How Anti-Coal Campaigners Changed the Bank of America
by Thomas Mc Donagh
In 2011 Bank of America (BofA) was the lead financier of coal in the United States. By May 2015 the bank had announced a shift in policy – committing to measuring and reporting on climate risks and to continuing to ‘reduce exposure to coal extraction companies’- thus becoming, according to campaigners, one of the most progressive US banks on coal finance. The bank’s decision was no doubt influenced by the global shift in public opinion and policy away from the coal industry, but the groundwork for this important victory had been laid over the course of a steady 4-year campaign effort led by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN).
What was the strategy? What tactics were used? And what lessons do they hold for other campaigns?
As with all anti-corporate campaign strategies, an important first step is to identify the target’s points of vulnerability in order to manipulate and apply pressure to them in the most effective ways.
Go after the bottom line
Making a corporation feel the pinch in its bottom line – even just by affecting 1 or 2% of it’s profits – can get even the most intransigent corporate actors to sit up and take notice. In November 2011, on the back of the Move Your Money initiative (a call out by RAN for supporters to close their BofA accounts until the corporation changed its ways) over 60,000 customers closed their accounts and a massive Not With Our Money banner was dropped at BofA headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Go after public image
For corporations that sell products and services directly to the public, the perceived trustworthiness of their brand and public image is of utmost importance. The sponsorship and naming of cultural and sporting venues is one of the ways that they invest in preserving this image – the deals provide all manner of positive associations and legitimacy in the public consciousness. The home ground of the Carolina Panthers American football team in Charlotte, North Carolina is the Bank of America Stadium. In a bold direct action in 2012, campaigners absailed down the side of the 74,000-seat stadium to unfurl a banner calling out the bank’s role in coal financing.
Banner drops and photo stunts at such symbolic public venues provide powerful imagery and important media attention for campaign demands.
The focus on public venues such as BofA stadium, was combined with sit-ins and lockdowns at bank branches – including four simultaneous lockdowns at branches in Charlotte, North Carolina in November 2012. These were used to raise awareness among customers, staff and the public of the campaign issues and of course, more media opportunities to build momentum and pressure the bank.
Harnessing existing winds of change
The campaign against BofA was gaining momentum just as the Occupy movement was taking off in the US. Conscious of the fact that drawing from the same pool of environmentalists in their campaign would rapidly deplete energies, resources and potential impact, coal finance campaigners quickly seized the chance to establish new alliances. By linking the issue of coal financing with existing Occupy campaigns and actions around BofA’s role in the sub-prime mortgage crisis, an issue that was garnering huge public attention – and acrimony – at the time, they were able to tap into the public anger towards the bank and make the most of the shifting debate on corporate power and inequality in the US. In addition, by being part of a much broader alliance the coal campaign was strengthened, had more resources available and was able to link environmental and social justice issues together in the public consciousness.
The campaign continued to tap into public anger related to the role of Bank of America in the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the foreclosures of American homes in it’s messaging strategy. In January 2012, residents of San Francisco awoke to find all 85 Bank of America ATMs in the city transformed into Truth Machines. In a clever direct action, RAN campaigners covered ATM screens with stickers of screensavers that presented the bank’s environmental record side by side with the bank’s record in the crisis. The action inspired similar actions in cities across the United States.
Inside and outside strategies
The direct action strategies aimed at the bank’s public image and bottom line were complemented by initiatives aimed at the bank’s shareholders. Annual shareholder meetings were the sites of major protests in 2012 and 2013. In 2012 Occupy protesters, environmental activists and struggling homeowners were among hundreds gathered to call on the bank to put people and planet before profits. With approximately 1000 people outside and 100 people inside the meeting this huge coalition confronted the bank’s shareholders directly. (See a report on this action on Democracy Now!)
Legitimacy of voice
It would be one thing for a group of NGO staff and environmentalists to make demands around coal financing at the bank’s AGM, but it’s entirely another for affected communities, medical doctors and faith leaders to do so. That is exactly what the campaign facilitated at the bank’s 2013 AGM. They brought representatives of communities affected by BofA-financed coal projects from the US, India and Colombia, to talk about the affects on their water, human rights and biodiversity; they brought a doctor from Physicians for Social Change to talk about the health impacts of burning coal and climate change; and they brought a local pastor to talk about the moral imperative to protect the climate for future generations. The combination of personal testimony, hard scientific facts and moral authority is a lot harder for bank managers and shareholders to ignore than the arguments of environmental advocates alone.
When developing messaging strategies in anti-corporate campaigning, who delivers the message is often as important as the message itself.
As pressure was building both inside and out in February 2014, RAN began to engage some of BofA’s major shareholders to support a proxy resolution calling for the bank to measure and report on climate risks from lending. In a May 2014 shareholder meeting just such a resolution was proposed by the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility and received 24% shareholder support, significantly increasing the pressure on the bank to initiate major changes.
In 2015, after four years of campaigning, the bank announced a sweeping new policy on climate reporting and coal financing in which it committed to scale down its financial involvement in the coal industry globally and to implement ongoing measuring and reporting on climate risks. RAN called the move “the strongest policy of its kind to date”. According to RAN’s Amanda Starbuck “it represents a sea change: it acknowledges the responsibility that the financial sector bears for supporting and profiting from the fossil fuel industry and the climate chaos it has caused”. While these victories are important in and of themselves they are also important to reinforce the growing global awareness of the role of finance in the climate crisis – thereby strengthening the hand of campaigns such as the global call for fossil fuel divestment.
Being aware of the political climate in which we’re operating and having a clear analysis of where we’re starting from allows campaigns to identify potential challenges and opportunities along the road. In this case, the situation and atmosphere in the United States following the financial crisis provided important ally and messaging opportunities. Sometimes in anti-corporate campaigning we don’t need to dedicate time and resources to changing the political winds related to our objective, but rather simply adjust the direction of our sails to harness those already prevailing.