Amanda Tattersall, Power in Coalition: Strategies for Strong Unions and Social Change.
THE TITLE OF THIS book makes clear Tattersall's two prime objectives in writing it--to gain a better understanding of how community-union coalitions pursuing social justice initiatives can succeed, and to provide unions with a rationale and a game plan for forming positive-sure coalitions with community organizations in order to increase their power and promote renewal. She accomplishes these objectives by analyzing the dynamic forces that shaped the outcomes achieved by three such coalitions, each active over a four to rive year period. The three case studies were situated in Australia, the United States and Canada.
The layout of the book is quite straightforward. It begins with an introduction that explains how the author's background as a community and union organizer fueled her interest in coalition-building, which eventually became the topic of her doctoral research and subsequently resulted in the authorship of this book. The introductory chapter contains a brief discussion of the research methodology employed--documentary research, observation and interviews--and briefly summarizes the main findings of the study. In Chapter One, the literature underpinning the study is reviewed, and the research variables defined. The next three chapters are devoted to the case studies. In Chapter Five, the overall study findings about how coalitions succeed, and some of the implications of union participation in such coalitions for increasing union power and for union renewal, are .set out. In the concluding chapter, Tattersall looks beyond her data to other instances of coalition success to reiterate her point that coalitions can be extremely effective at bringing about social change. She also provides practical tips on how to make them work.
The three case studies are the book's centrepiece. Tattersall begins by situating each within its political and institutional context, then describing it in detail. From the community unionism literature she identifies what she claims are three elements shared by all coalitions: the existence of common concerns, the types of organizational relationships and organizational structures developed, and the geographic locations and level(s) at which the coalition operates, whether it be local, state or provincial, or national. From her own experience as a community and union organizer she identifies four types of successful outcomes that can be achieved by coalitions: realizing targeted goals, developing a greater ability to influence the political structure, sustaining long-term positive relationships among coalition partners, and increasing the capacity of each coalition partner to act, for instance by increasing the abilities of its leader(s). Her analytical strategy is to examine the interplay between the elements and the outcomes achieved in each case study and to infer possible relationships between them. Useful summary tables of findings are provided within each case study to help the reader navigate the level of detail reported.
In Chapter Five, through within-case and cross-case comparisons, Tattersall identifies five coalition strategies that lead to success: choosing fewer, rather than more, coalition partners; choosing strong coalition leaders; connecting the mutual self-interest of coalition partners with a justice agenda; carefully planning the timing of coalition activities, taking advantage of legislative and electoral opportunities; and getting the local organizations on-side to increase political influence. These recommendations, derived from her extensive and transparent analytical process, and based on data collected from multiple sources, appear to be both credible and specific enough to be useful to coalition organizers.
Her findings give rise to three theoretical propositions, two of which appear to be fairly non-controversial: "First, coalitions are most successful when they achieve social change while operating in a way that builds organizational strength for their participating organizations ... Second, a coalition's ability to achieve success is shaped by the strategic choices of coalition participants whose actions are affected by their particular political context." (158) On the latter point, she notes that coalitions are constrained by their histories as well. These two propositions could be applicable in a variety of contexts, and could lead to the development of new theory or the extension of existing theory, serving academic interests as well as providing guidance to coalition activists.
Her third proposition states unequivocally that coalitions help renew unions: "coalitions are a source of power for unions, not simply because they supplement a unions objectives with the resources of another organization but because they help renew unions." (3) That assertion, I feel, is somewhat debatable. Tattersall's own study indicates that achieving and sustaining the positive-sum coalitions required for union renewal is extremely difficult. She also admits that, in her experience, unions are more likely to form what she calls transactional coalitions, whereby they cooperate with community groups primarily to serve their own interests, resulting in the formation of short-term, utilitarian relationships. She further acknowledges the existence of union members who question the legitimacy of union efforts to pursue anything other than the narrow economic interests of their members, and recognizes that lack of membership support is a significant obstacle to the formation of the type of long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with community groups. So while I can agree that coalition formation could help renew unions, that source of renewal is only available to those unions willing and able to pursue social unionism in coalition with community groups.
Overall this is a solid study, well-designed, well-implemented and well-presented, useful to both activists and academics. It has credible conclusions and demonstrates convincingly that carefully chosen case studies can be useful for theory generation. Nonetheless, social
movement theory would also have had considerable relevance to the research question being addressed, given that all the community-union coalitions Tattersall studied appear to be a particular type of social movement organization. While the work of social movement theorists was cited throughout the book, the literature reviewed in Chapter One leaves unclear the extent to which social movement theory actually informed this study. Had it played a more prominent role, this study might have been a theory-testing as well as a theory-generating study that might have enriched our understanding of how all social movement organizations, not just community-union coalitions, can achieve success. However, this in no way detracts from the obvious strengths of this study. Given the richness of the case data collected, perhaps some propositions along broader lines can yet be developed.
University of Regina
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
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