Stay Grounded – Clever campaigning against Bristol Airport expansion

Campaigners in Bristol, UK, are fighting the expansion of Bristol Airport against an unlikely active investor, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP). The teachers should be told!

Cross-posted from Stay Grounded

Campaigners in Bristol, UK, are fighting the expansion of Bristol Airport, which will have disastrous consequences for local communities and the environment. The courts have continually failed the local community over the expansion but last year, community campaigners from BABE found creative ways to engage with, and unsettle, the mega-corporate owner of Bristol Airport, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP).

Last year, groups resisting OTPP-driven airport expansion in Bristol and four other European cities joined forces under the banner of SOFAX: Stop OTPP Funding Airport Expansion. This latest action – with Stay Grounded’s support – experimented with a new approach to targeting OTPP which involved directly engaging their workers.

The largest private investor in European airports: OTPP

OTPP is a mega-corporation and self-proclaimed ‘active’ investor, investing money on behalf of – but with limited influence from – the teachers of Ontario, Canada. At the last count, OTPP had almost $250bn in assets. With controlling stakes in 5 European airports – Bristol, London City, Birmingham, Brussels and Copenhagen – it is the largest private investor in European airports and an important focus for resistance to airport expansion in these cities.

Piling on the pressure

Prior to last year, OTPP had got away with relatively little sustained pressure from campaigns against airport expansion, despite the massive role it plays in these struggles in Europe. By co-ordinating action across the 5 European cities, SOFAX has ensured that is no longer the case.

A mixture of tactics have been used to make it clear that activists now hold OTPP’s current strategy as a key obstacle to realising the world we want to see. A public letter was delivered both in London and Toronto and a collaborative video from activists and teachers from the UK National Education Union seeks to build solidarity with teachers in Ontario. We know that this has been seen by senior managers at OTPP, and we know that the need for such action is only getting more pressing. Particularly in Bristol, there is increasing unrest as courts continue to fail the democratic process.

Workers as informants

In this context, BABE has been experimenting with new ways to unsettle OTPP and strengthen the international alliance resisting OTPP’s airport expansion plans. Last quarter, OTPP staff received targeted LinkedIn posts pointing them to an anonymous survey.

The posts’ graphics used visual climate communication techniques based on social research along with a subversive mimicry of OTPP’s branding. As a group, BABE wrestled with the decision to pay the LinkedIn corporation for their services, but the ability to directly reach workers (from a geographically scattered coalition of activists) was unmatched in precision and cost-effectiveness.

In this way, our intention was to communicate directly with the intelligent, unique people who keep OTPP running day to day. It is likely that workers perceive OTPP’s hypocrisy. As Tanguy Tomes, Bristol Airport campaigner, put it: “OTPP talk a good talk on both climate change and the needs of local communities, but the experience of those living around their ever-growing airports, including here in Bristol, makes a mockery of those ‘values’. We’re looking forward to seeing what OTPP staff make of it all.”

The survey will enable SOFAX to gain inside contacts and information, with a view to building alliances and planning future actions from inside the corporate owners.

An invitation sent with flowers

Whilst workers keep the company running, decision-making power in OTPP, as in any corporation, is concentrated into the hands of a few. A by-product of the survey is an expectation for senior managers to be unsettled by the thought of potential leaks.

This action sought to leverage this disturbance by inviting key decision-makers into a dialogue with activists. To do so, senior managers from OTPP and its airport-owning shell company, Ontario Airports Investment Limited, received personalised flower arrangements from independent florists in Toronto and London.

These invitations were friendly, and their physical form builds on a long history of flowers being used in protest and social change. However, the underlying message for decision-makers is clear: we know who you are, we hold you accountable, and we want to talk.

The future is green; the future is grounded

Everybody knows that Bristol Airport is Big Enough (BABE!), but making that a reality – in Bristol and elsewhere – requires building activist power and challenging corporate power. In this action, BABE experimented with direct worker engagement to achieve both.

As our BABEs data analyst processes the results of the survey, we hope to have unsettled the OTPP management whilst building power with workers and gathering insights to inform future action. Here in Bristol, as the courts continue to fail the people, all mechanisms of change are on the table.

When OTPP pulls out of expanding Bristol Airport, it will set a precedent for other airport investor-owners. It will also, undoubtedly, be because community activists, teachers, and workers at the pension plan created a unique alliance, organising actions which created too many reputational and financial risks for airport expansion to be a viable investment. Do you know anyone who lives in Ontario, Canada? Do they know any teachers? They can be a part of the change; joining the alliance starts simply by watching our video.

Blog post contributed by Bristol Airport is Big Enough (BABE)

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