Movement Coalitions: Big Challenges and Big Rewards

By Brian Obach

Coalition building has always been a core tactic among movement organizations. By definition, aggrieved groups feel that they lack the power to have their interests represented via conventional means, thus it makes sense that they would seek to build power by joining with others.

Movement coalitions are common, yet what such collaboration entails varies dramatically. In many instances this cooperation amounts to little more than adding an organization’s name to a long list of event or campaign endorsers. A few may actually engage in coordinated action, but similar to individual “paper membership” in advocacy groups, at the organization level, many coalitions are primarily composed of inactive members who are only nominally affiliated. This should not come as a surprise. While coalition building is appealing and may have significant advantages when undertaken in earnest, there are many practical barriers to actually carrying out this kind of work.

While movement scholars have pushed research in many new directions and developed important theoretical perspectives, in terms of understanding organizational behavior, like coalition formation among movement groups, the insights of resource mobilization theory remain fundamental. Coalition building is carried out by organizations, and it requires time and resources. Most advocacy organizations are short on staff, volunteers, and funding. Core activists, leaders, and paid staff (if there are any) are often times scrambling to address emergent issues in the group’s central area of focus, while attempting to secure funds and maintain the organization. In this context, coalition building can seem like a distraction from more urgent matters.

Collaborative work is easier if partners are similar in their aims and structure. For example, leaders of the “Big 10” professional environmental organizations are regularly in contact with one another about shared interests and potential collaboration. This is not overly demanding, since participants begin with similar understandings and practices. They do not have to spend time debating the fundamentals of social change strategy and tactics when considering a joint campaign, a discussion they may have to undertake if they seek to form a coalition with a grassroots community organization. The big professional environmental groups are also similar demographically and in terms of organizational culture, further reducing the effort associated with forging a common agenda. Even matters as mundane as scheduling meetings can create a barrier for dissimilar organizations. Professional staff members are typically available during working hours, while volunteer activists from grassroots organizations are only able to meet in off hours, when they are not at their paid jobs.

While understandable from an organizational perspective given these practical considerations, the gravitational pull towards groups similar to one’s own reinforces division and prevents the development of diverse coalitions, the potential benefits of which are many. In the case of the environmental movement, the large professional environmental groups historically had few connections with civil rights associations or communities of color, and they paid little attention to matters of environmental justice. In the 1990s these insular professional environmental organizations came under sharp criticism from environmental justice leaders for their narrow focus and neglect of marginalized communities.

Coalition building among diverse groups presents challenges beyond the practical considerations that limit opportunity for this kind of work. Leaders of movement groups often feel compelled to remain focused on the core issues that attracted members to the organization in the first place. Individuals who joined a conservation organization out of concern for wilderness protection may feel that the group risks spreading itself too thin if it starts taking on urban air pollution or matters of environmental justice. Thus leaders are often hesitant to embark on coalition formation with groups who don’t share their specific focus.

In my work on coalition building between labor unions and environmentalists, representatives of both types of groups described pressure from members who felt that leaders were straying too far from their roots in the course of working with coalition partners. Some members expressed confusion or objections when the Sierra Club endorsed raising the minimum wage, a move that leaders had taken in solidarity with union partners. Likewise, some union officials were challenged by rival factions when they went beyond core labor concerns over wages, hours, and working conditions to take on environmental issues. Movement leaders are especially vulnerable if they do more than just sign on as paper coalition endorsers and dedicate real time and effort to a “tangential” cause. Critics invariably charge that limited resources are being diverted from the organization’s core mission.

Despite the challenges, it is these diverse coalitions that can make the most powerful statement. Elected officials or other targets come to expect opposition from certain sectors. For example, oil and gas interests anticipate that environmental groups will object to their practices, and even coordinated opposition from an array of environmental organizations is not unexpected. But when labor unions lend their voice, as some did recently in opposition to the Keystone XP Pipeline, industry and political leaders really take notice. They recognize that they are not just dealing with routine opposition, but something broader and potentially more threatening.

If diverse groups do manage to form coalitions, these can serve as important sites of learning about issues unfamiliar to participants. It enables members to interact with others outside of their traditional issue area and policy circles. Collaboration may initially focus on one matter of mutual concern, such as the workplace health issues that brought unions into contact with environmental groups. But that interaction opens the door for greater understanding, further collaboration, and possibly a permanent reorientation of the organization’s role.

Following the rebuke by environmental justice advocates in the 1990s, several of the large professional environmental organizations began to take on more health and social justice issues and to work in coalition with traditionally marginalized groups. For some, environmental justice is now a central plank in their mission. Although the race of a single leader does not indicate fundamental reform, it is notable that the Sierra Club elected its first Black president this year, a long time champion of environmental justice issues.

Social movement coalition building is hard work and, more often than not, what appears as a coalition is little more than a symbolic collective endorsement for a common cause. But if organizations are able to overcome the practical barriers and engage in real collaboration with other groups, especially those different from themselves, the potential for broadening and strengthening a movement is significant.

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Filed under Coalition Building, Essay Dialogues, Uncategorized

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