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COMM-ORG Papers 2006

There is Power in Coalition: A Framework for Analysing the Practice of Union-Community Coalitions

Amanda Tattersall

University of Sydney


Coalitions and union renewal
Ad hoc coalitions
Support Coalitions
Mutual-Support Coalitions
Deep Coalitions
Primary Research
About the Author


Proposals for union revitalisation suggest the importance of unions reaching out to the community and the formation of union-community coalitions. Yet analysis of how this process of ‘reaching out’ can be most effective for building union power and advancing union renewal is little understood. This paper presents a framework for assessing union-community coalitions. The framework extends from ad hoc coalitions to complex integrated ‘deep coalition’ forms. I identify a series of coalition features - common interest, structure, organisational buy-in and scale--and argue that they are key determinants of coalition variation and effectiveness. I also explore how these different coalition forms provide increasing possibilities for union power, and promote possibilities for union renewal. I argue that the possibilities for union power and union transformation are increasingly likely when there is broader and deeper interconnection between unions and community organisations within the coalition form.

Amongst the possible routes for union renewal is the suggestion that unions should reach out to the community to form union-community coalitions. Union-community coalitions are seen as a mechanism for advancing union power by building powerful alliances to rebuild unions' political and economic influence. Yet coalitions are not homogenous creatures; some last and provide an ongoing source of change and power, and others are fleeting in their political influence. This paper presents a framework of various coalition forms and breaks down their features, assessing what makes them work and how they contribute to union power and union renewal.

Coalitions and Union Renewal

In Unions@Work, the ACTU recommended the formation of alliances between unions and community organisations to strengthen the voice of unions (ACTU 1999). Union-community coalitions are seen as an important strategy given the rapid decline in union density and their declining political power. The success of the 1998 Maritime Union of Australia’s community pickets gave a practical credence to the idea that community support can strength union power (Tattersall 2004). Working with the community is part of the spectrum of union tactics, used in a climate of union renewal. It has become, at least rhetorically, a part of union strategy. In a recent survey of NSW unions affiliated to Unions NSW, when asked ‘has the state branch of your union in the past two years worked on a campaign which involved working with community organisations?’ two-thirds said yes.1 In 2005, the Australian union movement’s campaign against a package of employer supported industrial reforms has seen the mainstreaming of community days of action, partnerships with community organisations and community coalitions as key features of union campaign strategy.

Despite the visibility of union-community coalitions, there is a dearth of theory that explains how and when union-community coalitions vary in their ability to build progressive social change. As Ellem and Shields describe with reference to theory of peak union councils, there is a need to understand how and when a union-community coalition’s power varies rather than simply hope that a ‘will to unity’ creates powerful alliances (Ellem 2004). Even more importantly for the purpose of union renewal, it is essential to understand when and how union-community coalitions enhance union power and create change in unions.

This paper aims to open up analysis of the viability of union-community coalitions by presenting a framework on how union-community coalitions vary in their practice, and how that variation in practice contributes to union power. This paper develops four labels to describe different types of union-community coalitions--ad hoc, simple, mutual-support and deep coalitions. These four coalition types are analysed as increasingly integrated and powerful forms. The four coalitions are discussed with reference to four factors - the common interest of the coalition, their structure, the organisational buy-in and the geographic space in which they act. I then consider the implications of these different union forms for the possibilities of union power (see Table 1).

Table 1: A framework of union-community coalitions

Ad hoc




Mutual-support Coalition

Deep Coalition

Common interest

  • Specific group’s agenda/issue/event
  • Can be initiated by union or community organisation

  • Specific group’s agenda/issue/event

  • Issue indiscriminate, no necessary connection to union members
  • Mutual direct interest of participating organisation

  • Issue framed as social vision for working people

Structure and strategy

  • Episodic engagement
  • Tactical not strategic engagement
  • Short-term coalition
  • Some formal shared decision making
  • Informal union dominance OR limited union engagement
  • Hasty, reactive engagement
  • Between organisations with different or similar political practice
  • Coalition includes leadership and officials
  • Joint decision making structure, trust
  • Mid-term focus and planning
  • Participating organisations have trust, similar culture/political practice
  • Decentralised structure, connections between union and community groups at membership level
  • Long term strategic plan to build power


Union participation

  • Instrumental engagement
  • Campaign distant from members

  • Union officials, campaign distant from union members
  • Rent-a-crowd
  • Union vision framed as ‘community’ issues
  • Some moblisations of members through union
  • Greater buy-in
  • Union actively engaging rank and file
  • Significant buy-in, financial resources


  • Any place

  • Coalition operating at same scale as decision makers
  • Effective longer term scale at site of decision maker

  • Mobilising capacity at several levels, including local

Union power is a commonly used yet weakly theorised term in industrial relations (Kelly 1998). Within union revitalisation literature, union power is used to refer to a variety of strategies--including the capacity to influence employers or the state, the ability to rebuild the movement capacity of unions and to increase union density (Kelly 1998; Nissen 1999; Turner 2004). Here I argue that unions increase their power, and thus their ability to influence the state and employers when they have the ability to mobilise their members as a movement as well as connect to other movements through powerful, interdependent coalitions.

This paper draws on literature and a series of structured interviews. These interviews were undertaken in the context of case study work on long term, coalitions in Sydney, Toronto and Chicago during 2005. These case studies aimed to establish how and when coalitions, as strategic agents, are most effective.

Ad hoc coalitions

The most common form of union-community coalition that unions engage in is an ad hoc, episodic coalition. These relationships involve one-off requests for support, such as invitations to participate in events (such as a picket line or a rally) or provisions of financial assistance. The coalition formed is a temporal one, lasting for the specific action at the heart of the relationship.

These short alliances are coloured by the party who initiates them--being dominated in form and strategy by the initiating community organisation or union (Fine 2003; Fine 2005). Common examples of union-initiated ad hoc coalitions are the (often last minute) requests for a community organisation to speak at a rally or come to a picket. Common examples of community-initiated ad hoc coalitions are requests for funding or endorsement that regularly pass over the desks of union leaders.

Ad hoc coalitions are limited by the simple and distant nature of their interaction. As Lipsig-Mumme notes, these relationships can be instrumental (Lipsig-Mumme 2003), where one organisation requests transactional support from another organisation on its own terms. These relationships do not involve joint decision making, merely a request to support a pre-existing strategy. The instrumental form of ad hoc relationships if repeated and one-sided can create animosity between partners, where community organisations feel used rather than an equal partner. For instance, in the US, the term ‘rent a collar’ has become a turn of phrase to describe ad hoc speaking requests from unions to the religious community (Anonymous author interview, Chicago Sept 2005). Ad hoc relationships between the religious community and unions are increasingly common in Australia, particularly during the 2005 Industrial Relations campaign. The distant nature of ad hoc interactions means that the relationship between union and community organisation is often very separate from the union membership, with the campaign often executed by union officials alone.

Ad hoc coalitions may create possibilities for further, stronger collaboration. They build relationships between different organisations, sustaining and feeding informal connections through one-off joint actions. The very existence of ad hoc coalitions signals the possibility of greater, longer, more powerful alignment between unions and community organisations. They are regularly a first step towards stronger collaboration. This was the case for the Teachers Federation, where a long standing ad hoc alliance called ‘Three Federations’ between parents and teachers later developed into the Public Education Alliance (Author interview, Maree O’Halloran, President, Teachers Federation, May 2005).

For unions, ad hoc coalitions provide a valuable tactical resource for power while not creating long term strategically powerful relationships. Ad hoc coalitions keep community organisations at arms length; they are not brought into campaign formulation nor treated as partners, they are often ‘told’ what to do (Anonymous author interview, Chicago Sept 2005). In the event of an immediate crisis, such as a lock out or strike, a union-initiated ad hoc coalition often provides a powerful route to victory. Community support at critical times supplies moral weight, a morale boost for union members and supportive media. Yet ad hoc coalitions do not of themselves create powerful strategic relationships. Rather, ad hoc coalitions create relationships between organisations which contain the possibility of greater connection and power.

Support Coalitions

Support coalitions operate as short-term, structured coalition between unions and community organisations. They transform the ‘temporary’ ad hoc coalition to a formal meeting space as a site for event and campaign planning.

Support coalitions allow for a closer integration of common interest and organisational buy-in through a more cohesive structure. In terms of common interest, support coalitions share features with ad hoc coalitions, as the issues and interests at the heart of the coalition tend to derive from a single organisation’s agenda, rather than be shared across the group. In addition, support coalitions tend to be organised around single issues, and continue only while that issue is in contention (Banks 1992). Examples vary widely and include NSW based coalitions such as the Save Medicare Alliance, the Walk against the War Coalition, each being defined by a specific issue as a common concern.

Support coalitions are categorised by a formal structure, which allows organisations to connect and share strategy. Features such as face to face meetings and ongoing communication (through email lists, telephone trees or fax streams) allows for shared decision making between the partners (Banks 1992). Although support coalitions are short-term, joint decision making processes, they allow for some sharing of the planning process. However, this formal joint ownership is often mitigated by the informal dominance of decision making by the initiating organisation (Fine 2003). If the coalition is union-initiated it will often be dominated by unions, with unions exercising both formal and informal influence over the type of action taken (Waterman 1991; Munck 1999). If the coalition is community-initiated, it will probably struggle to get significant participation from unions, with unions often sending junior staff as coalition participants (Clawson 2003). This was certainly the case with the Walk against the War Coalition in NSW in 2003; while it had strong representation from over 15 unions, the representatives tended to be mid-ranking staff members not elected or executive officials.

Short-term, reactive support coalitions tend to limit their operation to the scale of decision makers (Lipsig-Mumme 2003). For instance, if a campaign is organised against a State Government, the coalition will concentrate on shifting the Government as a whole at the scale of the state, not acting at a more local or regional level. Limiting a coalition to a single scale makes it difficult for support coalitions to deeply engage the members of participant organisations. Union and community organisation members tend to be used as a force of defiance, such as through centrally organised rallies, rather than having meaningful ownership over locally lead campaigns. Support coalitions use participation organisations to mobilise support for short-term goals, rather than working with those organisations to sustain campaigns that achieve long term shifts in power relations.

Consequently, support coalitions struggle to build deep organisational participation--participation remains one-sided, dominated by the initiating organisation. While union involvement in community-initiated support coalitions usefully provides coalition campaigns with greater financial resources, leverage or influence (Tattersall 2004), they often incompletely engage the resources or capacity of unions. Conversely, a union-initiated support coalition often makes demands on community organisations they are less able to satisfy, for instance demanding mass turn-outs for demonstration, when they are more capable of delivering supportive media or information distribution (Anonymous author interview with union official, Sydney May 2005).

Support coalitions are staged on any issue, and consequently there is little regard to the types of issues that more readily politicise union members. Often a support coalition will not directly engage union members, as the issue may be disconnected to union member’s lives, experiences or concerns. Furthermore, reliance on a coalition structure limits decision making to officials, tending to exclude union delegates or members from meaningful involvement (Clawson 2003). The narrowness of participation makes it difficult to spark locally based organising amongst union members inside unions on community issues.

Support coalitions are effective at coordinating organisations for a reactive, single-issue campaign, but they struggle to sustain mass-based engagement. Decision making is concentrated in the coalition form, which allows for co-ordination by an array of organisations. However the issue specificity and narrow organisational dominance of decision making often limits their longevity and effectiveness.

For unions, support coalitions may provide a source of power but they can also operate as a relatively superficial form of solidarity. Union-centred support coalitions allow partner community organisations to take ownership over union struggles. The formal organisational proximity of community-centred support coalitions creates a space where community organisations are more likely to harness the resources of unions. Yet because there is an insufficient commitment to the coalition’s common interest (by either unions or community), organisation involvement, sustained mobilisation and coalition effectiveness are mitigated. Union-centred support coalitions insufficiently engage community organisation support, and community-centred support coalitions do not deeply engage unions. A deeper form of engagement by unions and community organisations occurs when the common interest between organisations is mutual--in mutual-support coalitions.

Mutual-Support Coalitions

A mutual-support coalition expands the capacity of support coalitions by extending the frame of common interest and deepening the form of decision making and union engagement within the coalition.

Mutual-support coalitions deepen the common interest of a support coalition, so the issue at the heart of the campaign is in the mutual self-interest of the participating organisations, not simply the direct concern of one of the parties. This makes it more likely that each of the participating groups has a direct interest in the success of the coalition, because the coalition’s success supports its direct organisational and political aims. The need for joint direct interest means that the ‘issue’ at the heart of the coalition is often drawn broadly. For example, rather than the aim of the coalition being to ‘demand a salary rise for childcare workers’ it may demand ‘better quality of childcare.’ This expanded issue frame allows different organisations to see their personal interest within the coalition’s common interest.

The mutual common interest of these coalitions flows over to create a close knit structure and strategy, generating stronger bonds of trust between coalition partners. The mutuality of interest becomes a vehicle for sharing decision making between the groups. The coalition becomes a space for negotiating demands to ensure each group has their specific concerns addressed. While the issue at the heart of the campaign may be drawn broadly, negotiation between coalition partners allows for the specific organisational concerns of each group to be incorporated into the coalition’s activities. Trust is more easily exchanged between partners with common goals (Tuffs 1998; Nissen 1999; Nissen 2003). Trust can also be expanded through the participation of individual bridge-builders who have experiences in both community organisations and unions, who can help translate contrasting cultural practices (Estabrook 2000; Rose 2000). A flat coalitional structure is able to effectively harness the contrasting power sources of community organisations and unions (Fine 2003). For instance, a mutual-support coalition may harness a union’s capacity to mobilise, a community organisation’s relationship with Government and another community organisation’s voice in the media. Sharing decision making and strategy allows mutual-support coalitions to share power.

The deeper bonds between partners in a mutual-support coalition may narrow the terms of organiational participation. Mutual-support coalitions may be exclusive, because a higher threshold of trust is required (Lipsig-Mumme 2003). Mutual support coalitions are more likely to develop between organisations with long preceding informal relationships or organisations with similar cultural practices, where predictability and reciprocity are more likely to be achieved. Rather than hoping organisations will ‘buy-in’, a mutual-support coalition is more likely to operate by hand-picking partner organisations that satisfy a standard of trust, commitment to the issue or capacity to mobilise people. This was the case with the NSW Public Education Alliance. The alliance was a relatively narrow alliance of ‘parents, principals and teachers’, only including groups that were directly connected to schools. This tight connection was an advantage, as the depth of engagement in the issue deeply connected to each organisation’s strategic interest (Author interviews, anonymous representatives Public Education Alliance, March-April 2005)

A mutual-support coalition places specific demands on unions. The broadening of common interest within a mutual-support coalition requires a union’s leadership to consciously transform how it frames its issues, connecting the union to a community movement. There is a need for the union leadership to recognise the union as a social actor not just a bargaining agent. This transition may be easier for unions already connected to the ‘community’ through the kind of work performed by their members, such as public sector unions (Johnston 1994), or in service delivery, where the work of union members directly affects members of the general public (Walsh 2000). In general, a mutual-support coalition compels union leaders to open up a union’s vision to express their demands as community concerns beyond the ‘pure and simple’ language of wages and conditions (Rose 2000).

Indeed, mutual-support coalitions may require unions to exercise more discretion before committing to a campaign and may not be a viable strategy for all unions. The threshold of direct common interest requires more than an altruistic concern for an issue. It demands that an issue directly connect to the material concerns and needs of the union’s membership, such as when teachers campaign for public education funding. If there is not an easy connection between the issue and the union’s members, it may be difficult for a union to effectively engage in this deeper form of coalition partnership. This threshold may be achieved more easily if there is a high level of union education (Anonymous author interview, Toronto Nov 2004), or a history of militancy or radicalism in the union, but it will overwhelmingly be affected by the concerns and needs of the union members and how they connect to the issue. For instance, while the NSW Teachers Federation has an intensive union education campaign and a history of militant social justice unionism, the community union campaign that has most significant mobilised union members has been their public education campaigns (Multiple anonymous author interviews, Sydney Dec 2004-April 2005).

A consequence of mutual support coalition’s engagement of union member’s direct interest means that it is easier to activate and mobilise union members in a mutual-support coalition. The direct connection between coalition campaign and member concern provides a greater incentive to see an outcome on the issue. This increased capacity for union mobilisation increases the strength of the coalition, providing it with greater movement power (Nissen 2003).

There is a further level of coalition practice that opens up the levels of member participation, increasing the capacity of a coalition to achieve power at different scales of decision making. I call these deep coalitions.

Deep Coalitions

Coalitions are usually defined by their breadth--breadth of common interest and breadth of organisational diversity. A deep coalition supplements that breadth with a depth of organisational support. This depth creates an increased capacity to mobilise union/community organisation members. Deep coalitions are a powerful coalition form, and also a site of union renewal--to achieve deep participation, unions must open up spaces for member participation and engagement, enhancing the union’s movement capacity.

Deep coalitions increase participation by supporting a more complex organisational structure that can operate at a variety of scales. Scale is a concept used by labour geographers to understand how power is constituted and created by the place in which it operates (Sadler 2004). Political power and corporate power are constituted by place. Political power operates at both at the scale of Government and the scale of local electorates, having both state and local dimensions. Corporate power, while often categorised by capital’s mobility can often be constrained by the local, such as in human service work or mining where there is a capital-fix that ties capital to a specific local place (Walsh 2000; Ellem 2003; Ellem 2003). Furthermore, the local can be a site for resistance for unions and community-union coalitions (Jonas 1998); it is at the local where people live, work and can directly participate in decisions and action (Wills 2004).

Deep coalitions move beyond mutual support coalitions by opening up decision making structures; instead of relying on only one coalition structure they facilitate action at a variety of scales. While a coalition may operate as the key decision maker between organisations, deep coalitions also resource, support and encourage action and connection between unions and community groups at the membership level. This decentralised structure is critical for allowing individual union and community organisation members to participate in decision making (De Martino 1999; Clawson 2003). Local decision making structures may include internal union structures, such as regional delegate councils, or local union-community structures such as electorate wide or regionally based lobby groups. This opening up process deepens the connection between the union-community campaign and union members, creating possibilities for enhanced campaign power and also for union change. Coalitions are often limited by their narrow engagement of union and community organisation leaders, not members (Clawson 2003). Effective, deep coalitions occur when unions move away from relying only on hierarchically based decision making and meaningfully engage their membership in coalition activity (Moody 1997; Nissen 1999).

Deep coalitions require unions to create spaces for membership participation. This may occur by unions engaging their members in social questions through education programs, increasing the ability of members to take action through skill development, or supporting union delegates taking autonomous action through locally decision making structures (Waterman 2001). To organise local power unions may supplement union member participation with locally-based union-community coalitions (Jonas 1998). The effect is that a deep coalition builds the capacity to mobilise large numbers of rank and file members at the same time as building the connection between the union and local communities.

Deep coalitions are also categorised by a deeper union engagement in the central coalition. Nissen argues that union participation in a coalition is a central determinant of its success (Nissen 1999; Nissen 2003; Nissen 2004). He argues that buy-in is evidenced by a union’s willingness to mobilise in support of the campaign, the seniority and number of members or officials it gets involved in the coalitions decision making structure and its willingness to provide financial resources.

Deep coalitions are a powerful form of coalition practice. They facilitate long-term relationships between unions and community organisations, where the breadth of activity between groups is complemented by a depth of activity by participating organisations.

Deep coalitions are also powerful for the power and impact they have on unions. They not only create powerful strategic relationships that enhance union power but require a process of union renewal to occur. To act with depth, unions must shift decision making power from union leaders to union members in order to be able to act at a variety of scales. A coalition can be deep only if unions firstly, commit their leadership to reaching out to external organisations, secondly shift their frame of vision to community-wide concerns, and thirdly empower their own delegates and members to meaningfully engage in the campaign. Deep coalition practice seeks to return trade unionism to its movement origins (Nissen 2003).


This paper argues that union-community coalitions vary in structure and thus effectiveness, and that these variations have flow on effects for union power. The different coalition categories developed in the paper are overviewed in Table One. While these categories are distinct, they must not be seen as prescriptive descriptors. One coalition is not ‘bad’ and another ‘good’. Instead they explain how the coalition form is variable, and that a deeper engagement between unions and community organisations creates more effective, long term, powerful alliances for lasting social change and enhanced union power.

Union-community coalitions are a feature of union renewal. This framework seeks to draw out different forms of coalition practice, and explain how those variations affect the power of particular coalitions. This is critically important for reflections on the significance of this tactic for union renewal. An implication of the paper is that while the practice of union-community coalitions is an indicator of renewal, not all coalitions are equal in how they effect change, build social power or create power for unions.

For unions to engage in deep coalitions and truly harness the capacity of union-community coalitions they must also engage in a process of internal change. While union-community coalitions may be a feature of union renewal, to be effective they require unions to change themselves. Deep coalitions require unions to committing to shared decision making and sharing power with community partners, shifting their frame of vision, and the increasing the capacity for membership engagement and involvement. Coalitions are not of themselves a silver bullet for a successful campaign.

This paper has attempted to build a conceptual framework to help explain how union-community coalitions provide a mechanism to create both powerful campaigns and powerful unions, to deepen our understanding of how union engagement with union-community coalitions can create both powerful social change and more powerful unions.


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Primary Research


Survey of union branches affiliated to Unions NSW distributed in February 2005. Survey population was 53 union branches, and 24 responses were collected. Response rate was 46%. Survey’s were completed by Union Secretary or appointed senior member of staff. Question 28 asked ‘has the state branch of your union in the past two years worked on a campaign which involved working with community organisations? Of 24 respondents, 16 responded yes.


Anonymous author interview, Toronto Nov 2004.

Multiple anonymous author interviews, Sydney Dec 2004-May 2005.

Author interview, Maree O’Halloran, President, Teachers Federation, May 2005.

Anonymous author interview, Sydney May 2005.

Anonymous author interview, Chicago Sept 2005.


1 Survey of affiliates of Unions NSW. Survey population was 53 union branches, and 24 responses collected. Response rate was 46%. Survey distributed in February 2005. Survey’s were completed by Union Secretary or appointed senior member of staff.

About the Author

Amanda Tattersall is a Doctoral Student at the University of Sydney completing a PhD on Community Unionism. She is also an Officer at Unions NSW and an experienced union and community organiser and maintains the website