When I ask my students to tell me about social movement leadership, they often paint one of two metaphorical pictures. The first is of well-known leaders—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and others—whose contributions are usually described in overly broad terms. The second is of so-called “leaderless” movements, like Occupy, in which modern technology and strategic innovation are thought to enable diffuse decision-making processes, with no individuals in true leadership roles.
Social movement scholars, of course, are skeptical of both descriptions. We know that charismatic leaders are joined by others in formal and informal leadership positions, whose work is often overlooked in popular accounts of activism. We also know that in modern social movements, there are still individual people taking on leadership roles, even if no one holds a formal leadership position. Like most social phenomena, movement leadership is more complex and nuanced than popular depictions would indicate, and it’s clear that leadership involves far more than making speeches and leading chants. Most of the day-to-day work of social movement leadership happens behind the scenes, in more mundane settings.
My research examines one type of behind-the-scenes work done by movement leaders: the formation and maintenance of coalitions. Most social movements, at some point in their lifecycles, form alliances with other groups. Usually, they form such coalitions in response to strong opportunities or, conversely, strong threats (Staggenborg 1986). Moreover, during times of opportunity, activists form social networks that they can mobilize to create coalitions when threats arise (Almeida 2003; McCammon and Campbell 2002).
During times of crisis, I found that some unions draw upon these existing relationships between leaders to form coalitions quickly. Leaders of public sector unions in Wisconsin and Ohio, for example, were able to call on leaders of other unions and sympathetic organizations in 2011, when state legislators passed Act 10 and Senate Bill 5, respectively. These bills imposed sweeping, severe restrictions on public sector workers’ unions, including banning some workers from collective bargaining altogether.
Some of the union leaders in these states knew each other well—Madison Teachers, Inc., for example, shares a small building with the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 311—while others had weaker ties to potential allies. Nevertheless, labor leaders in Wisconsin and Ohio built a large coalition composed of unions representing both workers who would be affected by the bills and those who would not, plus community, political, religious, and other groups. Existing social networks, in other words, were mobilized to mount a rapid response to an immediate threat.
Other labor leaders, however, did not have the benefit of existing networks that could be mobilized against retrenchment efforts. In states with historically weak organized labor, potential allies are fewer, and may have pressing threats of their own with which to contend. In Idaho, legislators passed a set of three education reform bills, officially called “Students Come First,” that eliminated tenure for new teachers, restricted collective bargaining agreements to salary and benefits, limited labor agreements to one year, required annual recertification for teachers’ unions, enacted merit pay for teachers, and more.
However, given the relative weakness of labor in the state, the Idaho Education Association (IEA)—which represents the vast majority of organized K-12 education workers in Idaho—found only limited support from Idaho’s other unions. Instead, union members learned that two parents of Idaho schoolchildren had formed their own organization dedicated solely to overturning the Students Come First bills. Soon, IEA’s leadership joined forces with the parents’ organization, Idaho Parents and Teachers Together (IPATT).
For leaders of both IEA and IPATT, day-to-day work involved intentional efforts to facilitate collaboration and overcome the groups’ organizational and ideological differences. IPATT leaders were initially skeptical about working with the union, a much larger organization with more resources. Further, IPATT leaders were not interested in labor issues; they only wanted the new laws overturned. In order to address these concerns, IEA and IPATT focused on broad messaging that avoided topics over which they disagreed; took steps to distance themselves from one another, so as to avoid accusations of “big union” control over IPATT; and identified non-overlapping resource contributions that each group could make.
In all of these cases, the hard work of rank-and-file union members should not go unmentioned. Ordinary union members knocked on doors, circulated petitions, made phone calls, attended rallies, gave speeches, and much more. The leaders I interviewed were unfailingly quick to give due credit to their organizations’ members, whose activism both in public and behind the scenes was critical to the campaigns mounted by the unions. In fact, leaders often made the intentional choice to remain behind the scenes, showcasing members’ personal stories and efforts instead.
Unions and their allies in all three states were able to form coalitions due to leaders’ existing personal and professional networks, and intentional efforts by leaders of teachers’ unions to facilitate collaboration with a variety of labor and non-labor organizations. These efforts were routinely conducted away from the public eye, yet in two of the three states I’ve discussed—Ohio and Idaho—they resulted in resounding success. Voters in both states overturned the laws in question via veto referendum.
I can respond to my students’ impressions of social movement leadership, then, by emphasizing the less glamorous—but equally important!— behind-the-scenes work of movement leaders. Beyond public speeches and demonstrations, leaders facilitate decision-making processes and build relationships that, in turn, allow SMOs to collaborate with sympathetic organizations. While their words and images may not be featured in news coverage (or Twitter conversations), the results of their efforts sometimes make headlines.
Almeida, Paul D. 2003. “Opportunity Organizations and Threat‐Induced Contention: Protest Waves in Authoritarian Settings.” The American Journal of Sociology 109(2):345–400.
McCammon, Holly J. and Karen E. Campbell. 2002. “Allies on the Road to Victory: Coalition Formation Between the Suffragists and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.” Mobilization 7(3):231–51.
Staggenborg, Suzanne. 1986. “Coalition Work in the Pro-Choice Movement: Organizational and Environmental Opportunities and Obstacles.” Social Problems 33(5):374–90.