad law.

But what McManus said about breaking bad laws applies far beyond workplace laws. Over our history, breaking bad laws is how most good laws got made.

Our great, great grandmothers protested and engaged in hunger strikes, often finding themselves foul of the law to win women the vote.

In the 1960s and 70s baby boomer radicals evaded conscription, feeding the Vietnam Moratorium movement that lead to Australian troops withdrawing from an unjust war. Similarly, indigenous and non-indigenous radicals undertook freedom rides to remote NSW, desegregating pools that banned Aboriginal kids from swimming, breaking the law in the process.

Similar tactics were used to fight another unjust law – apartheid – where radicals threw their bodies into harms way to protest the Springbok Rugby Tour, bringing on a sporting boycott than was part of bringing down apartheid in South Africa.

In the 1980s environmental law breakers occupied the giant trees of Tasmania to prevent the construction of the Franklin Dam. And today the Lock the Gate farmers and environmentalists campaigning against coal seam gas are threatened with huge fines and jail terms just for staging political protests.

When Sally McManus says she is with the lawbreakers – these are the people with whom she is standing: generation upon generation of heroes who have skilfully used civil disobedience to agitate for a better world.

And we haven’t run out of bad laws to break. Whether its bad refugee policy, bad planning policy (like WestConnex), inept climate change policy, the failure to adequately recognise land rights or bad industrial relations policy – there is much to be done in pursuit of a better world.

There is substantial evidence from industrial relations scholars that suggests that how a leader comes to power frequently defines their tenure of leadership. Let us only hope that McManus is emboldened by her first day on the job to keep encouraging us all to be more radical in our pursuit of justice.

Our world needs it right now.