From the TUC

How the campaigns against cuts could be turned into a new economic agenda

13 Apr 2011, By

Unions and community organisations came together to oppose the massive public sector cuts in the United Kingdom. They have formed coalitions to organise numerous events and rallies at the local and regional level, as well as the successful national demonstration in London on 26 March.

But sustaining a movement that not only “resists” austerity but wins new economic reforms and shifts the political climate is no easy task.

How will the coalition between unions and community groups sustain participation locally and pressure nationally to win people-friendly reforms?

The experience from the US, Canada and Australia shows that coalitions between unions and community organisations can deliver transformative social change and strengthen civil society organisations, but only under certain conditions.

Useful lessons for UK activists lie in the strategies of an Australian public education coalition. That coalition turned around a hostile political climate, and a tendency to “just say no” to political reforms – by eventually winning a £150 million reform to the public education system.

In the late 1990s, the Teachers Federation and the public education system were facing the same crisis. Teachers were having their salaries threatened, while the education system was suffering under repeated restructures and policy changes.

The teachers union was struggling to respond. Despite representing over 80% of full-time school teachers, the union had little public support. The Murdoch tabloid press was attacking the union – one front cover featured the union President with a dunce’s cap drawn on, with the headline “if the cap fits.”

The union, pushed on by a group of stewards and organisers, decided to change its strategy. It adopted a three-pronged approach. It reached out to school principals as allies in public education, despite the ever-present conflicts that can arise between teachers and principals. It committed to talking about all its future campaigns as “campaigns for public education” – rather than just saying “no” to government policies. Finally, it set up a new public education levy that collected over £600,000 from its membership to resource a massive public education campaign.

An opportunity to use this strategy arose in 2001, when the government released a new schools policy. Called Building the Future, it involved closing down a dozen inner-city schools. Having decided to speak out on education issues as well as salary issues, the union debated what it should do. Initially it called on the Government to conduct a review into its education policies. Then, at a union executive meeting one rank-and-file teacher exclaimed, “why don’t we just conduct an inquiry ourselves.” The Vinson Inquiry into Public Education was born.

The Inquiry couldn’t have happened but for the total backing of the union’s leadership. The union vice-President (later President) Maree O’Halloran, took charge of the Inquiry – managing its day-to-day activities and ensuring it was front and centre of the union’s work.

The union couldn’t do the inquiry alone. It knew that to be “independent” it needed to form a coalition with other education partners. It approached the Federation of Parents & Citizens and asked them to co-sponsor the inquiry, and to help fund it. Together, the parents and teachers hired an inquiry head – Professor Tony Vinson – an education expert as well as a person experienced in government process, review and reform.

The inquiry became a tool for sustained popular organising and mass-based action. Over a 15-month period, the inquiry publicly launched, opened for written submissions, then conducted hearings in schools halls around the state. Unlike many union or community campaigns that tell people what the issues are, the hearings provided a space for teachers, parents and school supporters to raise their own concerns and solutions – the questions at hearings were: “what are the challenges you are facing at the school? If there was one thing you could improve, what would it be?” Dozens of hearings staged over months and months created a storm of positive media at the local scale. The Inquiry was on the front page of newspapers around the state as it hosted events and raised the debate about public education.

This local activity was sustained by local action groups. The public education coalition encouraged the formation of public education lobbies, where a local teacher, parent and school principal would convene a group of people to hold forums, lobby politicians and speak in the media. People’s participation was far more engaged than just attending a rally – they were in charge of building a local campaign strategy, negotiating with decision makers and making coalition relationships work.

The purpose of the inquiry was to find the specific issues that the coalition could take action on to improve public education. It is one thing to have a slogan – like “the future is public education.” But this needed to be connected to specific, winnable, concrete demands – so teachers and parents could see improvements in their schools.

The inquiry was intentionally timetabled to coincide with electoral timelines. The Inquiry was conceived three years out from the next election, and it started to deliver reports on its findings nine months out from the election. The Inquiry proposed 96 recommendations to the education system – synthesised from the stories it heard across the state.

But to transform this wish list into policy change required the coalition to focus on specific goals and build public power in support. The teachers union and parent organisations joined with school principals to form the Public Education Alliance. These six organisations had a mutual interest in improving public education, while also having large memberships and different kinds of power that they could share. For instance, principals had a close relationship with the education minister and department, parents had great media spokespeople and the teachers had thousands of members who could take action at schools as well as the money to support mass advertising.

Together, the Alliance enunciated six united demands, prioritising the policy of reducing class sizes for Kindergarten to Year Two children. The Vinson Inquiry not only explained why the policy was important, but identified how it should be funded and implemented. The cost would be £150 million.

The Alliance was very strategic in the kinds of action they took. They lobbied all the political parties – labour and conservative – and in the lead up to the election they held a public assembly where all the political leaders were put on the stage in front of 1000 parents and teachers, to explain whether they supported the united demands.

The conservatives announced their support for the policy, and then the likely future government – the Labor Party – two weeks before the 2003 state election, announced that they would endorse the class sizes policy as articulated in the Vinson Inquiry. The union, who three years before had been demonised in the press had won a massive policy victory that improved the quality of public education for years to come.

Campaigners against the cuts can learn important lessons from this experience.

Creating an alternative economic policy requires not only an expansive frame like “jobs, growth, justice” but will require the development of specific demands that define what this looks like. For the public education coalition, the specific demand was reducing class sizes, and the Vinson Inquiry made very clear recommendations about how this could be implemented.

An alternative economic policy can’t just come from think-tanks and organisational leaders – there must be a mass-based process that engages people, and allows them to talk about their experiences, needs and hopes. Only then can a powerful movement be generated that supports the implementation of the reforms. The Vinson Inquiry did this through hearings that engaged thousands of parents and teachers and put the issue of public education in the media on a daily basis. This kind of mass-based process is familiar to some UK organisations – for instance London Citizens does this through their listening campaigns.

For coalitions to build and sustain a policy agenda requires them to act at multiple scales simultaneously. This means having local groups that can take neighbourhood action, as well city-wide and nation-wide groups that can coordinate campaigns more centrally. But it is not about having the “national people” telling the local people what to do (nor is it about simply romantising the local), but it is important to ensure that local groups can have some control over strategy while also feeding into coordinated action.

Developing positive agendas will likely require smaller, not larger coalitions. Too often people think “bigger is better”. But highly diverse coalitions often struggle to come to a consensus on what they are for – settling instead for lowest common denominator positions. The education coalition settled on just two organisations to run a multi-million dollar inquiry. “Less was more”. The challenge was to find organisations prepared to commit to the coalition for a two-year period, rather than just getting a large number of organisations to simply sign a statement of support.

Coalitions can be an important source of social change, but to build power they need to heed many lessons. Stories like the Australian public education coalition paint a picture for how unions and community groups could jointly develop a gradual but sustained vision for how the economy should be run – by building clear demands and popular support to see these visions realised.

GUEST POST: Amanda Tattersall is the author of Power in Coalition: Strategies for Strong Unions and Social Change (published by Cornell University Press), and the Director of the Sydney Alliance, a diverse coalition of unions, community groups and religious organisations and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Unions NSW.