It’s March 21,, 2023, a cool, just barely spring day, and the sidewalks surrounding JPMorgan Chase Bank’s downtown Chicago headquarters are filled with hundreds of chanting, white-haired elders. The cops flanking the bank’s entrance seem more bemused than wary as the protestors file past offering full-throated demands: “Divest now!”; “Our grandchildren are watching”; and “Dump fossil fuels.”
This is the first direct action of Third Act Illinois; among the participants are Champaign-Urbana area residents who will organize an affiliate branch of the state group and go on to work intensively on fossil fuel divestment legislation initiatives that are still ongoing. No quiet retirement for Third Acters: they plan to go out fighting.
Third Act: Fighting for the Planet and Democracy
Multiple environmental organizations were already fighting to protect the plant, not least the youth-led Sunrise Movement that has organized sit-ins at legislative offices, including that of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; and 350.org, a global grassroots organization seeking a rapid transition to renewable energy. However, one of the founders of 350.org, Bill McKibben—a long-time environmental activist, author, and lecturer, who has visited Champaign-Urbana in the past—himself reaching his 60s, felt that something was missing in the advocacy field.
He recognized the potential power of elders, not least those who had already been longtime social justice advocates with organizing skills to match, to become players in the field. He also recognized three other important realities: 1) capital divestment had played an important part in the struggle to end apartheid; 2) the retiree population was the demographic group holding the largest share of individual investment capital; and 3) moving towards a fossil-free economy was linked to the struggle for democracy, not least where national and local politicians were under the thrall of the fossil fuel industry, and did its bidding even in the face of broader constituent wishes. Thus was National Third Act (thirdact.org) born as an organization open to those 60 and older and with the primary goals of fighting for a sustainable planet and a vibrant democracy.
Once an administrative structure was established in 2022 with a network of affiliated state and thematic working groups (e.g., labor, faith, creatives), the first major actions of National Third Act were focused on fossil fuel divestment. Rallies like that in Chicago and throughout the country in March last year targeted the four banks providing the majority of capital resources to the fossil fuel industry: JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citibank. Some affiliates also engaged in civil disobedience at these sites. Third Acters holding accounts in these banks were also asked to write them indicating an intention to withdraw their accounts if the banks did not put an end to underwriting the fossil fuel industry.
On the democracy front, Third Acters were engaged in letter and postcard writing, as well as phone banking on behalf of pro-environment candidates in the Fall 2022 elections.
The Third Act network has grown to embrace over 70,000 people, and its members have worked to achieve divestment in a variety of ways and have developed plans to again be active in 2024 elections.
Local Divestment Initiatives
Here in the C-U area, Downstate Third Act has focused most of its energy in the past year on fossil fuel divestment, more specifically on legislative initiatives. Working closely with Illinois Third Act (thirdact.org/working-groups/Illinois) and Chicago 350 (Chicago350.org), our affiliate has done education on the Illinois Public Pension Fossil Fuel Divestment bill, HB 3037. Introduced by Representative Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago), this bill would require Illinois’s pension funds to immediately cease further investment in the industry and to divest from current holdings within five years. The specific entities from which to divest are identified in a roster known as the Carbon Underground 200.
Initially Downstate’s work focused on educating the public through tabling at the Urbana Farmers Market, holding open membership meetings, and by reaching out to other local groups—including Faith in Place, the Prairie Sierra Club Chapter, Eco-Justice Collaborative, UI Students for Environmental Concerns, and Progressive Democrats of America—to seek their members’ support for the bill. After this initial phase, we moved directly to lobbying. We approached State Representative Carol Ammons (D-Champaign-Urbana), long an environmental champion in the legislature, and after only one meeting—in which environmental activists from other organizations joined us—we received her commitment to be a co-sponsor of the bill. We also plan to meet with State Senator Paul Faraci (D-Champaign) early in 2024, once a Senate version of the bill has been drafted.
In addition to HB 3037, we have been working together with UI Students for Environmental Concerns (SECS), who this past fall drafted a bill that would require the University of Illinois to divest all UI System’s endowment funds from fossil fuel businesses. This draft bill, known as the UI System Fossil Fuel Addendum, needs initial sponsors in the IL House and Senate, and in early December, SECS secured meetings with Representative Ammons and Senator Faraci to begin exploring the possibility of their introducing the bill in the next legislative session. Follow-up meetings are planned for early 2024.
That the students have moved to a legislative remedy on the divestment question is not surprising given that SECS has worked for over 15 years without success in getting the university to divest. This foot-dragging has endured despite public commitments to move towards divestment and a 2016 vote by the Academic Senate urging the administration to work towards sustainable investment and a 2019 vote by 76 percent of the student body requiring the university to divest all its fossil fuel holdings by 2020. And the amount of money that the UI System has delivered to the fossil fuel industry is not a small sum: it totals $120 million.
SECS has secured the endorsement of numerous on-campus student groups and plans to approach representative university bodies and campus union locals in 2024. A campaign to secure off-campus support has already begun, with endorsements coming from not only Downstate Third Act, but also from Third Act Illinois and Eco-Justice Collaborative. Other endorsements are expected to follow, given educational outreach already jointly planned with Downstate Third Act to reach other off-campus organizations. A petition of support designed for individuals to sign has already been drafted and will soon be online.
Downstate Third Act will continue to focus on HB 3037 and working with SECS in 2024. More legislative co-sponsors are needed for the pension bill, and the UI bill still needs to be introduced. Beyond the outreach effort mentioned above to both legislators, university communities, and other organizations, emphasis will also be placed on adding to the body of data already available—which confirms that divesting from fossil fuels does not harm financial returns, and in select cases can improve them. When warmer weather arrives, public rallies in support of the bills are in the works, as well as related actions in front of local branches of fossil-fuel investing banks. Election work will be in the mix.
For further information on how to in get involved with Downstate Third Act, as well as on how to connect with SECS, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. We hope to see you at upcoming meetings!
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