June 22, 2011
Power in Coalition by Amanda Tattersall (Cornell 2010) follows a similar line, but tries to develop a more analytical approach, that of union – community coalitions (UCCs). It uses three long case studies to identify their common elements, patterns of success and the possibilities and limitations these hybrid organs embody. For the author it is not enough for the trade union movement to report various success stories – we need to reflect on ‘what’ works and ‘how’ it does so.
‘Power in Coalition’ begins on familiar ground for New Unionism – the dimensions of the current crisis unions confront. Increasingly unable to achieve successful bargaining outcomes with aggressive employers, or influence political processes, facing falling densities in some countries and the transfer of jobs elsewhere (both geographically and organisationally), unions know they need to change and adopt new strategies.
One of these has been a turn towards alliances with other progressive social forces to press for social change and reform. This ‘social movement unionism’ includes the specific practice of entering into coalition with community organisations. Tattersall is clear this is not simply a matter of assembling a list of supporters for a particular pre-determined union campaign. That ‘instrumental’ approach to coalition building is an easy option, but one that brings little long term success or power to those involved. She argues UCCs are effective only when based on commonly determined goals, power sharing and building the capacity of their participating organisations – a far harder and longer task.
In terms of analysis, the practices of community unionism and UCCs are not well understood. In part, this reflects the imprecision and multiple meanings that the key term “community” bears – as organisation, interest / identity or place – and the range of associated strategies that have flowed from this. Coalition Unionism, the author’s sole focus, refers specifically to efforts made by two (or more) organisations to build relationships, create a common interest / agenda and pursue social change in a particular place.
The case studies themselves cross national boundaries and economic sectors. Two public sector based UCCs struggling to combat privatisation in Canadian healthcare and the Australian education system respectively, are complemented by a private sector example from the US, centred on the campaign against big-box retailers in Chicago. Let’s take a brief look at two of these.
The public education coalition active across the state of New South Wales from 2001 to 2004 brought together the state’s teachers’ federation (NSWTF), parent groups and school heads in a fight against creeping privatisation and budget cuts. Powered by a reform movement within the union, it achieved at its height a successful alignment of union and parental interests around the issue of reduced class sizes, which helped it to reshape the wider political climate and to secure a notable victory in the state election campaign, shifting the policy of the re-elected Labour Party.
The coalition used new tactics, launching an independent inquiry into public education that operated effectively at local levels and actively engaged members from participating organisations, boosting the campaign and the capacity of NSWTF. For Tattersall this ‘multiscalar’ action is a key feature of UCC action that brings significant benefits. Organisationally though, the dominance of the NSWTF created problems over the issue of teachers’ pay, where the other partners were less keen to support a perceived vested interest, leading ultimately to a fracturing of the alliance.
By way of contrast, the strength of Chicago’s Grassroots Collaborative lay in its organisational bonds and long standing links between radical community groups like ACORN and union bodies such as SEIU Local 880, which had been undertaking issue-based coalition building for over a decade. The Collaborative ran two major campaigns against big-box retailers between 2003 and 2006, with radically different results.
For Tattersall, the Grassroots Collaborative was successful, even though it won no policy victory. It significantly shifted the political climate around the living wage issue and built strong relations between coalition partners – as part of a much grander plan to forge a progressive political movement in Chicago beyond any particular issue or campaign. There were though certain key weaknesses: especially its top-down mode of operation that neglected membership capacity and correspondingly failed to create any enduring local structures to bolster its activity.
The last part of the book considers the lessons learned from the case studies for coalition practice, and their implications for trade unionism. Firstly there are no universal patterns of coalition practice. Instead distinctive combinations of success and element strength were apparent in each example, with none registering positively across all core elements and measures of success. Coalitions were typically faced with managing tensions between campaigning priorities and organisational development, forcing trade offs to be made – pushing for social change at the expense of building strong organisational bonds (as in the Australian case), or prioritising organisational relations without ensuring membership capacity (the Grassroots Collaborative).
Their results were equally variable. Political victory can coincide with organisational decline; increased organisational power may bring no political success. Strategic choices have to be made by UCCs in particular economic and political contexts whose limits and possibilities shape these choices, and produce the distinctive patterns of coalition practice.
A number of factors are highlighted by the author here, ranging from national political structures (the openness of the state to progressive policies – strong in New South Wales, weak in Chicago) and trade union traditions (NSWTF and SEIU 880 were well-versed in coalition practice) to national trajectories of community action (vibrant in Chicago, less so in Australia). To paraphrase, organisers make history, but not under circumstances of their own choosing.
Beyond the national and regional specifics, Tattersall argues that there are a set of guiding principles for building strong coalitions we can draw from these examples.
In terms of their structures, coalitions work best with a limited number of like-minded organisations who can build a unity of purpose and strong bonds to determine their priorities.
It is vital to focus upon depth rather than breadth – assembling as many partners as possible (‘all comers welcome’) behind a cause is often a recipe for inactivity and lack of agreement amongst diverse organisations. (The pre-history of the Grassroots Collaborative is a good example of this).
Within this network, the role of individual leaders and organisers is important, cementing and mediating relations between partners, and driving campaigns forward. To do this Tattersall argues they must be independent from the partner organisations, singularly focused upon this task and not constrained by the demands of any one’s partner’s other agendas or workloads. A great deal of the strength of the Collaborative came from its coordinator – something the public education group tellingly lacked.
A coalition’s vision and agenda is proven to be most effective when uniting the vested interests of its partners with a broad ‘social interest’, gaining legitimacy and support. Organisational interest alone can fail to bring about change – as in the anti – Wal Mart campaign. Its Living Wage successor fashioned a more expansive demand for the whole city, drawing in other allies and transforming a negative message into a positive vision.
Aligned with this shift was an equally important one: long-term strategic planning tied to local political opportunities (city elections), to which UCCC power could be directed. Such an outlook helps a coalition to create its own political timetable, rather than simply reacting to the actions of its opponents.
Finally, local scale and organisation are crucial to coalition success. ‘Multiscalar’ action supplements centrally-directed activity, opens up UCC structures to allow effective member participation, and helps drive campaigns forward. The highpoint of the Australian coalition came with its locally driven inquiry into the future for public education; whilst the lack of local reach created major problems in Chicago for anti – Wal Mart campaigners.
So what does all this mean for trade unions? Quite a lot. Tattersall argues that coalition work can deliver avenues for rebuilding union power and favourably reshape their economic and political environments.
UCCs provide three sources of power. In developing strong common concerns they broaden the political vision and capacity of unions, creating wider public agendas (articulating vested and social interests). Vibrant organisational relationships expand the power available to unions, through sharing resources with their partners. And engaging in multiscalar work boosts union campaign skills and membership capacity, creating active local structures.
The author acknowledges the challenge that coalition practice presents to mainstream unionism — centred on the workplace, its issues of pay and conditions, with strong tendencies for top-down control. What her examples show is that UCCs can increase a union’s bargaining power at work (reflected in the eventual success of the NSWTF pay campaign) as well as changing public policy and the political climate. Relaxing central coordination and allowing local structures to actively shape campaigns can pay great dividends too.
Should unions play a more political role? Definitely, says Tattersall. Not only can this help with workplace bargaining – it is also crucial in formulating progressive alternatives to neo-liberal policies in the wake of the global economic crisis. Coalitions could become central actors of an opposition movement, crafting new and political agendas that serve mutual interests (living wages, green jobs). If these agendas take root in vibrant local structures and enhance their political resonance (e.g. translating abstract national demands into winnable goals through their connection to local interests), there is a good chance that the labour movement can start to remould the political context and fashion its own solutions to the crisis.
That prospect is certainly sorely needed.