Interview: Rock Solid
Industrial: Eight Simple Rules for Employing My Teenage Daughter
Politics: The Johnnie Code
Energy: Fission Fantasies
History: All The Way With Clarrie O'Shea
International: Closer to Home
Economics: Taking the Fizz
Unions: Stronger Together
Review: Montezuma's Revenge
Poetry: Fair Go Gone
The Locker Room
When the Truth Hurts
Everyone knows the principle behind collective organising is that when people work together they are stronger than those working alone. But this principle also applies to organisations. Coalitions between unions, community organisations and environmental organisations are not new. The environmental movement in Australia has a strong history of alliances between Residential Action Groups and unions, best exemplified by the Green Bans movement of the 1970s. With the onslaught of conservative power from the Howard Government, and the increasing intolerance of big employers to workers rights and decent environmental standards, the need for strong coalitions between unions, environmental organisations and community organisations is greater than ever.
Yet, while we need coalitions - creating strong, powerful, deep relationships can be a challenge. There is a lot of new research on coalitions. Below is a study of some of the key elements of successful coalitions. For more information go to www.communityunionism.org.
Coalitions can vary, from ad hoc relationships (for instance, where an environmental organisation asks a union to endorse a policy position) to deeper, long-term, formal coalitions (such as the Green Bans movement, where residential action groups and unions worked together to stop overdevelopment). Coalitions differ according to several key elements, including their common concern, structure, organisational commitment, capacity and culture.
Coalitions form when different organisations choose to campaign about a particular issue, interest or value that they have in common. The strongest coalitions develop when organisations have a shared interest in the coalition campaign. A good example is Los Angeles Bus Riders Union Campaign, which created a successful coalition between transport users and employees for improved public transport. Organisers realised that while many organisations think public transport is a good idea, it was those with an interest in better public transport that were most likely to commit themselves to a campaign. Thus environmental organisations concerned about pollution, users of the service and the unions who represented public transport workers were the key participants because they had a shared interest in the goal of public transport. The lesson is that alliances between organisations who have shared mutual interests are likely to be strongest, because even though the organisations are different - they have a shared concern for similar objectives. It is important for both unions and environmental organisations to think about their issues openly, and to incorporating the perspectives of coalition partners to build sustainable coalitions that operate in the mutual direct interests of the participating organisations.
The structure of a coalition is important. Organisational relationships are most likely to be strong if different groups can negotiate strategies. This space for sharing ideas builds trust, which is also an essential ingredient for effective coalitions. Sometimes coalitions are 'come-one come-all' while others hand-pick organisational participants: organisations are selected because of a certain common interest or value. Importantly, all evidence shows that there's no "correct" structure - it can, and should, vary according to the needs of participants. Relationships outside coalitions are important too. If organisations want to practice coalitions, then it is important to actively cultivate relationships with different organisations (who might not immediately see the value in joining the coalition) and learn about these organisation's issues and concerns while sharing your concerns.
While there are no set rules for a coalition's structure, history shows there is one rule common to all successful coalitions: they are built by focussing on issues of common concern not conflict. Often environmentalists and unions are pitted against each other by employers or the Government. But while there are issues of conflict, such as over mining or timber felling, there are also grounds of common concern. Recycling and environmentally sustainable technologies are labour intensive industries which promote sustainable development. For instance, in the United States, the APOLLO Alliance is a coalition of environmental organisations and unions that promotes the development of environmental manufacturing with good unionised jobs.
Organisations are different, and organisational culture is sometimes an issue that can challenge coalitions. Environmental organisations often use tactics such as direct action, where as unions regularly rely on people-intensive activities like rallies or strikes. Also, many environmental organisations work according to consensus where as unions usually operate by majority votes. Often these cultural differences can lead to tension between environmental organisations and unions. To work together, it is important to respect these differences. There is an important role for individuals who work to 'bridge' these barriers. People who are both union activists and environmentalists may provide coalitions with the ability to translate between these practices. Strong trusting honest relationships between individuals in different organisations are vital for forging lasting coalitions.
While the coalition form is important - a campaign is only successful if it can mobilise organisation members to participate in the campaign - coalitions also need organisational depth. Often less is more: a couple of organisations capable of providing significant commitment to a coalition is more powerful than a large list of organisations who are disinterested in the campaign. Engaging organisational members in coalition events can be hard, but is vital if a coalition is to produce a movement for change. Some coalitions oblige participants to commit resources to coalition actions, or even require participants to turn out members to rallies or events. Sometimes, a state-wide coalition may have local sub-branches to allow large numbers of people to participate.
Coalition practice is important. No organisation or movement has enough power, people or resources to win the sort of social and environmental change we need on our own. We need to work together to fight for what we believe in, and to learn from other organisations to develop a comprehensive agenda for change. Only together can we not only change the current Government, but change way we live, work and sustain the environment around us.
For more information on Green Bans, see Burgmann, M, Burgman, V (1998) Green Bans, Red Unions. For more information on community unionism and coalitions, go to www.communityunionism.org.
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