Social Problems

Global Frames and Connectors: A Local Movement Challenge to Water Services Privatization in Milwaukee.

Charles W. Ogg, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
Steve Watrous, Milwaukee Area Technical College

Sociological Imagination, Vol. 50, No. 1 2014
Wisconsin Sociological Association


In communities around the globe social movements have risen to challenge the privatization of water resources and utilities. Robinson (2007, 2013) argues that while these movements organize at the local level their ability to mobilize adherents depends in part on their ability to frame their struggle as existing within a larger regional and global context as well as having ‘global connectors’ linking local coalitions to global social movement organizations. This claim is based on her comparison of the successful challenge in Greater Vancouver, British Columbia and a failed attempt in Stockton, California. A study of a 2009 challenge to privatization in Milwaukee, WI allows substantiation of these claims.

‘The Commons’ versus ‘Privatization.’

Pressured by constituents to provide safe and affordable water, local governments throughout the world, particularly in developing nations, have increasingly turned to privatization as a solution. Marketing campaigns of multinational water companies are extremely persuasive, as is pressure applied by international agencies including the IMF, World Bank and the WTO. The basic argument within the privatization frame has been that (frame elements in italics) property rights to water, resources can be reallocated ‘properly’ and conservation will be encouraged through pricing. In this frame, water is viewed as a commodity to be regulated in the global market where greater efficiency is achieved when private corporations compete for access to the world’s fresh water resources (Robinson 2007; Conca 2006).

Local and the global social movements have arisen to challenge this privatization, such as the citizens’ revolt in Cochabamba, Bolivia, resulting in a ‘manifesto’ proclaiming water to be part of the shared commons, challenging the notion of water—the most precious resource for sustaining life–as a commodity. Maude Barlow (2002) may be the the global movement’s best known ‘representative,’ in part due to success of her documentary film, Blue Gold (2001), based upon her book with the same title and shown publicly by local challengers in Milwaukee. In a related work, Barlow (2007) talks about the importance of constructing a ‘narrative’ alerting the world to the danger of ‘peak water,’ arguing that the decline of freshwater should be the most pressing environmental concern, linked with global warming. She critiques the broad neoliberal campaign promoting global privatization and commodification of water resources, a campaign she sees as being driven by multinational corporations in search of new and greater profits (see also Conca 2006). According to Robinson (2007: 5), this global movement promotes the claim that water should remain a public good, a part of the global commons. Only by remaining as a public trust can environmental conservation be ensured, guaranteeing a fair and equal distribution of water to the world’s population for both current and future generations. To achieve this, the global water movement promotes policies shaped by democracy, human rights and distributive justice.

As a result of these very different approaches to the distribution of water, there has been an ongoing global ‘frame dispute’ or contest (Ryan 1991) where each side has attempted engage in ‘frame bridging’ (Benford and Snow 2000), extending ‘master frames’ to these key contested terrains in order to influence public opinion and decision-making elites.

Global water frames and local challenges to privatization in the United States and Canada.

Local governments in the United States and Canada have also turned to privatization of water, but often for different reasons–the most common being a growing lack of monetary resources at the local level. Yet despite these differences, Robinson (2007, 2013) argues that such local challengers are more likely to be successful when utilizing ‘global water’ collective action ‘master’ frames, such as advocated by Barlow. Robinson compares two cases of local challenges to water privatization, a successful effort in Greater Vancouver, British Columbia, and a successful corporate take-over in Stockton, California later overturned by the court (see also Snitow and Kaufman 2007). Robinson (2013: 181) claims the former was successful in part because global connectors, ‘activists and organizations connected both vertically to transnational organizations and horizontally to other activists at the local level,’ amplified frames linking the global context to local issues. The result was successful micro mobilization through a coalition-building process across local organizations. On the other hand, Stockton challengers restricted their frames and strategic action to single, locally-focused issues. Using global frames and connectors also benefited local social movements by increasing access to ‘political opportunity structures,’ allowing for Greater Vancouver activists to ally with local political elites against global elites, rather than putting them at odds with such elites over issues related to democratic legitimacy, as observed in Stockton. Robinson concludes that social movements will be increasingly successful to the extent that they both move beyond the nation-state and its institutions to the transnational institutional sphere while also utilizing global connectors who promote global risk frames and coalition building at the local level.

The Successful Milwaukee Challenge to Water Privatization: An event narrative.

Taking a lesson from Stockton, aided by the global social movement organization Food & Water Water Watch (FWW–with Barlow on the board of directors), it seems clear that local challengers in Milwaukee successfully halted the movement toward privatization of water delivery services in the early stage of the process. Textual analysis of statements key movement documents such as those published within the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and documents published on movement websites, as well as in-depth interviews of key activists (Ogg and Watrous, Unpublished) lend support to one of Robinson’s central ‘hypotheses;’ movement challengers did indeed use global water frames.

Unlike many places in the developing world, the move toward privatization in Milwaukee had nothing to do with capitalization problems or problems with the water delivery services–in fact the opposite was true, as The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel would report when it began covering the issue later. Milwaukee was known for its ‘state-of-the-art water treatment.’ It’s also important to keep in mind that due to the unique laws of Milwaukee, water rates had been kept much lower than most other communities in the United States, at cost.

According to the Journal Sentinel, after Morics ‘floated’ the idea that Milwaukee consider moving towards privatization of its Water Works, the mayor and Common Council (the city council) ‘warily’ agreed to let him find a consulting team to study the idea.

Yet the true origin of the attempt to privatize the water delivery services of Milwaukee remains shrouded in secrecy, a point used by the challengers in their framing of the process as a problem for democracy. In October, 2008, Larry Sandler reported:

Milwaukee City Comptroller W. Martin ‘Wally’ Morics called Wednesday for the city to consider privatizing its Water Works in a deal that could reap more than $500 million. That revenue, a one-time payment for a 75- to 99-year lease, would be set aside as an endowment that could generate some $30 million a year to keep city operations running, Morics said. Morics sees this plan as Milwaukee’s last, best hope to avoid a future of painful annual debates over whether to raise property taxes and user fees or slash services (Sandler, 2008a).

According to one of the local challengers, Karen Royster of the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future (IWF):

The beginning of the whole process goes of course beyond that. Primarily what we are looking at is… a state funding problem that has grown over the past decade because we don’t have enough revenue coming in. So state aid to the cities and counties has been dropping substantially… and they’ve also initiated limits on local tax capacity so you’ve ended up with cities, counties, school districts with greater and greater budget shortfalls every year, especially in the last decade. So Milwaukee finds itself in 2008-2009 trying to balance the budget, keep services intact, and without enough money. So they’re looking a hundred different directions to see where they can either cut costs or increase revenue. In the midst of this you have water becoming more and more of a critical resource at a corporate level. So businesses that are buying up water systems, sewage and drinking water systems… doing it as a business investment because long-term, if they can control these resources, it’s a profit center. Short term it infuses the city with a flow of cash during time when they’re broke. This is sort of a unholy alliance between desperate cities and pretty shrewd corporate entities (Ogg and Watrous, Unpublished).

How Morics arrived at the $500 million figure is a mystery, leading some activists to speculate that he must have been in communication with a major private water corporation. As Jon Keesecker, ‘senior organizer’ for FWW stated:

We have seen documents and we’ve been to conferences where the major water corporations discuss their market approach and discuss ‘courting’ communities, approaching communities and pitching this idea to Council members or mayors. It’s clear that often times this seed is planted by the private companies seeking the lease. So although I don’t know that this was specifically the case in Milwaukee, we absolutely know that in many places around the country many companies are pursuing these. For instance, Veolia Water, which is one of the major, major water companies in the world has very much of a presence in Milwaukee area… Veolia has a stake in the region, and a presence in the area. And so it’s speculation, but it’s possible that the idea was brought up by the private sector (Ogg and Watrous, Unpublished).

In spring of 2009, FWW was ‘tracking papers to see what cities were looking at privatizing their water systems and it was mentioned in a trade publication that Milwaukee was looking at hiring a financial advisor.’ So Keesecker started placing calls to local organizations in Milwaukee and discovered some concern among ‘grassroots groups’ including Royster’s IWF and the local union that might be affected, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). While nothing was reported in the local media, one of the local challenging groups the Milwaukee Riverkeeper posted on its website:

In March 2009, the city Common Council authorized an RFP to find an ‘Advisor Team’ to oversee and guide the bidding and contracting process. Seventeen firms submitted proposals by the April 9 deadline. Identities of the bidders are secret; the Comptroller announced in late April that open-records requests to learn the identities will not be honored. Selection of the Advisor Team is expected to take place as early as June. The Advisor would then move as quickly as possible to prepare an RFP for the actual privatization. (Milwaukee Riverkeeper 2009).

Leaders of the growing coalition began meeting with representatives of the Common Council, arguing that hiring a financial advisor was merely the first step in considering the process. They did this based upon a discovery made by FWW when researching communities like Akron, Ohio, also confronted with lease deal on its wastewater system:

The financial advisor isn’t exactly a fair, unbiased party just holding the hand of the city but he’s actually going to be making a strong case for a lease deal because they have an incentive to do that to gain more money from their consulting service by ensuring one goes through (Ogg and Watrous, Unpublished).

On May 22, The Journal Sentinel published the next piece related to this issue, an opinion piece by Keesecker (2009) warning Milwaukee not to ‘forfeit’ the city’s water power, claiming ‘this path would ultimately cost the community both money and control over one of its most viable assets…’

At the same time the coalition opposing privatization solidified, creating a formal organization. Its name may have been inspired, forming both a memorable acronym and offering a clear summarization of its prognostic frame: Keep Public Our Water (KPOW). ‘A broad-based coalition of many labor, faith, consumer, environmental and neighborhood organizations,’ see table 1 for a full list (FWW, 2009: 8). The organizers themselves were impressed with the breadth and extent of the coalition compared to past efforts. As Chip Wall, president of the AFSCME local that would most likely be severely impacted by privatization, stated:

A true fabric of society! A true fabric of society! You may categorize it as more environmental or even more on the left side of the political aisle… but I wouldn’t even say that because this group had old, it had young, it had retired, it had poor, it had rich, it went all over the map. And I was surprised at how young some of these folks were. I was surprised and encouraged that there were that many young folks, students or just out of high school even, or out of college, who were motivated in taking the lead, especially from some of these environmental groups, which I was very happy to see. In religious groups, there was a good mix, there, too. The folks would come in with their families, so your grandpa, mom and the kids so… You really did have the true fabric… black, white, Hispanic. It did not really matter one bit. It was truly a fabric (Ogg and Watrous, Unpublished).

Table 1: Keep Public Our Water (KPOW) member organizations

FWW was able to get a grant to hire a young, experienced organizer, Corinne Rosen, to begin the ‘educational and advocacy effort’ (Ogg and Watrous, Unpublished) including door knocking in the district of the most sympathetic Common Council member, Alderman Nik Kovac. Community meetings with Kovac included representatives of local businesses. Media work including writing letters to the editor and editorials. Outreach and education included the showing films on related topics like Flow, Thirst, and Maude Barlow’s Blue Gold, particularly targeting students.

On May 29, four Common Council leaders proposed ‘slamming the brakes’ on the study, ‘shelving it… a response which pleased neither side’ according to the Journal Sentinel (Egan and Sandler 2009b). On June 3 the Common Council committee backed a 3.8% water rate increase and city officials warned a larger boost could follow soon (Sandler 2009a). On June 10 it was reported that a referendum is needed to privatize Water Works, something discovered by FWW’s Keesecker (Sandler 2009b).

On June 13 the Journal Sentinel decided to promote the contest extensively, giving ‘the stage’ to multiple parties in the conflict: Morics plus two representatives of KPOW, plus ‘refereeing’ the issue with its own editorial urging the Council to at least take it seriously.

Then on June 15 the Common Council’s Steering and Rules committee voted unanimously to place water privatization on hold (Sandler 2009c), putting a halt on plans to hire the financial advisor. Earlier that day, ‘local activists… environmentalists and public employee unions banded together to fight the idea held a rally of over 100’ (KPOW claimed over 200). A separate sidebar in the Journal Sentinel included a colorful picture of demonstrators with large puppets. At the meeting KPOW presented the committee with a petition signed by 500+ people calling on the Council to ‘permanently withdraw’ the privatization proposal (AFSCME 2009). Several days later Mayor Barrett criticized the privatization effort, ruling it out for the ‘foreseeable future’ but stopped short of ruling it out altogether (Sandler 2009c).

KPOW continued to push Ald. Kovac to introduce a formal resolution by the Council to prevent privatization but was unsuccessful. While this seemed to be a bit of a failure for the organizers (leading them to keep KPOW at least formally in existence) upon reflection they all agreed that the effort to stop privatization was quite successful, perhaps one of the most successful campaigns they had been involved in within recent memory.

Global water frames within media statements by local challengers.

The public statements printed in the Journal Sentinel on June 13 demonstrate how local challengers used global water frames, as well as putting it in a wider regional and global context. Conservation Chair of the Sierra Club’s Great Waters Group, Dale Olen (2009) made extensive reference to the Great Lakes compact, put into place to control the diversion of water from Lake Michigan (a recent victory that may have made mobilizing around privatization of water delivery more likely). He also used the ‘commons frame’ central to the global water movement: ‘We see water not as a consumer product but as an essential part of the commons.’ Olen directly quoted ‘water expert’ Barlow: ‘We have to take this notion of fresh water out of the marketplace and say that it belongs to the Earth, it belongs to all species, it belongs to future generations, and no one has the right to commodify it for personal gain.’ In his own words, Olen added,

We recognize it as an element essential to biodiversity, social and economic development – in fact, essential to sustaining civilization itself. We watch our human population growing toward 7 billion people, while our available freshwater supplies shrink rapidly. (Olen 2009)

On the same day, Cheryl Nenn (2009), Interim Executive Director/Riverkeeper, of Milwaukee Riverkeeper (who made it clear during her interview that her statement was written with help from Olen) reminded Milwaukee residents of difficulties faced when the sewer wastewater treatment plants and conveyance systems were given to the ‘multinational company, United Water/Suez, and then in 2008, to the French Corporation Veolia.’ She makes a list of the many problems faced by cities throughout the United States (including Stockton) and the world as a result of privatization, including this short note: ‘Bolivia privatized: Public rebellion broke out.’

With water becoming an increasingly scarce resource and decisions regarding its distribution, increasingly being made at the global level, it seems likely that global social movements will continue to challenge attempts to privatize it. Success at the local level will depend upon both the acceptance and promotion of global water frames by local activists. We can certainly conclude that global water frames played a role in this contest over the privatization of water services in Milwaukee, particularly for the major organizers within the broad coalition that formed.
As FWW’s Keesecker stated:
Water privatization writ large is often about municipal privatization, it’s about private control of maybe surface water, groundwater resources, it’s about delivery of water both in the U.S. and abroad and places like Africa, South America. And before you know it, the members of organizations like KPOW are familiar with a broad array of issues around the world, of all sorts that have to do with what would go under the header of water privatization (Ogg and Watrous, Unpublished).
It also seems clear that using such frames while necessary is not sufficient… that the role of the global connectors who both act as conduits for information and help build local coalitions cannot be underestimated. In the case of Milwaukee, by paying close attention to the narrative of events, there can be little doubt that the global social movement organization Food & Water Watch played a key role in alerting and helping local challengers (see FWW, 2009). Given the brevity of the conflict, one could almost say that they came in with ‘surgical precision,’ stopping the privatization process, ‘nipping it in the bud before it could bloom.’ Without FWW’s ‘heads up,’ KPOW may not have known about the importance of halting the hiring of a financial advisor who most likely would have spurred on the process. In addition, FWW was able to draw upon its resources to raise funds for a full-time organizer and offer research complete with examples of the negative consequences from similar privatization efforts, particularly in the United States — including Stockton. This gives further support for the model of contested water and similar global conflicts playing out at the local level as constructed by Joanna Robinson (2013). It also suggests that a broader research program of comparative analysis would be fruitful in understanding future frame contests structured by an increasingly globalized terrain of decision-making over the distribution of critical resources like water.


AFSCME. 2009. “KPOW helps K.O. City of Milwaukee’s Water Works privatization idea — at least for now.” August 4. 2009. Retrieved June 17, 2011 (

Barlow, Maude and Tony Clarke. 2002. Blue Gold: The Right to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing.

Barlow, Maude. 2007. Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Fight for the Right to Water. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Barlow, Maude. 2008. Blue Gold: Water Wars. Documentary film directed by Sam Bozzo.

Benford, Robert D. and David A. Snow. 2000. “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.” Annual Review of Sociology 26:611-39.

Conca, Ken. 2006. Governing Water: Contentious Transnational Politics and Global Institution Building. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Egan, Dan and Larry Sandler. 2009a. “Can water privatization keep Milwaukee’s budget afloat?” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 24. Retrieved June 7, 2010 (

Egan, Dan and Larry Sandler, 2009b. “Milwaukee aldermen halt study of privatizing water utility.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 29.

Food & Water Watch. 2009. Mortgaging Milwaukee’s Future: Why Leasing the Water System Is a Bad Deal for Consumers. Washington, D.C. Retrieved June 17, 2011 (

Nenn, Cheryl. 2009. “Can Water Works slake city thirst for revenue, too? No: Public asset belongs in public hands.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 13

Olen, Dale. 2009. “Water: It’s a resource, not a commodity.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 13

Keesecker, Jon. 2009. “Don’t forfeit city’s water power.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 22

Milwaukee Riverkeeper. 2009. “Water Privatization — Background Information.” Retrieved June 17, 2011 (

Ogg, Charles W. and Steve Watrous. Unpublished. “Framing Water: A Local Movement Challenge to Privatization in Milwaukee.”

Robinson, Joanna L. 2007. “Framing Water: How Local Movements Organize to Challenge Privatization.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, New York City, Aug 10, 2007. Retrieved June 4, 2010 (

Robinson, Joanna L. 2013. Contested water: The struggle against water privatization in United States and Canada. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Ryan Charlotte. 1991. Prime Time Activism: Media Strategies for Grassroots Organizing. Boston: South End.

Sandler, Larry. 2008a. “Comptroller floats idea of privatizing Milwaukee water utility.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 2

Sandler, Larry. 2008b. “Kovac to fill open seat: He will take over for D’Amato on east side.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 2

Sandler, Larry. 2009a. “A Milwaukee Common Council committee Wednesday backed seeking a 3.8% water rate increase.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 3

Sandler, Larry. 2009b. “Referendum needed to privatize Water Works, Hines says.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 10

Sandler, Larry. 2009c. “Barrett says he will press to raise water rates.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 15 (

Snitow, Alan and Deborah Kaufman. 2007. “Lessons of Stockton’s water war.” San Francisco Chronicle, August 5 (


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