Thursday Sep 21

Northern Light: It’s Time to Build Real Power For Working People

Winning campaigns is something folks in Toronto are slowly getting used to. From ACORN’s groundbreaking apartment standards bylaw to stopping the privatization of waste collection services and the local hydro company we have been on a roll. Now, just in the last month, the provincial Liberal government has joined in. The Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign was incredibly successful in getting a commitment for $15 by 2019. As well ACORN and some housing groups were able to win some major aspects of our long-term rent control campaign. People are pinching themselves to make sure it’s not all a dream.

These successful campaigns were centralized, and heavily focused on mobilizing through either door-to-door canvassing or through existing labour and community networks. They were not people’s movements and not always true organizing efforts either.

In Toronto we have been able to secure financial backing for canvasses that have been effective at moving centrist politicians to our side. CUPE Local 79, which represents 20,000 inside workers in Toronto, has included working with ACORN, and building our capacity, into their strategic three-year plan as they move into some difficult negotiations with the City. Through this we will get resources to scale up the campaign canvasses and align our platform demands moving into the 2018 municipal elections. While amazing, we must focus on how we can maximize the growth and power-building potential of this opportunity. If we are simply mobilizing we are missing out whether we win the campaigns or not.

The recent campaign canvasses we deployed with CUPE were focused in areas we have not touched in the city: in houses, not high-rises, outside of the gentrified core of the city. The largely working and middle class neighbourhoods were incredibly receptive to our antiprivatization campaign canvasses and were easy to mobilize against the centrist councillors. That’s great for the campaigns, and it has been effective at raising us more revenues while building Toronto ACORN’s reputation as a political force, but it’s not organizing a base for long-term power. Doing that, not surprisingly, is the challenging part.

Over the years we have tested and tried to develop a system to efficiently turn supporters from our campaign canvasses into full ACORN members. We are still testing, which is a clear sign there is not an easy trick here.

I took a few minutes yesterday to talk with Toronto ACORN’s Lead Organizer Andrew Marciniak about our challenge. Andrew has been running our canvasses - both fundraise and campaign - for the last 18 months. He recapped his trials and errors and suggested the hard truth that there was no replacing the slower classic ACORN door knock. He suggested the canvass can provide organizers with walk lists going into neighbourhoods, highlighting good doors and bad, and also sow the neighbourhoods with good will towards our work, but not with some magic list of guaranteed sign ups. That just isn’t how it works after real time logistics and reality are brought into the mix.

The problem is that the momentum that campaigns build is fleeting. Whether you are mobilizing people from existing groups and unions, or doing a quick and dirty canvass like we have nearly perfected, it just is not the same as building a real organization and power. To that end Toronto ACORN will be rolling up our sleeves and door knocking these houses properly after our scaled up canvasses have gone through. We will be getting in the doors, signing members up, and building a membership base in the houses just like we have already done in the apartments.

We have a huge opportunity in the next few years and we must be building real power for working people, not just focussed on the campaigns. And you know what? That’s a clear sign we have gotten use to winning some of these campaigns.

John Anderson is the Head Organizer of Toronto ACORN. Since 2004 John has helped to develop the ACORN Canada operations in Toronto, Ontario, and British Columbia. He is a graduate of the University of Winnipeg.

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