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News :: Environment : Globalization : Organizing
Anti-Corporate Victory in Lee; Water Privatization Defeated!
13 Oct 2004
Water and anti-privatization activists recently stopped a bid from the European Multi-National Veolia Environment (working with former local Democratic Party State Rep.) to privatize the water system.

The issue of water privatization in Lee actually arrived through the backdoor. Originally the discussion on the table was about the need in Lee for an upgrade of the town’s sewer system. But pushed by former Democratic Party State Rep. Christopher Hogkins, the town moved towards a proposal that included the design, build, and operation (DBO) of a new Water Plant.

With relatively no public discussion about the ramifications associated with privatizing out the services to a multi-national corporation, and with almost absurd levels of conflict of interests (or at the very least revolving door politics), the town received only one bid, from Veloia Water. Quite a coincidence since Christopher Hogkins the former State Rep from Lee is now a Vice-President and General Manager for the company. (The parent company of this entity is Veolia Environment based in Paris, France.)
I. History of issue in Lee

The issue of water privatization in Lee actually arrived through the backdoor. Originally the discussion on the table was about the need in Lee for an upgrade of the town’s sewer system. But pushed by former Democratic Party State Rep. Christopher Hogkins, the town moved towards a proposal that included the design, build, and operation (DBO) of a new Water Plant.

With relatively no public discussion about the ramifications associated with privatizing out the services to a multi-national corporation, and with almost absurd levels of conflict of interests (or at the very least revolving door politics), the town received only one bid, from Veloia Water. Quite a coincidence since Christopher Hogkins the former State Rep from Lee is now a Vice-President and General Manager for the company. (The parent company of this entity is Veolia Environment based in Paris, France.)


II. Massachusetts Global Action Steps Into the Fray

The situation in Lee has been on my radar screen for about a month, thanks to Kate Harris a western Massachusetts organizer who I had worked with in a number of capacities over the last five years, primarily around Green Party organizing. At the time however my work was focused on the July 2004 Boston Social Forum, where I was one of two staff people.

After the event was completed and I had a few days to relax, I made the call to Dee Dee Consolati with Concerned Citizens of Lee whose name I had been given by Kate Harris. I introduced myself as an organizer with the newly set up Massachusetts Global Action, (a coming together of Massachusetts Anti-Corporate Clearinghouse, Campaign on Contingent Work, and some of the remaining Boston Social Forum infrastructure) and asked if she was interested in having some support for opposition to the potential privatization.

I was up front with a number of issues. The first was that we would only get involved if local activists were welcoming of our presence in their organizing. If there was a role for us we would embrace it, but if community members wanted to tackle this without the “outside agitators” then we would respect this.

The second concern was the fact that our limited budget would only allow a certain amount of interaction on behalf of the campaign. I said that we would need to seek some additional funding from other groups and from supportive allies in the communities to help cover some of the potential costs, from traveling to copying costs.

The last issue that we talked over was just about style of organizing. A big issue such as the fact that as an organizer I find it best to not make assumptions about whether people have taken certain steps in their campaign. What I would think was an easy first step, or a necessary base to cover, might not be on their radar screen. In order to make sure all angles were taken care of, I would assume that nothing had been done, and Dee Dee would help clarify (and not take offense) at my assumptions.

A smaller issue would be something like the fact that I tend to communicate in very short, direct e-mails, skipping the formalities and getting right to the point. This saves me time, but it can also be misconstrued as rude and insensitive if you haven’t had this kind of dialogue up front. After having a straight up discussion with Dee Dee, we realized that this was a good match and we were off.


III. Pulling together all the players

The first thing that I thought was necessary to do was to get a full understanding of where the issue stood in terms of the “process”. This would determine how much time we actually had and would also shape the nature of the campaign. What is doable in twelve weeks may not be doable in four weeks. We needed to know whether we were in crisis mode, or whether we had the luxury of being able to build over a number of months. From what Dee Dee told us, it was clear that we were in crisis mode and that this would all have a conclusion within a two month time period at best.

The next thing to do was to identify all the potential “players” for this campaign. Dee Dee had already made contact with the local union steward and local community folks who were in opposition. What we did at Massachusetts Global Action was to bring other important people into the circle. First I tracked down the responsible Teamsters officials, (who represented the public employees at the plant), notified the newly emerging Water Allies Network (a national network of water activists), Alliance for Democracy organizers who had already shown some interest in getting involved, and a Public Citizen analyst who had background in understanding and documenting these kinds of fights across the country.

What was important about these groups were that they brought concrete resources to the table. These were not talkers, they were groups that could bring expertise, financial and legal support, and strategy based in real case history, not abstract theory. They were organizers and they knew that time was not a luxury we had and so we needed to stick to concrete and tangible organizing tasks.

Ruth Caplan with the Alliance for Democracy provided us with an initial $700 to be used to help cover direct organizing costs that I would be incurring. The Water Allies Network had published a wonderful tabloid that documented the water issue, with a focus on New England and they came through with 2000 of these for distribution in Lee. Hugh Jackson at Public Citizen agreed to do the necessary research around other case studies that would be relevant, provide fact sheets for distribution, and set up legal analysis for the suggested contract.

The Union would also help provide the necessary “moral” authority to fight this fight as they recognized that the benefit package offered by Veolia was not comparable to their current arrangements as public employees. By refusing to sign their portion of the agreement they ensured that they would not be used as buffers against the grassroots organizing being done by Concerned Citizens of Lee.


IV. Local organizing, Less Talk, More Walk

The best weapon that the anti-privatization movement had in Lee was of course the local lead organizer, Dee Dee Consolati. There is a history of endless local campaigns being conducted through words alone. But once in a while you come across people who just get down to business and follow through with all the little things that can make or break a campaign.

Dee Dee made it clear that she appreciated the outside support and opened up her house (and refrigerator) to me every time I made the trip out there. She provided futons for activists to crash on and even offered up gas money to cover our costs from the Boston area. On a much bigger level, Dee Dee made things happen. Here’s how:

The first thing that needed to be done was to create a “splash”. It needed to be some kind of public event that could draw a crowd and serve as a springboard to further organizing. We decided to screen the water documentary THIRST, which had been shown on PBS and was beginning to get shown throughout the country. Dee Dee arranged for a Friday night screening at Lee Town Hall (ironically in the very same courtroom that was used in “Alice’s Restaurant” the Vietnam War era film starring Arlo Gurthrie.) Dee Dee even scraped together the money needed to hire a local high school student to serve as projectionist for the evening.

So on a hot, rainy Friday evening, the courtroom was filled with 50+ local people. It was obvious at this point that Dee Dee didn’t just hang up a few posters and pray for people to show up. She had done the legwork to get the kind of turnout that turns heads. The audience included town officials, DPW heads, union workers, and many other interested parties. After sitting through the hour long screening (with only one person walking out while muttering “too leftist”, we opened up the floor for a question and answer session, which went on for another hour. People wanted to know about what had happened in Lawrence (where we had won a campaign a year earlier), effects of globalization, what public-private partnership really meant, and much more. A list of names and contact info was generated and after a brief strategy session late into the night, we were off and running.

What Dee Dee and her group were faced with was a battle against a corporation that would spend nearly a million dollars to secure this contract. This would include full page ads in the local paper, the Berkshire Eagle (which coincidentally would then go on to run editorials supportive of the privatization attempt), as well as providing funding for a steady stream of corporate lawyers and consultants who came and went at Town Hall in Lee for over three months.

After the screening of THIRST, local officials began feeling the heat. The following Tuesday, the Towns Select Board was confronted for two hours by local anti-privatization activists. After this there were three public hearing (where the local high school auditorium was filled) which turned contentious, as more and more local townsfolk began speaking in opposition to the privatization plan. There were also public demonstrations, multiple letters to the editor, calls in to local talk radio, inserts in local publications, and lots and lots of communication between friends, families, and neighbors.

Finally, on Thursday, September 23rd the final vote (41-10) was taken and the proposed privatization of the Lee water and sewer systems were defeated. Immediately the town voted to accept the “Plan B” option that Dee Dee has pulled together, which included increased levels of oversight for the bidding and construction of a publicly owned and operated plant.


V. Lessons Learned (or re-learned)

a) Submerging your organization in local struggles

Working in a community that is not your own can be a tricky one. One of things that can trigger a backlash from both local organizers and local community members is the perception that outside people are calling the shots around local issues. After all, this is what corporate globalization is all about and we certainly should not be replicating their model.

Therefore it is vital that your organization act only as a project partner, taking steps to support local organizers only in consultation with them at every point.

One concrete example of this was when I suggested approaching Clean Water Action to see if they could route their canvassers to Lee so that we had people doing door-to-door work around the issue. Clean Water Action then agreed to do this, but after some discussion local organizers became more aware that this kind of canvassing required asking for folks to make contributions to Clean Water Action. (This is how groups like Clean Water Action can not only survive but also grow into an effective organizing body). This made local organizers feel uncomfortable so this idea was scrapped.


It could also mean keeping your name off of press releases, not allowing your name and/or organization to dominate the media, not trying to serve as spokespeople, etc.


b) Straight up communication with local organizers

Communication goes hand in hand with developing a partnership that is built on trust. If you have concerns, limitations, and or comments that need to be addressed, then by all means do it directly with local organizers in the appropriate setting and at the right time. Being able to be frank with local people will ensure that there remains a non-paternalistic relationship.


c) Stay away from turf battles. Keeping the door open to all

A good organizer is always looking for other groups and organizations that can help in any organizing effort. Don’t turn an organizing opportunity into a turf battle for your grant applications. Open the door to all affected players and make it easy and comfortable for them to come onboard. Include potential new organizing partners in conference calls, ask them to identify concrete organizing resources they can bring to the table, give them credit in your presentations, and let them claim some ownership over the struggle.

d) Taking care of your own finances (or organizational)

As we all know, everyone on the progressive end of organizing is operating with limited funds. This is especially true of organizations whose politics extend beyond the liberal safety zone. There is no shame with recognizing that you must both define and limit the support that you can offer from the beginning. Have an open discussion also with local organizers and ask them to be conscious of their own needs and together work to use every opportunity to bring in donations that can be used to support the campaign.


Final Thoughts

The victory in Lee was a major event for global justice activists for a number of reasons. First was the ability of local organizers to do battle successfully with a large and powerful multi-national corporation, despite the amount of financial and political resources available to these criminal and un-democratic enterprises.

Second was the reality that this campaign will serve as a wake-up call to many small communities in Massachusetts about the threat that faces them around the issue of water privatization. Our thanks go out to all the people involved in this campaign, especially Dee Dee Consolati, for keeping the control of water in the hands of local people.


Jonathan Leavitt is Organizing Director for Massachusetts Global Action. He can be reached at 617-338-9966 or
See also:
http://www.massglobalaction.org

This work is in the public domain.
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