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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”.

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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.