Citizen Action Monitor

“Counterpower” by Tim Gee — Pt 3: How Economic Counterpower helps movements win

No 381 Posted by fw, December 27, 2011

This series is based on Tim Gee’s Counterpower: Making Change Happen. Gee conceives of Counterpower as the ability of the powerless to remove or neutralize the power of the powerful. He posits three types of Counterpower – Idea Counterpower, Economic Counterpower and Physical Counterpower.

Part 2, drew from history to provide numerous instructive examples of Idea Counterpower excerpted from Chapter 1, How Counterpower helps movements win.

This post, Part 3, returns to Chapter 1 to consider the primary sources of elitists’ economic power, and offers a selection of examples from the past to illustrate how determined citizen activists can offset elitist economic power by effectively deploying Economic Counterpower.

Economic Counterpower

Gee writes:

Economic power is derived from wealth, money, labor and land. It is most clearly seen as the ability to pay people to do things they would not otherwise do. Economic Counterpower is the refusal to work or the refusal to pay. The building of alternative economic power bases – such as trade unions, co-ops, progressive businesses, NGOs and publicly owned services – can also be seen as a form of Economic Counterpower.”

Economic Counterpower examples from the past –

  • In June 1990, a group of Los Angeles janitors went on strike to protest rapacious cuts to their wages and benefits. Public support for their “Justice for Janitors” cause surged following police action to beat back a protest march. With the press and public onside, the LA janitors’ strike action won a wage rise and return of health benefits. Their victory inspired janitors and cleaners nationwide to organize, leading to the formation of a national Justice for Janitors campaign.
  • In 1980 Polish ship-workers occupied their Gdansk workplace to protest the firing of a popular colleague. The action sparked a wave of solidarity strikes, venting long-repressed dissatisfaction with an unpopular puppet government. Although the Gdansk issues were quickly resolved, a core of strikers continued their action in solidarity with strikers in other industries. As economic pressure grew, the government caved on the right for workers to form a new union, Solidarność. However, a year later, martial law was imposed, and Solidarność outlawed. More strikes followed. Union representatives were invited to the negotiating table where the right to unionize was reinstated and the right to democratic elections approved. On the ninth anniversary of the start of the struggle, strike leader Lech Walesa was elected President of Poland.
  • The term ‘Green Ban was coined in the 1970s when the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (NSWBLF) of Australia adopted a policy to launch a form of strike action on environmental, conservation or moral grounds. In the Australian case, a developer was forced to abandon development plans when the NSWBLF acceded to the wishes of the local community not to build on the last parcel of undeveloped bush land.
  • Boycotts are a form of refusal to pay or refusal to buy – “An efficient tactic,” says Gee, “if enough people get behind it.” The Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s is a classic case. Rosa Parks, acting on her own, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Emboldened by Park’s singular symbolic act of defiance, the Montgomery Women’s Political Council decided the time was right for a boycott. Powerful elites retaliated with arrests, charges of conspiracy, and even bombings by extremists. But the boycott held. And on November 13, 1956 the US Supreme Court ruled bus segregation illegal. One act by one person helped to advance the cause of the civil rights movement.
  • Non-payment of Margaret Thatcher’s regressive flat-rate tax was the preferred Economic Counterpower tactic of radicals in Scotland. When the Scottish Labour Party refused to support the radical’s campaign, anti-tax leagues sprung up around the country, supplementing non-payment Economic Counterpower with public meetings, mass door-knocking and pledge-signing as Idea Counterpower plays. Anti-tax campaigns spread to England and Wales, eventually leading to the formation of an All Britain movement. Protests escalated. When the Thatcher’s Conservatives lost a string of by-elections, party backbenchers revolted and in 1990 the Iron Lady was forced to stand down as leader. Her successor, John Major, shelved the tax indefinitely. In her autobiography, Thatcher wrote that the tax defeat “represented one of the greatest victories for these people ever conceded by a Conservative government.
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