Everyone knows the principle behind collective organising is that when people work together they are stronger than those working alone. But this principle also applies to organisations. Coalitions between unions and community organisations are not new. Unions in Australia have often campaigned on issues beyond wages and conditions – we fought for universal health care, for green bans to protect the urban environment and won a strong public education system. Indeed, a century ago unions were build out of working class communities, where working class neighbourhoods and local organisations such as churches, supported the development of strong unions at work.
With the onslaught of conservative power from the Howard Government, and the combined attacks upon workplace and non-workplace social concerns, from job security to public education, climate change and war, there is an increasing need for strong coalitions between unions and community organisations to create an alternative agenda that privileges social resources rather than the rule of the market and employers.
Yet, while we need coalitions – creating strong, powerful, deep relationships can be a challenge. There is a lot of new research on coalitions. Below is a study of some of the key elements of successful coalitions.
Coalitions can vary, from ad hoc relationships (for instance, where a community organisation asks a union to endorse a policy position) to deeper, long-term, formal coalitions (such as the NSW Teachers Federation’s public education campaign, where teachers and parents joined together to coordinate an independent inquiry into the future of public education). Coalitions differ according to several key elements, including their common concern, structure, organisational commitment, capacity and culture.
Coalitions form when different organisations choose to campaign about a particular issue, interest or value that they have in common. The strongest coalitions develop when organisations have a shared interest in the coalition campaign. A good example is the public education’s campaign for smaller class sizes. Parents have a direct interest in small class sizes because it enhances learning and the quality of education, and teachers are able to work under better class room conditions. The lesson is that alliances between organisations who have shared mutual interests are likely to be strongest, because even though the organisations are different – they have a shared concern for similar objectives. It is important for both unions and community organisations to think about their issues openly, and to incorporating the perspectives of coalition partners to build sustainable coalitions that operate in the mutual direct interests of the participating organisations.
The structure of a coalition is important. Organisational relationships are most likely to be strong if different groups can negotiate strategies. This space for sharing ideas builds trust, which is also an essential ingredient for effective coalitions. Sometimes coalitions are ‘come-one come-all’ while others hand-pick organisational participants: organisations are selected because of a certain common interest or value. Importantly, all evidence shows that there’s no “correct” structure – it can, and should, vary according to the needs of participants. Relationships outside coalitions are important too. If organisations want to practice coalitions, then it is important to actively cultivate relationships with different organisations (who might not immediately see the value in joining the coalition) and learn about these organisation’s issues and concerns while sharing your concerns.
While there are no set rules for a coalition’s structure, history shows there is one rule common to all successful coalitions: they are built by focussing on issues of common concern not conflict. Conflict has often surfaced between community organisations and unions, for instance, often environmentalists and unions are pitted against each other by employers or the Government. But while there are issues of conflict, such as over mining or timber felling, there are also grounds of common concern. Recycling and environmentally sustainable technologies are labour intensive industries which promote sustainable development. For instance, in the United States, the APOLLO Alliance is a coalition of environmental organisations and unions that promotes the development of environmental manufacturing with good unionised jobs.
Organisations are different, and organisational culture can challenge coalitions. Some community organisations use tactics such as direct action, where as unions regularly rely on people-intensive activities like rallies or strikes. Also, many community organisations work by building consensus where as unions usually operate by majority votes. Often these cultural differences can lead to tension between community organisations and unions. To work together, it is important to respect these differences. There is an important role for individuals who work to ‘bridge’ these barriers. People who are both union activists and community or social movement activists may provide coalitions with the ability to translate between these practices. Strong trusting honest relationships between individuals in different organisations are vital for forging lasting coalitions.
While the coalition form is important – a campaign is only successful if it can mobilise organisation members to participate in the campaign – coalitions also need organisational depth. Often ‘less is more’: a couple of organisations capable of providing significant commitment to a coalition is more powerful than a large list of organisations who are disinterested in the campaign, and simply sit on a letterhead. Engaging organisational members in coalition events can be hard, but is vital if a coalition is to produce a movement for change. Some coalitions oblige participants to commit resources to coalition actions, or even require participants to turn out members to rallies or events.
Sometimes, a state-wide coalition may have local sub-branches to allow large numbers of people to participate.
Coalition practice is important. No organisation or movement has enough power, people or resources to win the sort of social and environmental change we need on our own. We need to work together to fight for what we believe in, and to learn from other organisations to develop a comprehensive agenda for change. Only together can we not only change the current Government, but change way we live, work and sustain the environment around us.
- Alliances_Allies_Coalitions_Partnerships - Non traditional
- Movements_Campaigns - Cross movement
- Movements_Campaigns - Labor_Worker's rights
- Movements_Campaigns - Social