Analysis: Mixed messages are sent when activist groups unite

Corporations are finding it difficult to address claims raised by critics, especially when different activist groups unite against their targets.

Corporations are finding it difficult to address claims raised by critics, especially when different activist groups unite against their targets.

Fast-growing Dell went through a corporate rite of passage last year: Activists protested its shareholder meeting. It was a first for the world's leading computer manufacturer. Environmental groups argue that Dell should champion electronics recycling. Yet why then, at a recent Las Vegas trade show, did the company encounter activists wearing jailbird costumes and complaining about Dell using low-paid prison labor to dismantle old computers? While a few bold lines can be drawn between the Computer TakeBack Campaign and the gripes of labor activists, the dotted ones aren't hard to trace. For example, one of the campaign's founders, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, recounts on its website that it was formed "as a nonprofit grassroots organization consisting of environmental and neighborhood groups, labor unions, public-health leaders, people affected by toxic exposure, and others." Dell's experience illustrates what some say is the small but growing cross-pollination of activist interests. This phenomenon can make identifying core problems difficult for corporations caught in the crosshairs. Activists learn from each other While the trend may not be widespread, some activist groups are definitely comparing notes. For example, at Empowering Democracy conferences, activists of all ilks gather to share tactics. Attendees of the first conference in 2001 ranged from Greenpeace to Trillium Asset Management to the Democratic Socialists of Texas A&M. Several union representatives taught classes. Each conference concludes with participants using what they've learned to picket a targeted corporation. Activists protested at ExxonMobil's shareholder meeting after the first conference in Dallas, while Citibank became the 2002 target in New York. This year's conference will be held in Oakland, CA in October, but a target company hasn't yet been selected, says Peter Altman, national coordinator for Campaign ExxonMobil. "We really see a united interest whether activists are from environmental groups, union organizations, health groups, economic-justice groups - we all recognize the same fundamental problem is that corporate power is so rampant that they really have free license to do what they want," says Altman. Alliances between union leaders and activists go way back, says Dr. Jarol Manheim, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. Blue-collar union protests began decades earlier, but labor borrowed the corporate-campaign concept from liberal intellectuals in the 1960s. Unions also partnered with religious and social-justice groups to gain credibility, Manheim says. "They had to build coalitions because labor had some of the same public-opinion problems that corporations did," he observes. These days, labor shares tactics with activist groups to build its support base as union membership wanes. Another landmark development in cooperative protesting evolved around opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Leading that fight is the Citizens Trade Campaign. "We formed during the fight over NAFTA as the means for labor, environmental, religious, family farm, and consumer organizations to come together," says director Gretchen Gordon. Those groups famously flexed their collective muscle by disrupting the World Trade Organization's 1999 conference in Seattle. "The global-justice movement has helped to reinvigorate the progressive base in this country, and has helped to foster some connections," Gordon says. Labor and environmental groups sometimes clash over US regulations, but their interests clearly overlap regarding foreign practices. "The workers in this country should not be penalized for us having better environmental standards," Gordon says. Environmental groups also often find allies in NIMBY (not in my backyard) camps. David Preston, a partner at Trion Communications in Providence, RI, has worked for two recycling clients who came under fire from neighbors and environmentalists. "There is certainly an irony here of so-called environmentalists opposing recycling," Preston says. "It does have the effect of undermining the credibility and reasonableness of the opponents." Trion also worked unsuccessfully to save a proposed port on Narragansett Bay that would have received shipments from foreign factories in truck-trailer sized containers. "Neighbors who didn't want it found environmentalists who didn't want it, then those who didn't like globalization," Preston recalls. "The issue becomes to contain the opposition so it doesn't spread, particularly to elected officials." Protesters won the ears of politicians, who scuttled the project. Preston thinks the best strategy to help such a beleaguered project succeed is to focus on building a client's credibility while discrediting its opponents in a nonconfrontational way. "At one point, one of the green folks argued that building the port would lead to an increase in cannibalism on Borneo," says Preston, who publicized such claims. "You use their own words. You really don't have to say anything." Tapping union support While labor didn't partner with the environmental and NIMBY factions in Rhode Island, it often does team up against big-box, largely non-union retail chains like Wal-Mart. Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, even wrote a manual for anti-urban-sprawl activists on how to court union support. But when too many interests bash the same corporation, they run the risk of drowning out each others' messages. "You're never going to get them to forsake their particular argument for one broad sound bite," Gordon says. "If we did that, we might get a little better media coverage, but we would lose the appeal for a broad-based movement." The TakeBack Campaign targeted Dell in part because the computer manufacturer is a big target. The main issue was the recycling of old computers. "The infrastructure for electronics recycling is just emerging. It's a little unfair to think that Dell or any one company should just magically go in and pick up all 200 million obsolete computers that are sitting out there," explains Kevin Tuerff, president of Tuerff-Davis EnviroMedia, which is helping Dell with its recycling campaign along with GCI Read-Poland. So far this year, Dell has unveiled a recycling program that includes home pickup of old equipment (through partnerships with mainstream recycling organizations), and launched a PR campaign with recycling drives in 16 cities. Activists first complained that by contracting with prison vocational program Unicor to recycle computers, Dell hindered the development of private-sector recycling. But when Dell announced it was severing ties with Unicor, the activists didn't let up. "Dell dropping Unicor is a good step, but our campaign isn't about prison labor," says David Wood, organizing director of the GrassRoots Recycling Network, another TakeBack founder. "It's about a sustainable solution." Dell temporarily lowered the cost of recycling monitors or PCs from $15 to $.99 each just before its annual meeting, but several protesters arrived anyway, carrying used Dell computers they collected in several cities. A congenial mood prevailed. One Dell PR staffer took water to activists outside, and speakers thanked CEO Michael Dell before politely stating their complaints. And shareholders didn't boo the protesters this time. But don't expect hugs and kisses between the two camps. Dell folks see protesters' picketing of Susan Dell's clothing design shop as a low blow, while activists may never feel completely satisfied. And Tuerff, whose agency was founded on the creation of America Recycles Day, sees the mingling of environmental and labor messages as ineffective. "Unfortunately, when environmentalists start bringing up issues that are labor-related, it only detracts from those mainstream environmental groups who are doing the right thing."

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