Four ideas for strengthening the “One Nation Working Together” Coalition

Amanda Tattersall,
author of Power in Coalition

Amanda Tattersall

It’s difficult times for progressives in the United States with Tea Party reaction, state budget deficits, escalating foreclosures and unemployment. So it is an inspiring step to see a multitude of over 170 organizations coming together in the One Nation Working Together coalition to demand the change that was voted for in 2008. At the moment – this network’s immediate goal is a mass mobilization in Washington on October 2 2010 (known as “10-2-10”).

But like all coalitions between different community-based organizations, there is the question of if and how it can work to build change for the long haul –through the November elections, and for years and decades to come. If the history behind the Team Party movement teaches us anything – a sustained effort is needed to build a progressive movement for change.

In a new book, Power in Coalition, I identify a series of strategies for building strong coalitions. These lessons are built from the experiences of three long-term coalitions in the US, Canada and Australia, as well as my experience as a union and community organizer. These ideas may prove useful as this new progressive network begins to build up steam. I have pulled out four lessons that may guide how One Nation Working Together can build a sustained progressive coalition capable of social change.

1. Less is more – be explicit about who you want at the table cause big is not always better

Perhaps controversially, and certainly against much conventional wisdom, I found that smaller coalitions tend to be more powerful long term than larger ones.

A smaller number of organizations who share a greater commonality of values or interest in an issue, and have a higher degree of commitment to engage their membership and resources, and are better placed to work together for the long term than a very broad and diverse network that only has a lowest common denominator of common interests and commitment holding it together.

But coalitions have to be fit for purpose – and the purpose of One Nation Working Together is to coordinate the breadth of progressive voices to speak about an alternative vision for America that counters the current right wing drumbeat. It makes sense that its initial formation is broad based and that its first public demonstration is about expressing that diverse unity of purpose.

But, if it is to successfully help coordinate policy agendas nationally it may need to identify more complex ways of working than just having a seat for every group at the table. Collectively, broad issue priorities could be identified. But, cultivating strategy for specific policies like the Employee Free Choice Act, housing and foreclosures, financial regulation, withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, or clean jobs, is probably best done by parts of the whole. For instance, smaller coalitions of interested groups could work on specific issues in the name of One Nation Working Together, rather than this work being organized by the whole.

However, working out which issues get prioritized and worked on will also take some solid relationship building between the parties. Often coalitions get stuck when organizations focus first on their own narrow needs – such as around a particular issue – rather than recognizing how their long-term interests are met by building progressive power more broadly. Pursuing issues that have political opportunities or openings – such as around education reform – might prove the most potent for all progressives. Wins here may create momentum for other issues later on.

The grassroots collaborative in Chicago who waged the big-box living wage fight in 2005-6 provides us with a guide for how to make this work. It brought together a relatively small network of organizations – just 10 – but each had the ability to turn out their membership base. They also had a commitment to building solid relationships, and actually spent considerable time in breakfast meetings getting to know each other relationally before developing a common agenda.

When it came to working on issues, the foundation of strong relationships and trust allowed the coalition to let a power analysis and scrutiny of strategic opportunities drive its priorities, rather than just being directed by an organization’s concern for particular issues. So over time the coalition willingly moved from subjects like an amnesty for undocumented workers to state budget issues to living wages, not just because these issues were always rigidly the number one for each organization, but because they were the most strategically likely to be won at the time. There was a give and take – and a recognition that winning on one strategic issue, even if it wasn’t your issue, might make it easier to win on your issue in the future.

Indeed, a base of solid relationships is critical to sustaining long term coalitions ….

2. “Working Together” on building relationships as well as working on politics and the issues

One Nation Working Together is in a unique position to potentially cultivate stronger relationships across its diverse network at the same time as it works on the issues.

Every organizer I know is always “crazy busy” with the latest campaign or issue. But there is a difference between working hard and smart. We sometimes need to sharpen our sword – and build more resources and power in our networks – as well as working with what we have.

Building deeper relationships amongst people we work with, but don’t know well, is one way to sharpen that sword. Progressives spend a lot of time asking people to do things, or planning how to do stuff together, rather than really knowing why we are all doing this in the first place. But knowing why we do what we do – sharing the story behind our commitment – and lifting that up to be central in how we work together, can help stimulate our long term dedication as well as help us collectively focus on what is important (like being stronger together) rather than just promoting our own organization’s needs.

Key to this is coalition staff who can act as bridge builders. The staff employed both by the Canadian and Chicago coalitions actively built this relational culture. They helped organizations that had very distinctive ways of working to build an understanding across their differences. They negotiated tensions. They identified gaps in their networks and sought to build new relationships. In Chicago, staff helped cultivate a culture at meetings where it wasn’t all business talk – where time was intentionally spent getting to know each other better.

Relationship building can feel unproductive when the challenges and threats are so immediate. But relationship building is critical to building power. And strong relationships are a catalyst for creative policies, strategies and tactics.

Indeed, I found repeatedly that a base of strong relationships helped coalitions successfully pursue agenda setting policies …

3. Pursuing agenda setting demands rather than just saying no

When attacked by shrinking budgets, unemployment and reactionary racism, it is often easiest to mount campaigns that “say no”: no to war, no to racism, no to education cuts. These campaigns have their place in fighting the conservative slide.

But, as organizers we need to be conscious of the limits of “no” campaigns. These campaigns still dance on the terrain of the person we are saying no to. They rarely are able to set an agenda for the kind of economy or society that works for us.

One Nation Working Together has begun with this positive vision in mind. The spirit of coming together to campaign for the change that we voted seeks to be agenda setting. However, one of our challenges is that this “change” was never really defined – rather it was aspirational but not driven by specific policies. The coalition is seeking to take that energy and build a new economic and social vision, one where people and their needs are at the center, not just the interests of profit and practices of competition.

For future work, a disciplined commitment to positive, agenda setting issue-based campaigns will be critical. And, progressives have already shown a capacity to initiate new policies having won a new agenda on health care, and crafted new agendas around employee free choice.

The importance of positive campaigns is reinforced by the lessons in Power in Coalition. I found that coalitions that pursued new demands – like campaigns for reduced school class sizes for young children or living wages – were the most successful at shifting the political climate to be more supportive of progressive issues. In contrast, “no” campaigns were easily wedged by political leaders. For instance, in Canada, there were built-in limits to how a campaign against privatization could set a new direction for the health care system. In the media and public mind, there was a popular recognition that the health care system was in crisis and needed changing, and while the coalition was able to voice their opposition to negative reforms, they did not provide their own vision for the kind of reforms they would like. It made it difficult to sustain public support for their campaign, and allowed their opposition to get the upper hand.

4. Make the coalition work inside and outside of Washington DC

To build and move an agenda, successful coalitions frequently need to take action at multiple scales – across the nation, the state, the city and in our neighborhoods.

For example, in 2001-2 the Ontario Health Coalition built a multi-scaled coalition around health care – where a set of provincial organizations came together in Toronto, and then supported the building of dozens of local health care coalitions in regional cities like Kingston, Niagara and Thunder Bay. The health care movement was able to reach across the diverse geography of the province because activists, organizations and leaders located in different towns and cities anchored the coalition.

The coalition was most successful when local town and neighborhood coalitions had some autonomy to determine “how” they ran the campaign – and could structure activity based on their local idiosyncrasies and strengths. They were weaker when they were told what to do by leaders in Toronto. The coalition as a whole was at its best when the local groups had enough control to mix local campaigns, such as a campaign around a specific hospital privatization, with a broader provincial agenda around health care.

One Nation Working Together is working with different cities and states to mobilize for October 2. But beyond the October demonstration, how this coalition can build and sustain a national movement through local activity, and how local local-cum-national relationships are managed will be critical for the coalition to sustain its network and agenda.

One possibility is that the One Nation Working Together provides a broad umbrella narrative that is connected to local issue based campaigns and actions. This is like what happened with the 2005-7 Your Rights at Work campaign in Australia. This was an extraordinarily effective campaign built around industrial relations leading up to the 2007 Federal Election. In this campaign individual union contract or organizing campaigns were defined as being about “Your Rights at Work.” This fed bottom-up energy into a nationally consistent agenda because Your Rights at Work became tied to specific and meaningful local struggles, as well as a broader national political agenda. Of course, the national campaign still had key national demands and messages, but they became concrete when linked to specific local campaigns. Building a narrative within which local campaigns can operate helps to counter a risk, which is that One Nation Working Together could be reduced to just a slogan that does not have public policy content beyond an electoral strategy, rather than being used to build a consensus around common agendas.

Successful multi-scaled coalitions also provide space for local city and state based coalitions to feed-up strategies to the national scale. The Ontario Health Coalition managed this by providing the local groups with a seat at the table. The coalition’s Administrative Committee not only included province wide organizations but many of the most active local groups – so they could have their discrete needs and ideas voiced as part of the broader strategy.

Again, post-October, it could prove useful to provide a seat at the table for the network of state and city based One Nation Working Together groups to participate in developing the coalition’s national, and more local, strategies.

It is a very important period for progressive politics in America, and it is the time for different organizations at a local, state and national level to cultivate stronger relationships. As it was put Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director of the Center for Community Change, at one of One Nation Working Together’s early meetings, “Raise your hand if you can push your part of the agenda all by yourself.”

We need collaboration, but we need to collaborate powerfully. I hope some of these lessons may be helpful in thinking through how to sustain powerful coalitions and build a new progressive economic and social agenda.

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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