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Activism and Negotiation

Stephen White

It is peculiar how news stories often converge and clash. Newspapers worldwide today report the court-hearing in St Petersburg yesterday which culminated in bail being granted to eight pro-environment Greenpeace activists who had attempted to scale an oil rig in the Pechora Sea in September. Also today, The Moscow Times reports on its front page that anti-terrorism exercises carried out in Sochi, the venue for the upcoming Winter Olympics, targeted pro-environment activists who are staunch opponents of the Games, detaining one of their leaders at an airport in the region for four hours on the grounds that he looked like a terrorist. You can read the full report here.

Activism is a form of persuasion. Using diverse methods such as civil disobedience, resistance, demonstrations, and publicity seeking events activists seek to promote change in the political, social, economic or environmental status quo. Examples such as the French Revolution, the Suffragette movement and the American Civil Rights campaign testify to the power and antiquity of activism.

Is activism part of the negotiator’s toolkit? The answer is Yes, and it is much more common than we might imagine. Commercial organisations use lobbyists to promote their interests and to structure the expectations of political or regulatory counterparties before more direct negotiations begin. The tobacco and pharmaceutical lobbies are examples. Consumer activism is often conceptualised and encouraged by the lobbyists; for example recent events in Australia and the UK where public sentiment put pressure on retailers to modify their dealings with the farmers who supplied them. Of course activism is often a two way process, with both parties attempting to persuade each other, and the winner is more likely to be the side with the deeper pockets rather than the one with the better case.

What about at a personal level? Trades Unions often turn into activist groups in their behaviour during periods of industrial unrest. Sometimes they demonstrate against a company or a particular industrial unit. Recently, one union become even more personal. In the recent dispute over the closure of a oil refinery in Scotland members of the Unite union went to picket the homes of several members of the management team with the specific aim of intimidation – the Union later called this form of activism Leverage, defined on their website as ‘a process whereby the Union commits resources and time to making all interested parties aware of the treatment received by Unite members at the hands of an employer’. 

By definition activism is a group activity, so it might appear difficult for the individual to use this technique as part of their negotiating strategy.  Not so. A hospital in the UK Midlands was revealed to have contributed to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of patients through bad management and nursing practices. The hospital’s initial stance was to refuse to engage with bereaved relatives - only as a result of these individuals starting activist groups and pressure campaigns did the hospital (and the National Health Service) rethink its stance and shift its position.

Stephen White 

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