Coalitions are an important tool for social change and unions. What makes them work? What makes them fail?
Unions and community organisations are turning to coalitions to present a people’s alternative to budget cuts and austerity measures. In Britain, unions and community-based organisations have come together to demand government intervention and investment, not budget cuts, in response to the financial downturn. Similar formations are developing in the United States in response to attacks on collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, and in Canada, where privatisation and public sector cuts are also on the rise.
But, coalitions are no magic bullet for achieving social change. My book Power in Coalition considers when and how union-community alliances can simultaneously achieve social change, strengthen community-based organisations, and renew the power of unions, through a study of long-term coalitions in Australia, Canada and the United States.
There are important lessons for building strong coalitions that are useful for union and community organisers. For instance, counter to the popular belief that long lists of organisations produce strong coalitions – Power in Coalition argues that “less is more”. A smaller number of powerfully committed organisations will be more successful at sustaining social change and engaging union and community members than a highly broad and diverse coalition where there is little common interest.
The book stakes the claim that coalition success has to be multi-faceted and include not only the social change victories that are achieved, but also the ability for a coalition to sustain relationships between partner organisations, and develop the leadership skills and campaigning capacity of rank and file participants in the process.
Coalitions also are more successful if they have the versatility to act at multiple scales, and take action in local boroughs as well as across the city or nation. Through its case studies, the book identifies examples of where this has been done successfully through the establishment of local coalitions that have partnered with city-wide or regional coalitions. Yet, there is an art form to multi-scaled action, particularly around the need to balance bottom-up and top-down input into coalition strategy.