Building coalitions to create mass movements: Lessons from the Ontario Health Coalition

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Social movement campaigners rarely get the chance to write up their own history. But in a new internationally comparative book on labour-community coalitions -- called Power in Coalition -- the successful strategies of Canada's Ontario Health Coalition (OHC) take centre stage. The OHC is one of three coalitions whose campaigns are documented as part of a grounded study of what makes community-based coalitions successful and what makes them fail.

It's a good time to reflect on the power and possibilities of these coalitions given the current challenges faced by progressive politics in Canada. Weak leadership from centre-left party politics invite community-based movements to increasingly play a role in setting the agenda for public debate. Yet, social movements themselves have been struggling to build a progressive agenda beyond specific mobilizations and issue-based organizing.

The Ontario Health Coalition's experience is instructive, given that it has sustained relationships between a diverse array of unions and community organizations over the past 16 years. Part of its success lies in its defense of Medicare -- a Canadian national icon. But its longevity is equally attributable to its development of sophisticated movement-building strategies that allow it to span the province of Ontario.

The OHC's most distinctive strategy is its ability to create a movement that is simultaneously local and provincial. It is what I call a multi-scaled coalition, where it has both a provincial steering committee supplemented by local town and city based coalition partners scattered across the province.

This multi-scaled structure is embedded in a generation of social movement campaigns that pre-dated the OHC. The health coalition learned from the Days of Action of the 1990s and its strategy of regional mobilization. The practice of building permanent town-based health groups began the late 1990s, when the Harris government's privatization threats led to the opportunity of a province-wide study into the state of health care. As the study was conducted, wise organizers built local health coalitions while engaging regional communities in a conversation about the crisis in health care. This gave birth to a movement that could move an agenda in local towns as well as across the province.

Building local coalitions turned the challenge of Ontario's expansive geography into a strength. Organizers realized that provincial political influence could not be organized in Toronto alone, so it built a structure to match the complexity of the province. These local coalitions in turn have spurned a variety of different tactics in the fight to defend public healthcare.

In response to the 2001 Romanow Royal Commission into Medicare, the OHC worked with local coalitions to coordinate a mass support campaign to Save Medicare. They translated the traditional techniques of electoral campaigning to an issue based campaign, and coordinated a canvas that went door-to-door across the province, organized by local activists town-by-town. A province-wide assembly of community leaders signed off on a strategy that was then implemented locally, where teams of union and community activists hatched plans to raise awareness through media stunts and coordinate door-knocking and petition signing in their neighborhoods.

By acting locally through a co-ordinated province-wide campaign, the OHC was able to collect over 250,000 signatures in defense on Medicare. This public pressure, sustained over an eight-month campaign, was responsible for the Royal Commission's positive embrace of Medicare, pushing back the pressure to privatize.

For the OHC, this robust coalition structure built a platform for tactical innovation. When public-private-partnerships began to loom large in late 2002 with the proposed P3 hospital in Brampton, the coalition could experiment with a different kind of multi-scaled campaigning. At first, the OHC was able to build a local movement in Brampton led by retired teachers, union activists and members of the Council of Canadians. This was then supplemented by provincial supporters who joined a large mobilization in the town. But the coalition could also zoom out and build awareness about P3s by holding events and activities in dozens of other towns.

Later in 2005 the OHC's local coalitions provided opportunities for another creative strategy -- plebiscites - community-initiated referenda. By then, the health coalition knew it was struggling to maintain momentum against public-private-partnerships while also being aware that most communities remained hostile to the idea of health care privatization. So, to capitalize on this conjuncture it developed a strategy where local health coalitions could run a community vote on whether their local hospital should stay in public hands or be subject to a public-private-partnership. The referenda provided an opportunity for mass awareness raising, participation and engagement in a campaign and hundreds of conversations about health care. But it was only possible because a hub of local activists in towns as diverse as Niagara-on-the-Lake, Thunder Bay and Hamilton could initiate and co-ordinate these popular votes.

Local health coalitions have been a critical plank to the power of this coalition, as they have created spaces to build and co-ordinate mass mobilization through local organization. Unlike rallies, which can have a transitory impact on public debate, the local coalitions have been an organizational anchor that have built different local campaigns while also being a space for training and developing community leaders who can strategize, plan and execute powerful social movement action.

While these local coalitions have set the OHC apart, in my research into coalition strategies across three countries, I have found them to be a strategy that can travel. In Australia, a public education coalition** similarly set up local public education lobbies of teachers, parents and school principles who organized locally in partnership with a centrally co-ordinated Inquiry into public education. The very successful 2005-2007 Your Rights at Work campaign in Australia learnt from the OHC's experiences when it began to build local union committees in marginal electorates (ridings) to complement centrally coordinated rallies. Similarly, the 2008 Obama Presidential campaign harnessed the power of multi-scaled campaigning, where it gave networks of volunteers the freedom to determine how to build a get out the vote effort -- in stark contrast to the traditional command and control strategies that have previously characterized U.S. electoral campaigning.

It takes a lot of reflection and innovation to sustain a coalition over 16 years and that is exactly what we have seen from the large team of committed staff, volunteers and organizational leaders across the Ontario Health Coalition. They have learned from their successes and their mistakes, and the book identifies some of the trials and tribulations encountered by a multi-scaled coalition.

Thanks to the OHC's open-minded creativity, coalition organizers in Canada and across the world can learn from this coalition's experimentation. Multi-scaled coalition organizing can inspire other coalitions to identify new possibilities for how they too can build mass participation in coalitions and reinvigorate our social movements so we can deliver on the promise of progressive politics to improve the lives of the majority.

Amanda Tattersall is an Australian union and community organizer, and currently an elected official at Unions NSW (central labor council in Sydney Australia). She has been active in Australia's student movement and immigrant rights movement, the co-founder and chair of GetUp.org.au (Australian sister organization to MoveOn.org) and the founder and director of the Sydney Alliance, a broad based coalition of 28 religious organizations, unions and community organizations. She is the author of Power in Coalition: strategies for strong unions and social change published by Cornell University Press and Allen &Unwin. The book was launched in Toronto on Sept. 7, 2010.

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