The Power of Union-Community Coalitions

By Tattersall, Amanda | Renewal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Power of Union-Community Coalitions


Tattersall, Amanda, Renewal


For decades, unions around the world have been struggling. Across advanced English-speaking countries, we have seen the rising power of capital and its increasing influence over government. By the mid-1990s, unions faced declining membership, weakening political influence, and poor collective bargaining outcomes.

This created sufficient difficulties that many national labour councils initiated internal debates that considered the need for widespread revitalisation strategies (1). These strategies sought to break with 'business' or 'arbitration' unionism to build a 'social movement unionism' in which unions rebuilt their power. Numerous unions have experimented with a broad range of strategies. One of these is building coalitions with community organisations.

This is nothing new. For a few, coalitions are familiar. For others, coalitions are a technique exhumed from long, often-neglected union traditions. The reasons to work in coalition are particularly powerful at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Unions are isolated and no longer strong enough on their own to confront the power of employers at work and in politics.

We can see the need for, and potential of, union-community coalitions currently in the United Kingdom, where the pressures of massive public sector cuts threaten union jobs as well as the social services upon which most working people rely. Unions alone do not have the power to confront these political and economic threats. Building popular support will require the development of relationships with other civil society organisations.

However, coalitions are not a magic bullet. The simple existence of union-community alliances will not guarantee victory. If coalitions can help unions confront the difficulties they face, the challenge is how to make coalitions powerful.

Too often coalitions have been just another media stunt, an opportunity to list a large number of organisations on a letterhead in support of, or against, an issue. The perceived strength of these coalitions is frequently and incorrectly equated to the number of organisations assembled. These relationships come together and fall away based on the issues at hand, and the coalitions have no greater purpose than to generate publicity for an issue. There is often tension between the organisations, but strategies are rarely developed to overcome these differences. These coalitions are merely an alignment of organisational leaders. They do not engage, let alone politicise or enhance the campaigning skills of union or community organisation members. Unsurprisingly, this kind of coalition rarely supports sustained campaigns on an issue. Sometimes letterhead coalitions deliver a veneer of success, but it is not enough to change unions' political and economic environment.

Some unions, however, have engaged in a different kind of coalition practice, involving campaigns underpinned by a long-term commitment to build relationships, managing distinct interests and creating common concern. They engage leaders and their rank and file, building enduring strategies that win on issues and promote their own social agenda.

Power in Coalition (Tattersall, 2010) draws together the literature on union-community coalitions (2) and documents the trials and successes of three long term coalitions: in Australia, the Sydney-based Public Education Coalition in New South Wales (3); in the US, the Grassroots Collaborative in Chicago (4); and in Canada, the Toronto-based Ontario Health Coalition (5). It identifies five principles that help coalitions to straddle the challenge of achieving social change goals at the same time as they attempt to strengthen the organisations that participate in them.

Principles of strong coalitions

1. Less is more

Coalitions are more successful when organisational membership is restricted and there are fewer groups making decisions and sharing resources. …

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