Five principles for building powerful coalitions

by Amanda Tattersall

Amanda Tattersall

In Power in Coalition, I argue that not all coalitions are made equal. While alliances between unions and community organizations are an important and useful strategy for social change, their power and success varies greatly depending on the strategic choices of those involved.

The most successful coalitions are ones that seek to achieve social change goals (such as individual victories and shifting the political climate) at the same time as they strengthen the organizations that participate in them. Yet these goals can be somewhat illusive. In the book I found that most coalitions, at different times, end up trading social change goals for strength goals – for instance by burning relationships with community or union partners in order to win a particular policy reform.

The book establishes FIVE PRINCIPLES for building strong coalitions that were consistent across different places and different times.

1. Less is more

Coalitions are more successful when organizational membership is restricted and there are fewer groups making decisions and sharing resources. Instead of long lists of partners, in Power in Coalition long term coalitions traded breadth for depth and sought to build a narrower agenda that more deeply engaged the commitment of their members and leaders.

A “less is more” approach helped avoid lowest common denominator positions where coalitions end up a “mile wide and an inch deep” and tend to only be able to agree on what they are against rather than what they are for.

But the strategy of “less is more” runs counter to typical coalition practice. Too often “coalition power” is thought to be created by the number of organizations that can be fitted on to a letterhead or press release. But in the Toronto and Chicago case studies, it was only when the coalitions restricted membership that they built sufficient trust to keep organizations at the table working together.

Similarly in Sydney, a remarkable coalition of public education allies built an unprecedented independent public education inquiry, staging hearings across the state, mobilizing parents and teachers in dozens of local communities and won $250 million reforms to public education through a reduction in class sizes for young children. And it was won by a coalition of two organizations – the teachers union (NSW Teachers Federation) and the Federation of Parents & Citizens.

Less is more requires coalition organizers to be strategic with “the less.” There is a need to identify partners that have the right mix of power, interest and potentially, unpredictability. Power must not be defined narrowly. It does not only include “organized numbers and organized money” but also diversity. After all, if the coalition can’t stand for the whole of the constituency it claims to represent then it has a limited ability to act (Tattersall 2010, 171).

With less people around the table there is then an incentive to do “more” together – in particular to focus on building close, respectful public relationships between the individuals involved that explore their personal and organizational interests. In Chicago, this took the form of informal breakfast meetings at a south side diner where people got to know each other over several years before they started campaigning together.

2. Individuals matter

Despite coalitions being defined as an alignment of organizations, alliances can live or die depending on effective leadership from individuals, in particular:

  1. organizational leaders
  2. champions inside of organizations
  3. coalition coordinators/staff

For each of these people the most important qualities are an ability to build bridges across different kinds of organizations and the ability to act as campaign strategists.

In the case studies, it made a difference when leaders directly participated in coalition decision making. Their participation was a sign of their commitment as well as facilitating quick and strong decision making in the coalition. Contrast the public education coalition which consisted of a table of positional leaders with the Ontario Health Coalition which was a table of staff. Sydney had much greater success at maintaining organizational commitment and tapping into significant organizational resources than in Toronto where the arm’s length relationship with the leadership made it difficult to engage the unions.

Strong leaders were frequently supported by champions in their ranks. In Sydney and Toronto, staff organizers helped leaders guide the formation of coalition relationships.

Coalition coordinators were also critical for holding together organizational relationships and strengthening the coalition. In Chicago, a coalition coordinator helped the coalition stay the course over an eighteen month campaign plan, and in Toronto the coordinator’s personal experience in a local health coalition motivated her to support and mentor local organizing. These coordinators helped smooth over differences between organizations, and sought to mitigate union dominance when it arose. In contrast, in Australia where there was not a coalition coordinator, the relationships were more unstable and fell away over time.

3. To Wield Self-Interest with a Sword of Justice

This principle is about the kind of issues that coalitions work on. It requires a coalition to simultaneously pursue issues that feed the direct strategic needs of their organizational partners while those issues also need to be connected to a sense of communal justice, or the public interest.

Organizational self-interest is necessary but not sufficient to build a strong coalition. In Canada, the health coalition sometimes struggled to connect with union self-interest. Medicare, abstractly framed as a national icon, was a challenge to prioritize as an issue of importance above the noise of bargaining and contract campaigning. At the same time, self-interest alone has limited political impact. In Sydney the contract campaign by the teachers, and in Chicago, the UFCW’s anti-Wal-mart campaign were dismissed by the media and politicians as unions just acting for themselves.

The key ingredient for opening up self-interest to public interest, or the common good, is the capacity to negotiate mutual self-interest. This is where organizations identify discrete but shared interests that allow them to pursue their own goals together. The public education alliance found a mutual self-interest in the issue of reduced class sizes. Teachers had an interest in smaller classes because it made their workload more manageable, and parents had a related but different interest in that smaller class sizes were shown to improve educational outcomes for their children.

There is an immense creativity, and unpredictability, in mutual self-interest. It is a space where new ideas and campaigns can be created based out of an innovative exploration of shared need and power. For instance, in Chicago, an anti-Wal-Mart site fight was translated into a campaign for a living wage ordinance for retail workers

Coalition campaigns can more successfully shift the political climate when they are positively framed demands, rather than negatively framed “no campaigns”. Consequently the Ontario Health Coalition struggled to set an agenda for positive health care reforms while working on the issue of “no-public private partnerships.

Coalition campaigns were most successful when they combined a broad narrative with specific demands. Successful broad public interest narratives included references to living wages, public education or Medicare, as they were iconic moral claims. But to be powerful these slogans needed to be linked to specific surface demands that linked these abstract claims to member interests – for instance the public education campaign was made concrete when linked to a specific policy around reducing class sizes. The big box living wage campaign actively engaged other union members, such as SEIU homecare workers, when it was explained that winning a wage raise for retail workers could help homecare workers in their next contract fight.

4. Timely exercise of power through conscious planning

In Power in Coalition successful sustained coalitions had long term plans to build then exercise power against decision makers. The Sydney public education coalition had a two year plan that included an independent inquiry, with reports released periodically in the lead up to the political opportunity of a state election. Similarly the Chicago living wage campaign was timed to move its ordinance six months out from aldermanic elections. This meant that the threat of popular election encouraged councilors to vote for the ordinance, and, even when the ordinance was vetoed by the Mayor, coalition partners could use the election cycle to react. Which they did. As a consequence 7 hostile aldermen were removed in the 2007 elections.

Disciplined planning ensured the coalitions could deliver political pressure rather than just reacting to the media cycle.

5. Multi-scaled coalitions

In the same way that one organization cannot win on its own, most issues cannot be solved at a single scale. Political and economic power is multi-scaled – traversing the local, regional, state, national and international, and to be most effective coalitions frequently need the versatility to act at multiple scales.

In the case studies, coalitions were most effective at acting at multiple scales when they supported the establishment of local city or neighborhood coalitions. These local coalitions (or broker organizations) helped enhance their organizational strength and their political influence.

For instance, in Canada, the Ontario Health Coalition established 40 coalitions around the province so it could run a campaign that collected hundreds of thousands of petitions and then move issues in a coordinated way across the province. These local town based coalitions were led by union members, retired teachers and community activists, providing a space for organizational members to build their skills and capacity to campaign.

But there are specific ingredients for successfully managing multi-scaled coalitions.

First, there is a need for a feedback loop between the different scales. It is not just about setting people up locally to run a state or national agenda, there needs to be local control. In Canada, when the OHC began coordinating tours through the local coalitions to raise awareness about public private partnerships, most of the strategy was developed in Toronto. While successful at first, the cycle of holding event after event had diminishing returns and participation at these events fell away.

The Canadians did come up with a partial solution to the feedback loop, which was ensure local coalitions were represented on provincial steering committees in the same way organizations were.

Second, there is a need for local coalitions to have some relative autonomy – to pursue local demands in conjunction with national/state demands. In Canada, the local coalitions were most successful when state action was driven by locally relevant and locally planned strategy. For instance, a plebiscite campaign was run around hospitals threatened with privatization – where communities one at a time were asked to vote in a referendum. These campaigns were planned and executed by the local groups, and this higher degree of control stimulated significant local participation and commitment.

This is a cursory glance at some of the findings about strong coalitions. These ideas are elaborated in much more detail in Power in Coalition, in particular in Chapter Five.

Reference

Tattersall, A. 2010. Power in Coalition: strategies for strong unions and social change. Cornell University Press: Ithaca.

Amanda Tattersall is a well recognised as a leading coalition builder and social change campaigner in Australia.  She is the founder and Director of the Sydney Alliance, a diverse coalition of unions, community organizations and religious organizations working for the common good for a fair, just and sustainable city.

She has worked as a union organizer and is currently an elected official (Deputy Assistant Secretary) with Unions NSW, the central labor council in Sydney NSW representing 600 000 workers.

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