How to campaign

I was asked to write 1500 words with the title “How to Campaign” for our union journal, based on a workshop I gave at our conference.  Ran out of time in the workshop of course, so the below’s based on the bit that I never got to.

Mention the word ‘campaign’ and the image that comes to mind is often one of visible activity and tactics that unions and other groups seeking change often employ.  Rallies, marches, strikes, blockades, sit-ins and pickets, flash mobs, videos, petitions, stunts and street theatre are what end up on the news and are usually the time when the largest number of people directly interact with the campaign.

France leads the way when it comes to eye-catching of tactics  – auto-workers kidnapping their bosses, farmers dismantling a McDonalds or, recently, releasing thousands of sheep onto the streets of Lyon.

These tactics are, however, just the conspicuous tip of the iceberg. What is not seen, and is usually unreported, are the months or years of hard work put into the other elements that make a campaign effective.

We need to campaign and to win, if simply because those with an agenda opposed to ours are doing it, and are gaining ground.  Since the 1970s our conservative opponents have campaigned unrelentingly to privatise public services, abolish free university education, destroy TAFE, enable the hyper-casualisation of our sector, and re-regulate industrial relations so that a greater share of the proceeds of increased productivity goes to profit and less to wages and salaries.

Our opponents don’t resort to rallies or sit-ins as their tactics; rather, they rely on their greater resources and their greater access to decision makers.

But, equating a campaign with its tactics dooms it to failure.  The term “campaign” is often defined as a planned sequence of organised actions to achieve a specific goal, which in turn implies a series of elements – determining what the goal is, working out how to reach it  (identifying who is the target or decision-maker, and who in turn influences them), and assessing each party’s strengths and weaknesses.  Above all, there is organisation, without which there is nothing.

Campaign training run in NTEU NSW takes delegates through nine sequential stages of a campaign plan.  Of these nine, settling on tactics comes seventh.  Whether the tactics actually work depends on the more difficult, time consuming, less exciting, yet more important work of building organisation and developing a strategy.

The very existence of a plausible-sounding plan helps builds organisation. Faced with a challenge that affects a constituency, the hope that a plan just might work provides the circumstances for people to take action.   It’s the job of leaders to articulate the plan in a way that builds organisation by providing ways for others to be involved.  Recognising the importance of strategy, leadership and organisation is not new, but recent campaigns like Fight for $15 in the US have captured attention for their impact.

Two recent books have drawn upon groundbreaking campaigns:  Hahrie Han’s How Organisations Develop Activists, and Becky Bond and Zac Exley’s Rules for Revolutionaries, which examines what they learned working for the Bernie Sanders primary campaign.

Building your structures

Following the recent horrific mass murder in Las Vegas, UCLA Professor of Political Science Hahrie Han wrote an article for the New York Times:Want Gun Control? Learn from the NRA”.   Based on her research of organisations Han argues that the National Rifle Association has “built something that gun-control advocates lack: an organised base of grass-roots power”.

Through the NRA’s local chapters, Han says, the NRA organises by bringing together people with something in common (for example, a need for cheap accident insurance for gun owners) to attract huge numbers to their network.  Once drawn together by common identity, political education follows.   They don’t start with the people who already strongly agree with them – as, says Han, their opponents in the gun control lobby do.

Han is a progressive academic who was recently in Australia as a keynote speaker at the ACTU’s NexGen conference in Sydney. She later spent time working with the largest branch of the largest union in the country, the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, on how they could build their capacity by reinvigorating their branch structures.

Han’s How Organisations Develop Activists is a study of two national organisations in the US. It compares the chapters (branches) that have high engagement with members and those that don’t.   She concluded that the level of engagement was strongly influenced by the type of leadership.

Low engagement chapters were characterised by a lone wolf leadership style, where leaders built power by expertise and information — through advocacy, oversight, contributing to committees, public comments and other forms of consultation.

Other chapters featured mobilisers who built power by being able to call on large numbers of people to contribute, engage in change and take action.

The third style of leadership were organisers who built power by identifying, recruiting and training future leaders in a distributed network; developing a community and protecting its strength.

The most effective groups both organised and mobilised their constituencies.

The model of distributed leadership that Han suggests is most able to produce change is completely suited to confronting the challenges facing higher education workers and the NTEU.

Deploying this power effectively

Han’s model of distributed leadership aligns well with what Becky Bond and Zack Exley call ‘big organising’ in Rules for Revolutionaries, where they document the lessons they drew from the extraordinary Sanders campaign.

What they came to call “big organising” was their answer to a huge problem campaign organisers had.  With the initial hype of the Sanders campaign came thousands of volunteers wanting to help – basically saying: “Don’t you see that if you idiots put us to work effectively, there are enough of us to win this election?” (p28).  With hardly any staff, this question explained why they could “barely sleep in those first couple of months”.

Of their 22 rules, six of the most apt for the NTEU start with rule one: You won’t get a revolution if you don’t ask for one.  The problems confronting tertiary education are big, and they require big solutions – having an incremental claim as your campaign goal won’t be enough to inspire your constituency to act, and yet their active involvement is crucial.

Rule five, get on the phone, captures not just the importance of one-to-one contact, but the time consuming development of trustful relationships.  For the authors, there was little better use of their time than that spent than talking face-to-face or on the phone to supporters because through these conversations they grew and developed local leaders.

Rule six is the work is distributed, the plan is centralised.  Working with local volunteers doesn’t lessen the need for strategic planning at the centre; it heightens it.  With scope for local adaptation, in big organising “leaders operate with a high level of autonomy and creativity while all working toward the same, centrally determined, shared goal” (p2).

What they call “barnstorming” in rule eight were the mass volunteer meetings at which volunteers were briefed and set on their course of action.  It’s what the authors of the Rules came up with as the most efficient way to get volunteers on board a plan to deploy in a local area.  They held “barnstorm” meetings throughout the country where volunteers were tasked with their actions of voter contact.

A typical, well attended branch general meeting in the NTEU might be attended by 10-20 per cent of the members – in reality, the active core, and a great base to deploy in a campaign.  The best of the general meetings I’ve attended over this bargaining campaign easily fit the “barnstorm” mould.

Rule ten may frighten IT professionals: give away your passwords.  Now, what Bond and Exley are talking about includes literal passwords, but the rule is more about giving up some control.  The risk of what might happen by relinquishing control is dwarfed by the risk of lost opportunities and potential activists not being engaged.

Closely related to this rule is rule eleven: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the big.   Volunteers won’t do things exactly as envisaged, and this is fine.  It’s more important that the action happens on a large scale, even if imperfect, than not.

Bernie Sanders did not win the Democratic Primary.  But over 100,000 volunteers made more than 75 million calls to voters. Over 100,000 volunteer-led events were held, and 2,800,000 people donated money.  This put Sanders closer to being chosen to run for President than he was ever predicted to get.

Building organisation and thinking strategically (not tactically)

Can these elements and principles be incorporated into campaigns for free education and secure jobs in our workplaces?  Absolutely – and in the most effective of our campaigns, they already are.  By giving conscious consideration to what works, we can avoid spending time on things that do not help us win, and thus open up resources that can be better focused on what does.

Book details:

Bond, Becky. & Exley, Zack (2016), Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, VT.

Han, Hahrie (2014), How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century, Oxford University Press, New York.

This was first published in the Advocate, journal of the National Tertiary Education Union, Vol. 24 No. 3, November 2017.


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