Broad Based Organizing in Hamilton

Don't despair over the results of the upcoming municipal election. With a broad based citizen movement, it may not matter who wins.

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 30, 2006

What do the Lister Block, Aerotropolis, GRIDS, Hamilton's response to peak oil, and Hamilton's response to climate change have in common? In all cases, Hamilton City Council is ignoring its own policies and guidelines to impose decisions that violate the city's long term planning goals.

Since the early 1990s, when Vision 2020 became Hamilton's official planning guide, this city has been notorious for trotting out its policies selectively and ignoring them entirely when they point in an inconvenient direction.

The controversial developments listed above have something else in common: in all cases, groups of involved citizens tried to impose accountability on the city and failed.

My personal experience with this came to a head a little under a month ago at the planning and economic development meeting on air quality and climate change. A number of citizens, myself included, had asked to make presentations, so it was switched to a committee of the whole (COW), meaning all city councillors were to attend.

The time - 9:30 AM on a Wednesday - was not exactly accommodating for the citizen delegates. I had to take the day off work, which I cannot afford to do on a regular basis.

City Council MIA

When the meeting began, there were barely enough councillors to make quorum (the minimum number required to conduct official business). By the time the staff report on a proposed city climate change policy was finished, enough councillors had trickled out of the meeting that the committee no longer had quorum.

That's right: what may be the biggest challenge of the 21st century wasn't important enough to draw even a representative sample of our city councillors, let alone all of them.

After spending several hours preparing a presentation and several more hours waiting for my turn, I stood before eight out of sixteen city councillors and tried to argue that Hamilton already has policies that would reduce our contributions to climate change, if only we would follow them.

They couldn't even receive my presentation officially, let alone act on it in any meaningful way. In other words, my efforts were a waste of time.

No Accountability

The controversial issues that began this essay have one more thing in common: in all cases, the groups of citizens who tried to hold council to its own policies failed to impose accountability on our elected officials. Their pleas fell of deaf ears, and their arguments were whisked away by the wind that blows continuously down Main St.

With a municipal election fast approaching on November 13, the consensus among Hamilton's active citizens is that we need to get different people into the city council chairs, people who "get it", people who are not beholden to the development industry, people who listen to their constituents.

At this point, the conversation usually turns to despair, because other than a few bright lights, it looks like the status will remain quo for another three years.

For example, Mayor Larry Di Ianni, who rode to power in 2003 on a campaign of some $320,000 of corporate money, a significant share of it acquired illegally, has no serious competition.

The Hamilton Spectator editorial board, which has advocated for him since his campaign finance woes began, has officially absolved him of his sins, now that he's pled guilty to six out of 41 charges and agreed to make a $4,500 charitable donation and write an essay on what the experience has taught him ("Dear Justice Zuraw, I've learned that in the eyes of the law, some of us are more equal than others. Thanks, Larry.")

Di Ianni already has $100,000 in his war chest, and by this point, it's probably too late for another contender to catch up. In the 2003 election, opponent David Christopherson, who actually supported Vision 2020, only managed to raise $167,000 during a full run of campaigning and fundraising.

Broad Based Organizing

So, to all those who despair over the predictable results of the upcoming election, I ask you to consider: What if it doesn't matter who wins?

The ultimate common denominator in all this city's controversies is a lack of citizen power. Our goal, then, should be to acquire enough power to make our councillors accountable, whoever they may be and whatever they may claim to support. That requires broad based organizing.

I'm no expect on broad based organizing, but based on conversations I've had with Mike Balkwill, an experienced organizer based in Mississauga, here's the essence: organizers start by talking to as many different citizen groups as possible - everything from professional organizations to church groups, neighbourhood associations, and so on - to learn what they believe, what they advocate, and how they feel they are doing.

Eventually, the organizers end up with a pretty good idea of what the main themes are and where they overlap. At this point, they start to bring together a coalition of coalitions. Each organization needs to contribute some membership dues to the coalition, and with this money, the umbrella group starts to put together campaigns to achieve the members' goals.

Industrial Areas Foundations

As the Industrial Areas Foundation, a broad based organizing group in the United States, explains:

The leaders and organizers of the Industrial Areas Foundation build organizations whose primary purpose is power - the ability to act - and whose chief product is social change. ...

The IAF is non-ideological and strictly non-partisan, but proudly, publicly, and persistently political. The IAF builds a political base within society's rich and complex third sector - the sector of voluntary institutions that includes religious congregations, labor locals, homeowner groups, recovery groups, parents associations, settlement houses, immigrant societies, schools, seminaries, orders of men and women religious, and others. And then the leaders use that base to compete at times, to confront at times, and to cooperate at times with leaders in the public and private sectors.

The IAF develops organizations that use power - organized people and organized money - in effective ways. The secret to the IAF's success lies in its commitment to identify, recruit, train, and develop leaders in every corner of every community where IAF works. The IAF is indeed a radical organization in this specific sense: it has a radical belief in the potential of the vast majority of people to grow and develop as leaders, to be full members of the body politic, to speak and act with others on their own behalf. And IAF does indeed use a radical tactic: the face-to-face, one-to-one individual meeting whose purpose is to initiate a public relationship and to re-knit the frayed social fabric.

Have no doubt, this will take time: at least a year to hold all the individual, one-on-one meetings that will bring individual organizations together and achieve a critical mass of power.

It will also take money: to countervail the business organizations that enjoy tax deductions to hire analysts and lobbyists who can attend those midday council meetings, to bring in experts, to run campaigns, and to force city council to be accountable.

Don't Despair - Organize

Don't despair - if we do nothing, or continue doing what we do today, running small, piecemeal campaigns that are easily ignored, then a year from now we will be right where we are today. But if we start building a broad based movement, following the strategies that are already proven in other jurisdictions, then we may find ourselves a year from now, or even two years, as part of a movement too powerful for our public and business leaders to ignore.

We have the facts, we have the public support, and we even have the official policy. All we lack is "power - the ability to act". That power will only come from broad based organizing among all the committed citizens who already care enough to be involved, who are already, as IAF explains, thankful for our democratic traditions, angry with corruption, and hopeful that we can overcome the obstacles to justice if we work together.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By King James (anonymous) | Posted August 31, 2006 at 09:11:16

Eisenberger seems likely to run against Diianni...but he's a longshot and probably not very dissimilar to Diianni in terms of policy.

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By HammerTime (registered) | Posted August 31, 2006 at 10:22:03

He's also a Tory which is the only thing worse than a Liberal.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted September 02, 2006 at 11:31:16

Check out http://www.cope.bc.ca/ and www.spur.org for some examples of coalition coalitions.

Your point is spot on - even if we get wonderful councilors elected it still takes well organized citizens to encourage progressive public policy.

Hamilton now has a wealth of small citizens groups doing their own thing, yet there are many shared goals. It's time to get organized.

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By sean (registered) | Posted September 15, 2006 at 19:11:05

So... how do we get started?

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