BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - Collaboration between community organizations and unions is widespread, but such partnerships come with their own set of challenges. A new study released by researchers at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the University of Illinois, however, analyzed field data to identify and showcase ways community organizations mitigate any drawbacks to the partnership, which can lead to more fruitful and successful collaborations.
The article, “Sustaining the grassroots: How community organizations mitigate the downsides of collaborating with unions,” was recently published in the Journal of Urban Affairs. Using survey data from the National Study of Community Organizing and interview data from community-labor coalitions in Chicago, St. Louis, and Denver, the researchers looked at three strategies—shaping campaigns, rationing participation, or not participating—community organizations use to deal with the downsides that come with the collaboration.
“Community-based advocacy organizations and labor unions often seek similar social outcomes, but they differ in how they are organized and how they seek to influence public policy,” said Brad Fulton, an associate professor at the O’Neill School and lead author of the study. “The former organize people through communities and neighborhoods and they implement a strong ground game. The latter organize people through their workplace, and they implement a strong ‘air game.’ By working together, they can increase their impact. However, such collaborations can have downsides. This research examines those downsides and how to address them.”
The study also showed that there is a need to consider how partnerships between unions and community organizations impact and change each collaborator in the long-term, in both positive and negative ways, even after the partnership comes to an end. For instance, the ability of community organizers to engage elected officials on behalf of workers and unions has led to policy changes that have helped, and sometimes hindered, both sides of the equation.
“Collaborations tend to be presented as ‘all good’,” Fulton said. “They do produce a lot of good, but it’s important to be aware of the potential downsides and address them early on. Collaborations can be more effective and sustainable if the potential downsides are known and addressed from the beginning.”
Fulton will continue to study the benefits and drawbacks of community-labor coalitions through his Observing Civic Engagement project, an ongoing effort that uses systematic social observation to collect data on organizations’ internal dynamic and to understand how those dynamics influence organizational outcomes.