Coalitions of the winning

Amanda Tattersall explores how community organisations and unions can work together

April 15, 2011
13 min read

In the late 1990s, the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation, one of Australia’s largest unions, was in crisis. The Murdoch-owned tabloid, the Daily Telegraph, was running a vitriolic attack on the union’s campaign for increased salaries. One front page included a picture of the union’s president with a dunce’s cap drawn on, captioned ‘If the cap fits’. The government at the time was resisting a settlement with the union. The union’s political influence and industrial strength were at an all-time low.

Yet within four years, everything had changed. There were large numbers of positive stories about public education in the press, the union had turned around its public image, and it had won a series of policy reforms – including a £150 million policy to reduce class sizes for kindergarten to year two children. The union’s fortunes had changed because it had built a powerful coalition with parents that had run a successful independent inquiry into public education.

Coalitions between unions and community organisations are not new. The early Chartist movement for democratic reform involved coalitions of religious, union and community-based bodies. Towards the end of the 19th century, strikes on the London docks were victorious with the help of the intervention of Cardinal Manning. And more recently the first wave of successful miners’ strikes in the 1970s was bolstered by the activism of local community and student organisations. Similarly, in the United States, coalitions were prominent in successful unionisation drives during both the 1930s depression and the 1960s civil rights movement, while in Canada coalition organising was responsible for social reforms such as Medicare. In Australia, coalitions between unions and community organisations led diverse social movements for women’s rights, against the Vietnam war and to protect the urban environment.

Yet today, although we understand that most battles can’t be won by one organisation acting alone, we are missing a clear understanding of what makes coalitions successful and what makes them fail.

As an Australian union organiser and coalition builder, I experienced this frustration first hand. I joined the union movement having cut my teeth in the student and immigration movements, and was always interested in building social power by combining the strengths of different organisations. In 2002, I became a community campaigner at Unions NSW, the top labour council in Sydney, and immediately became part of coalitions on issues such as transport, health care and education funding as well as contract campaigns.

The success of these ventures was highly uneven. A key experience was building the Walk Against the War Coalition in 2003. According to popular wisdom, it was an incredibly powerful movement – more than 60 organisations, ranging from radical to conservative, speaking with one voice. But this diverse coalition was brittle. While it helped organise the largest demonstration in Australia’s history on 16 February 2003, it struggled to sustain a consensus. All we could agree on was that we should hold more rallies! Over the following two months, tensions mounted, and in May the coalition tore itself apart.

Around the same time I was fortunate to stumble across an event hosted by a very different kind of coalition – a town hall assembly held by the public education coalition. It deployed vastly different strategies to the anti-war campaigners. It only involved a small number of organisations; it was run by the leaders of those organisations; and it pursued only a small number of very specific, proactive demands.

Experiencing the contrast between these two coalitions was instructive. I learnt that not all coalitions were powerful. Rather, there are particular strategies that are likely to lead some coalitions to succeed where others may fail. I spent several years researching the trials and tribulations of coalitions in Australia, the United States and Canada, and uncovering lessons about how to build powerful coalitions between community organisations and trade unions.

A new kind of campaign

The story of the public education coalition in New South Wales offers many lessons about how to build powerful and effective campaigns. The coalition had its roots in the imagination of a group of rank-and-file union leaders who believed that in order to confront the teachers’ political isolation, the union needed to form strategic links across the education community. These activists started setting up local public education lobby groups consisting of parents, teachers and school principals in the socially disadvantaged areas of outer western and south-western Sydney. Meanwhile, inside the union, these rank-and-file leaders argued that teachers needed to work constructively with principals, focusing on their common ground and agreeing to disagree where there were conflicts of interest. They also argued that the union needed to collect significant resources to fund a long-term public education campaign, establishing a multi-million ‘war chest’ funded through a $17 levy paid by all union members.

These internal reforms put the union in a strong strategic position when faced with a major policy proposal from the New South Wales state government. The state had been experimenting with changes to schools, and by 2001 had developed a policy called ‘Building the Future’ that included closing 13 inner-city schools. Initially, the union simply proclaimed its opposition to these proposals, calling on the government to launch an inquiry. But in a discussion at a union rank-and-file executive meeting, one teacher asked, ‘Why don’t we just do an inquiry ourselves?’ The idea of an independent public education inquiry was born.

The union knew that it could not run an independent inquiry on its own, so it approached the Federation of Parents and Citizens as a partner in the process. Together they funded the inquiry and drafted the terms of reference. Senior elected officials from each organisation took responsibility for the day-to-day management of the inquiry. Together they approached a professor of education, Tony Vinson, to be the inquiry’s head. He was well-regarded by government, having run previous government-initiated inquiries. He set up his own team to commission submissions, visit schools and run hearings around the state.

Over the next 12 months, between 2001 and mid-2002, the Vinson inquiry (as it became known) received 790 submissions, held almost one hundred hearings and visited several hundred schools. As it traversed the state it provided an organising opportunity for parents and teachers, who mobilised people to attend hearings. The process was very open. Hearings asked participants to identify ‘what they would change to improve the education system’, providing a space to talk about people’s personal experiences. It built new ideas for public education reform based on the experiences of the schoolyard.

The inquiry process was also consciously planned to coincide with election timelines. The inquiry began to spoon-feed its findings to the media in the nine months leading up to the 2003 state elections. In total, 96 recommendations were tabled in four separate public policy releases. To turn these broad reform proposals into a winnable political programme, the union formed a new coalition called the Public Education Alliance. This involved the union, parent groups and school principal groups. They agreed on six united demands, prioritising a policy to reduce class sizes for young children.

Together the alliance lobbied for these changes. Sometimes its members worked in parallel. School principals lobbied the Department of Education, Tony Vinson lobbied ministers, teachers used their war chest to run advertisements, and teachers and parents held meetings with local members of parliament. They also worked in concert, jointly meeting with the premier and leader of the opposition. The alliance organised a public assembly five weeks before the election to which all the political parties were invited and then questioned about their support for the six united demands.

These actions worked. Two weeks before the election, the governing Labour Party, which had been so hostile to the union in its 1999 salaries campaign, announced that it would fund the $250 million policy to reduce class sizes that had been proposed by the Vinson inquiry. The public education coalition had identified and delivered a new agenda for public education, while actively engaging union and community members in the process.

When coalitions succeed

Embedded in this story are universal lessons about coalition success. Coalitions occur when two or more organisations come together to work on something they have in common in order to have a social impact in specific place. They are defined by their organisational relationships, their common concerns and the scale at which they seek to win social change. While these three elements may be common to all coalitions, how they work in practice varies. The way in which organisations relate to each other, the kinds of issues that coalitions work on, and how a coalition seeks to achieve social influence affect the chances of success or failure.

The public education coalition followed an important rule for building strong organisational relationships – ‘less is more’. By only involving a small number of organisations, each of which had a strong shared interest in public education, it sustained the active involvement of these organisations.

In some ways, however, its organisational relationships were constrained. Coalition decision-making was dominated by the union, which provided most of the financial resources.

There was no independent coalition staff that could help manage tensions, and the coalition focused on action around education rather than building strong trusting relationships between the organisations. These weaknesses left the organisational relationships fragile, and after the class sizes campaign was won, the coalition fell away.

The coalition drew its strength from working on issues that were in the mutual interests of the different partner organisations. It sustained itself because it was based not only on a shared belief in improving public education, but shared interests in the specific demand to reduce class sizes. Teachers would benefit from smaller class sizes because reduced workload. Parents supported smaller class sizes because it improved the quality of their children’s education.

The coalition was successful because it engaged not only the interests of the organisational leaders but the lives of its members. There was a high degree of parent and teacher participation in the public education inquiry hearings.

Moreover, by working on an issue that was in the mutual interests of multiple constituencies, the coalition’s core demands tapped into a general public interest.

The union had been vulnerable in its previous campaigns over teachers’ pay because it was seen as only acting for its ‘vested’ interest in higher salaries. The strategy opened up the issue of how the union expressed itself in the public arena; it started talking about the importance of public education, not just teachers’ pay.

The coalition’s impact was enhanced because it could take action locally as well as across the state as a whole. To change the policy on class sizes, it needed to influence the state government. These political representatives were simultaneously representatives of the state as well as specific electoral districts. They were also subject to electoral timelines, most open to influence in the lead up to an election.

So the coalition focused on building pressure among local voters as well as generating public debate more broadly. The inquiry hearings generated scores of opportunities for teachers and parents to organize locally, as well as supportive media.

Over an 18-month period, hundreds of local actions created a supportive political climate for public education across the state. The teachers’ union established local groups of parents, teachers and principals who could take action to lobby individual politicians, consciously timetabled in the run-up to the elections.

‘Wins’ are not enough

We should not judge a coalition, however, merely on whether it wins (or fails to win) a public policy victory. In addition to ‘winning outcomes’, coalitions are successful if they can help shift the overall political climate.

In Chicago, a coalition called the Grassroots Collaborative briefly won a living wage ordinance that would have significantly increased the wages of retail workers such as Walmart employees. The mayor vetoed it, but in the years following this apparent ‘failure’ there was a significant shift in income policies. Mayor Daley supported an increase in the state’s minimum wage, which became the second highest in the country. And in 2010, when Walmart wanted to build a second store in Chicago, for the first time ever in the US, the company negotiated a wages agreement with local unions that paid retail workers above the minimum wage. While the coalition lost its living wage ordinance, its campaign changed the political climate around living wages.

Coalitions are also successful if they can enhance the strength of the organisations that are working together. In this way a coalition may lose a battle while still building its long-term power. This can be measured in two ways: whether a coalition helps sustain relationships between organisations over time, and whether a coalition helps to develop the leadership skills and capacity of the members and staff of the partner organisations.

One of the strengths of the public education coalition, for example, was that it developed the leadership capacity of union and community members, while one of its weaknesses was that it struggled to sustain relationships between the parents’ organisation and the teachers’ union.This was partly because at the end of the class sizes campaign the union moved its focus to the issue of teacher salaries, but it was also because the union did not build a strong relationship with the newly elected leadership team in the parents’ organisation.

In contrast, the coalition was effective when it came to rank-and-file leadership development. Its public education lobbies and the inquiry’s local hearings provided opportunities for teachers and parents to work together and develop public policy.

Coalitions between unions and community organisations can be a powerful means for achieving social change and reinvigorating civil society. But not all coalitions are made equal. There are strategies that are likely to lead to more successful coalition practice.

Many of these fly in the face of popular wisdom. For example, while many coalitions end up being an exercise in assembling the largest possible number of organisations, smaller, more strategic, ‘less is more’ partnerships can often create a stronger basis for collaborative action.

While many coalitions come together to resist particular policy changes, collaboration will be more powerful if a coalition commits to building a specific, winnable shared agenda. And while many coalitions undertake mass action such as rallies, multi-scaled coalitions that can sustain their activity are more likely to build long-term political influence.

Amanda Tattersall is author of Power in Coalition: strategies for strong unions and social change and director of the Sydney Alliance, Australia

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