How Activists Create Change

Posted by on Dec 30, 2015 in Get Involved!, Motivation, Political U[niversity] | 0 comments

PersuasionHow do activists create change? Last June, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University asked the question, “How does activism drive corporate change?” While their research focuses on activism’s impact on corporate management, most of their insights also apply to political activism.

Sometimes the impact is direct:

  • A shareholder group filed a resolution urging McDonald’s to replace its foam beverage cups with a “greener” alternative. The resolution did not pass, but it got management attention. McDonald’s switched to paper cups within two years.
  • A political example: Ohio voters in November defeated Issue 3, which would have legalized medical and recreational marijuana; but also establish a cartel of authorized growers. Voter surveys showed that a large majority of Ohioans favored medical marijuana, but did not want the cartel. Legislative leaders are now researching legislation to legalize medical marijuana for passage in the next session.

However, it is more likely that activists will have to persist for a long time, sometimes many years, before their desired result is achieved. Prof. Braydon King at the Kellogg School notes that organizations start out by wanting to “buffer themselves from future attacks by the activists,” but the activists begin to create opportunities for change within the organization, resulting in a cycle that reinforces the values of the activists.

  • A corporate example is Nike, which in 1991 was found to run sweatshops in Asia to manufacture its shoes. Major media began reporting working conditions, and activists began to sue Nike, which by 1999 pulled down corporate earnings. This got management’s attention, as the corporation gradually took steps to correct the situation. By 2005, the factory conditions were upgraded. In 2010, the company embraced transparency in reporting factory conditions, and today corporate profits are reaping the rewards. Note, however, that it took 14 years to upgrade the factories.
  • A political example is government-subsidized healthcare. Progressive reformers began to press for “social insurance” prior to World War I. Twenty years later, the Roosevelt Administration tried, but failed, to include health insurance as part of Social Security. In 1965, Congress passed the law authorizing Medicare and Medicaid, which began the next year. Attempts by Presidents Nixon (1974) and Clinton (1993-1994) failed to set up national health insurance, but laid the groundwork for the Affordable Care Act in 2010; and it is likely that the plan will require extensive modification in coming years. Thus, from introducing the idea to the Affordable Care Act was nearly a century.

Prof. King’s research identifies two kinds of responses that open the doors to corporate change: establishing a committee on social responsibility, and developing a report detailing the firm’s commitment to social responsibility. Such reforms, while begin in response to activism, take on a life of their own, and become permanent.

In the political world, activists work with sympathetic legislators (and council and school board members on the local level) to build coalitions in support of the desired reform. These coalitions exist on two levels: within the decision-making body to press for a law or policy to implement the reform, and among activists to press additional decision makers to get on board. Once enacted into legislation, political reforms, like their corporate counterparts, tend to be permanent.

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