Advocacy: Institutional Power, Public Services, Good Policy

There are many political issues beyond the immediate realm of workplace labour relations that profoundly impact the lives of working people and the power of labour unions and for which workers’ organisations advocate. At its heart, political advocacy is about competing ideas and visions about how our societies and economies are to be governed. As citizens, workers are involved in the politics of their cities, regions, and countries. In democracies, they participate in elections to see that their interests and concerns are represented and acted upon at all levels of government. Obviously, the composition of legislative bodies and governments at all levels sets the stage for these and other advocacy efforts, including the possibility of stable or even institutionalized avenues of influence. Political advocacy can therefore be targeted on electoral campaigns, i.e., for the promotion of labour causes in elections as well as for particular candidates and political parties. But workers’ electoral decisions are complex and their votes are not determined by their status as workers or as union members alone. Thus, while unions do have a role in electoral campaigns and will obviously educate their members on the issues at hand, let us focus here on political advocacy outside of elections, i.e., on policy advocacy.

What is Policy Advocacy?

  • pushing long-term, sustainable problem-solving policy solutions in the interest of workers and unions;
  • informing and influencing political decision-makers at all levels of government, including legislators, elected members of the executive as well as un-elected members of government bureaucracies;
  • focusing on rule-making as well as on rule-enforcement.

Often, workers’ organisations’ policy advocacy will take the form of campaigns targeted on decision-makers at different levels of government to affect political, legislative, regulatory, or policy change (including strengthening or defending the institutional power of workers and unions). Examples of this are campaigns for a national minimum wage, for the ratification of ILO conventions, for or against certain clauses in free trade agreements under negotiation, for changes in tax policies, for local ordinances concerning the use of public spaces etc. Thus, we will occasionally point to relevant elements of the “campaigning and organizing” chapter of this Tool Kit. But key aspects of policy advocacy like lobbying elected politicians, bureaucrats, service providers, and other decision-makers, are only rarely part of union campaigns. Moreover, various aspects of policy advocacy, from letter-writing to petitions, mass demonstrations and other events, can be organized independently and outside of the context of a comprehensive campaign.

Workers’ and unions’ policy advocacy begin by the selection of relevant issues and the development of reasoned arguments for policies or actions in the pursuit, or defense of, progressive social change. While corporations leave their advocacy mostly to professional lobbyists, for unions the key for effective advocacy is the involvement of members and workers.


This chapter on Policy Advocacy provides materials, tools and activities that will help you develop an advocacy plan for your situation.

Objectives of advocacy: Institutional power, public goods, good policy

Laws and regulations at all levels of government, as well as their enforcement, affect workers and their unions. Generally speaking, collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) and other labor-management agreements establish wages and working conditions above and beyond legally binding minimum standards and rights. Especially where CBAs do not exist, workers often rely heavily on laws and regulations to protect them. The Power Resources Approach conceptualizes these legal rights and standards as workers’ institutional power.

Ideally, institutional power will protect workers even if their structural, associational and societal powers are weak. But in reality, institutional power is neither automatic nor stable: As it embodies the struggles of the past and may erode, it needs to be fought for. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic has not only led to wage cuts but in some places, it has also been used to take away workers’ occupational health and safety rights and their right to strike. Economic crises such as the Euro-crisis have been used to dismantle collective bargaining systems. In fact, the quality, reach, and enforcement of legal minimum standards is quite uncertain and this is a concern for all workers, in the formal and informal economies alike. In other instances, institutional power may be insufficient or even absent. Particular workers, or new forms of economic activities, may not be covered by labor law. Their institutional power needs to be established first.

Moreover, coverage and enforcement of laws and regulations are also a concern for workers’ unions and other bodies of employee representation such as works councils, as they govern not only individual workers’ rights to organize and strike, for example, but also their collective rights and the rights of the organizations they form, first and foremost unions.

Defending and increasing institutional power is a goal of unions’ political advocacy campaigns, in part because institutional power is often the basis upon which further advances can be made. In India, for example, the National Alliance of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) was formed in order to push for a National Policy on Urban Street Vendors and subsequently for the Street Vendors Bill (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending). NASVI presented its concerns before the responsible Parliamentary Standing Committee on Urban Development, organized a huge Rehri Patri Sansad, or street vendors’ parliament, as well as an event called »Dialogue of Street Vendors with Political Leaders and Civil Society Representatives to Convert Street Vendors’ Bill into Act« in Delhi. In addition, the street vendors across states again sent thousands of letters to the president of the ruling party and chairperson of the ruling coalition urging her to ensure the passage of the bill. After their passage, these legal frameworks not only secured street vendors’ institutional power but also provided tangible incentives to street vendors to organize themselves further and engage in the post-enactment fight: Implementation of the law in the Indian states and its enforcement require additional advocacy which members are now taking up at the state level. In short, associational and societal power paved the way for establishing institutional power, which now helps to build further associational power, which in turn helps expanding institutional power (cf. xx,

Concern about workers’ and unions’ institutional power is not the only reason why a closer look at governments at all levels is warranted. The state has a fundamental role in providing and securing public services for its citizens.  Public services entail much of the physical and social infrastructure that workers and their families rely upon: roads and train tracks, housing, communication, clean air and water, education, health care, social security etc. Neoliberalism has discredited the notion that the state has the primary responsibility to provide public services such as the essential physical and social infrastructure, which has led to deregulation and privatization. Despite the exclusionary nature of many private solutions, e.g., due to high prices, the diminished societal power of workers providing public goods has put them and their unions on the defensive. Unions fighting against privatization are often discredited as selfish special interests.

This uphill battle to reclaim the state’s role in providing and securing public services has resulted in the development of creative bargaining strategies (for example by US teachers’ unions: “Bargaining for the common good”) and policy advocacy campaigns such as the Quality Public Services campaign by Public Services International (PSI) and other Global Union Federations which fights against privatization and austerity and pushes for fair taxation and strong public services. Alliances between public and private sector trade unions, municipal governments and various civil society and community organizations are key for their success (cf. section 8 on building alliances). In fact, in some countries, the tide may finally be turning towards a renewed support for public services because of fundamental crises such as the dramatic shortage in affordable housing.

In addition to debates about public services, many if not most local, regional and nationwide decisions about policy affect workers and their unions in one way or the other, even if they do not immediately concern power resources or the workplace. Take the contentious issue of free trade, for example. The exact impact of the inevitable structural economic changes following from increased free trade on workers and their communities depend on intricate policy details, in the trade agreement or legislation and beyond. Are there funds for re-training measures in case jobs are lost as a consequence of increased trade or off-shoring? Is there an industrial policy designed to boost important sectors of the economy in the face of international competition? Does the free trade agreement protect the environment? Open the newspaper on any day and you will find numerous policy debates that affect, directly or indirectly, workers’ lives: Taxes, war, immigration, crime, climate change, police reform … the list goes on.

Objectives of union policy advocacy

  • Establish new institutions and policies that benefit workers;
  • Improve on existing institutions and policies and/or;
  • Challenge proposed or existing policies and regulations that impact negatively on workers and unions.

Beyond lobbying – the Power of rank-and-file advocacy

How to organise policy advocacy? The most commonly known form of policy advocacy is probably lobbying, the direct access to politicians and bureaucrats. For many workers, lobbying has a bad name because it is dominated by powerful professional organizations representing corporations, business organizations, and wealthy individuals. It is also directly linked to the aforementioned electoral process and the role of money therein. Financial and other campaign contributions often seem to translate into privileged access to political decision-makers for the representatives of the rich and powerful. But, first, when unions and workers engage in lobbying, it is certainly a legitimate form of influencing decision-makers. And second, while lobbying is a necessary element, policy advocacy does not have to end there. Workers and unions can also have their own privileged access – to the general public, to the majority of voters, to communities, precisely because many if not most people share their concerns. The challenge is to leverage this power.

As do most corporations, business associations, and employer organizations, some unions and labor federations also employ professional lobbyists, albeit at a much smaller scale and most often in-house. Because of the complexities of political, legislative, implementation and enforcement processes concerning policy issues, professional lobbyists are sometimes needed, as are union lawyers who understand legislative and administrative processes, who can track legislation, write and scrutinize legal texts, develop and frame policy arguments, profit from established relationships to policy experts and the media etc. But while a union’s lobbying presence in the respective nation’s capital, for example, is legitimate and useful, it cannot overcome the tremendous financial and organizational advantages of the business lobby. The involvement of the unions’ rank-and-file, the members and workers in general, including their families and communities, is crucial in the process of reaching and convincing political decision-makers. There is strength in numbers and a widened base.

Thus, advocacy has to be organized appropriately to develop, discuss and enact creative approaches. In turn, effective policy advocacy can be a crucial element of union organizing and campaigning, for example serving to put additional pressure on employers (compare the materials on campaign strategy to see the interlinkages). The feasibility and effectiveness of such rank-and-file advocacy is contingent on a number of elements and steps. This is what we will turn to next.

Preparing policy advocacy

Policy advocacy is about pushing long-term, sustainable problem-solving policy solutions in the interest of workers and unions. In order to prepare and build our effective rank-and-file advocacy, we begin by asking a number of basic questions.

Questions for preparing policy advocacy

  • What are the main laws or regulations governing the issues you want to address through policy advocacy? What do you want to change or defend?
  • Which bodies of government have jurisdiction over these issues? Who makes decisions on these issues and when?
  • How do you organise policy advocacy in your union? Who is responsible and how can rank-and-file input and participation be organized?
  • Who else among the citizens or civil society organizations is affected by the issues you want to address?
  • How do you communicate your demands – to decision-makers and to the public?
  • How do you make sure that the policy you advocated for is actually implemented?
  • How do you make sure that lessons learned help to organize policy advocacy in the future?

It is not necessary to have all the answers at the outset of your policy advocacy. The questions will be addressed along the way. In the following, we will discuss six steps for organizing effective rank-and-file policy advocacy:

  • Identifying issues [link]
  • Driving/managing the advocacy in the union:Committees and mandates
  • Research [link]: Pressure points
  • Building Alliances [link]
  • Developing Proposals and Messages [link]
  • Informing and pressuring decision-makers [link]

Identifying issues

While many if not most government decisions will ultimately affect, either directly or indirectly, workers and their families, communities and workplaces, obviously all policy issues cannot be addressed. This is a question of resources, especially time and money, and also a question of political preferences. For most issues, members will probably not see the need for the union to get involved. On many remaining issues, members’ positions may be too diverse to agree on a common strategy. Thus, most often policy advocacy will be focused on a pressing issue, one that directly and immediately affects workers and their livelihoods. More often than not, the need for advocacy will arise because of a corporate or conservative attack on policies or regulations that benefit workers.

In cities like Dakar, Senegal, or Dhaka, Bangladesh, informal economy workers and even their organizations often lack the power to effect change, which is why they cooperate with each other and with trade unions. The challenge is then to identify common interests and concerns and not to be sidetracked by disagreements. For example, the most pressing policy issues for street vendors and day laborers are the lack of social protection and the corruption of government officials. Progressive policies in these areas will help all involved.

The union may also legitimately consider advocacy on issues of primary concern to the union, for example to build or defend the union’s, or the workers’, institutional power. Governments such as the Brazilian have limited the extent and reach of CBAs, for example. In any case, make sure that the advocacy is grounded in the concerns of the members and workers.

Clearly, it should neither be assumed at the outset of organizing policy advocacy what the joint position of the members and workers is. Verbal and written surveys can serve to identify salient issues for advocacy and the position of individuals. You may use tools such as Survey King or Thought Exchange for digital surveys or more classical tools such as phone surveys or questions asked in meetings. Moderated discussions, focus groups and consensus-building exercises can help develop forceful positions that mobilize members and workers. Consult the materials on participatory action research and on goal setting to help you in researching issues and developing a collective consensus around clear, realistic and measurable goals regarding the legislation or policy you may want to introduce, support or fight against (Analysing Power Resources, Participatory Action Research)

Helpful criteria for identifying issues for advocacy

Have a good chance of success
The problem must not be so large and insurmountable that there will be no successes to report at the end of the campaign.

Be widely felt
The issue must be relevant to the great majority of members and potential members and there must be widespread agreement about the solution proposed.

Be deeply felt
The issue must be something that people feel very strongly about.

Be consistent with your values, priorities and strategic plans
The issue must be consistent with your union’s values and reflect its priorities and plans.


Adapted from the PSI Tool Kit "Campaigning for a Fairer World" [link]

Driving/managing the advocacy in the union: Committees and mandates

Once the issue identified and goals formulated, determine how the union organises the process of policy advocacy. Here it is advisable:

  • To form committees that are responsible for organising the advocacy work and accomplishing specific tasks (Committees);
  • To clarify mandates to specify the parameters of the committee (Mandates);
  • To make a strategic plan (Strategic planningCalendars):
  • To determine available budgets;
  • To inform members regularly and allow for feedback, consultation and, eventually,
  • To adapt strategy (Evaluation).


“Knowledge is too important to be left in the hands of the Bosses” Labour Research Service, South Africa

Research in the context of policy advocacy has two elements: Firstly, research on the policy issue in question and secondly, research on the decision-makers and on when and how to influence them. We will address the first element of research under section 9 Proposals and Messages [link].

Research on influencing decision-makers has several elements:

  • Identifying institutions and decision-makers;
  • Identifying supporters, opponents, and fence-sitters;
  • Identifying direct and indirect pressure-points.
  • Knowing the decision-making process and its timeframe;


Finding the institution and then the person or persons who actually make the decisions on any given issue is as crucial in the realm of politics as it is in the corporate arena, and the complexities of overlapping responsibilities and jurisdictions can be equally daunting. The identification of the appropriate level or levels, or agencies, of government depends on the respective political system – centralized government or federalism, for example – and the respective political process: legislation, other forms of rule-making, administration. Once the appropriate level of government has been identified, the first feasible step of policy advocacy is often contacting a friend of labor and requesting guidance on the details of the decision-making process and its timeframe. This is certainly easier in political systems with some form of institutionalized participation of labor movement representatives in decision-making (“corporatism”). But even where corporatist arrangements or other forms of institutionalized advocacy are missing, there will at least be some elected, appointed or career officials with ties to labor.

Scouting the political landscape and the political opportunity structure is next: Who are supporters, opponents, and undecided fence-sitters regarding labor’s position on the respective issue? The answer to this question decides where the application of pressure may be needed, or where the indication of labor’s support may suffice to solidify the position.

At its heart, the subsequent research on decision-makers is similar to the strategic research in union bargaining and organizing campaigns. In other words, pressure may be applied directly and indirectly. You will want to know who is elected and when. What were the recent elections like and what are projections for future elections? Are there blocks of voters you need to know more about? Information is often available through legal public reporting requirements. In general, the visibility of politicians – less so of bureaucrats – in today’s media and social media environment facilitates the research on available pressure points. The whole of the network of relationships of the decision-makers in question should be scrutinized. Consult the materials on Vertical Mapping and Participatory Action Research for the identification of key relationships of the targeted decision-makers and their leveraging for indirect pressure (Targets)

Questions on decision-makers

  • Who has the power to make the change you want?
  • What is his/her interest and key relationships?
  • Who will be the easiest to persuade to support you?
  • When and where do you need to intervene? Where are decisions taken (informally, formally)?
  •  Who are your allies? Who could be your active supporters?
  •  Who will actively oppose you?
  •  Who are you trying to reach? Elected officials? Civil servants, media people, the public at large, members of the business community? Trade union members? Social movements? International organizations?

[From the PSI Tool Kit "Campaigning for a Fairer World" link]

Try to construct a decision-making map that affects the issue or problem on which your advocacy is focusing. Once this is complete and you have a clear idea where decisions are being made, by whom, and when, highlight where there are opportunities to influence the process and when these are likely to occur.

For each key decision-maker you have identified, brainstorm a list of of organisations, entities and individuals who influence them. 

Place the influencing entities in the diagram below according to the strength of their influence and whether they are likely to have a positive or negative influence on the decision maker.

Once you have completed the diagram, discuss the 3-5 most important influencing entities for each key decision maker and plan how and when you can make contact with or impact them.


Adapted from the NDI tool kit Policy Development and Policy Advocacy, %20Workbook_EN.pdf]]

Power mapping. Pressure points in decision-making processes

The key to identifying opportunities for influence in decision-making processes is to map them out. In each step of the process, the players who are making or influencing decisions change. In additional to the formal decision-making process, there is an informal process of information and ideas gathering that begins before the official bodies responsible for overseeing the matter begin to act (and that continues parallel to the formal process). For a group or individual advocating on behalf of this issue, there are opportunities to influence decision-making throughout this process.

Depending on the national context, the level of government, and the issue at hand, decision-making processes can take many forms. Generally speaking, decision-making processes have formal and informal elements:

Formal elements are required by law or by documented organizational policy. For example:

• Committee hearings, meetings or reporting processes

• Legislative debates and votes

• Ministerial decrees

• Executive bylaws and regulations

• Audit, risk and oversight reporting processes

• Board meetings

• Consultation processes

Informal elements are activities and procedures which occur outside formal process, often concurrently, which are not required by law or official policy but which still have an impact on the official decision taken. For example:

• Community meetings

• Private meetings

• Legislative drafting sessions

• Ministerial meetings

• The local, cultural equivalent of the “golf course”

• Places decision-makers meet socially (Shisha, coffee house, qat chews, smoking

breaks, restaurants)

Formal processes often have clearer rules and are more transparent than informal processes which may also be more culture-specific. In any case, it is important to understand both formal and informal decision-making processes in as much detail as possible.


Adapted from the NDI tool kit Policy Development and Policy Advocacy, 3.1

Building Alliances

Your policy advocacy can benefit from the union’s societal power, leveraging its alliances with other civil society actors. Two types of alliances can be distinguished: Coalitions and social alliances. Both have their benefits and pitfalls but both rely on societal power [link] as their key power resource.

  • Coalitions: Many unions and labor federations are part of durable or stable political coalitions which may be leveraged for policy advocacy. Of obvious and utmost importance are the relationships with political parties, individual politicians, government representatives, as well as with government staff, public employees and their unions and organizations. These coalitions are often the historical result of a joint political project such as social justice for the working class or national independence. In some countries, the participation of unions in policy-making has even been institutionalized in the form of corporatism or tripartism.
  • Social alliances: Episodic, issue- or campaign-related alliances are generally built on a more pragmatic basis with civil society actors and other partners that may not share objectives beyond the policy question at hand. These alliances often grow out of organizational interaction and social protests in the pursuit of common interests.

Both stable coalitions and more episodic social alliances constitute and make use of “societal power” for unions and workers. On all levels of engagement – local, regional, national, or international – coordinated activities can be planned, for example, days of action where each member of the advocacy coalition or alliance organizes an event or action appropriate to the respective context. Direct lobbying in one arena can be supplemented by community advocacy in another. Political allies can introduce legislation (or amendments). This may even involve the use of workers’ structural power, even if solidarity and political strikes are unlawful in most jurisdictions. It most certainly will involve the use of workers’ associational power, making use of national and transnational union networks. Especially in the informal sector or in precarious work contexts, alliance-building is essential for generating a basis for exercising power. At the same time, both have advantages and disadvantages that you need to take into account when organizing policy advocacy.



  • As durable political coalitions are generally based on historically grown networks and a wide range of common objectives, they can often be mobilized quickly. Fundamental and long-term questions can be addressed more easily, for example, questions of institutional power for workers and unions such as minimum-wage laws. Institutionalized collaboration with political parties or governments (“corporatism” or “tripartism”) may even get labor a permanent seat at the decision-making table.
  • At the same time, this can lead to the cooptation of workers’ representatives. In general, stable political coalitions may constrain the union’s autonomy of action (for example, when a labor-friendly political party is in government) and they also may necessitate making compromises that can create disappointment among supporters. Political alliances may also hinder social alliances, if unions are seen as being too closely allied to the government. Avoiding the price tag of dependence requires strong rank-and-file involvement and an activist element in policy advocacy and alliance-building.


Social alliances:

  • Alliances between unions and civil society actors can also be created ad hoc, on the basis of short-term commonalities of interests. Those episodic social alliances can be more flexible, narrower in terms of common interests but broader in terms of participants, thus reaching a wide audience. Unions can benefit from NGO and social movement expertise in specific policy fields and social alliances can help anchor the reception of trade unions in society, adding weight and legitimacy to their demands and increasing public influence. The support of communities affected by the policies in question enhances the union’s leverage. Ad hoc, episodic social alliances will potentially allow more radical action – or a division of labor where specific partners engage in more radical action than is feasible for the union.  At the same time, the pros and cons of such opportunistic alliances will have to be weighed. Both stable political coalitions and pragmatic social alliances have limits concerning the commonality of interests which you will have to navigate at the outset and over the course of policy advocacy. For example, unions may work very well with informal economy organizations on increasing social protection for workers. But they may find it more difficult to address workers’ rights (or small business concerns) together.

When Uruguay withdrew from the negotiations of the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) in 2015, for example, it was a significant victory in defense of the country’s public services and pro-regulation political culture. Negotiations had been held in secret and it fell to Public Services International (PSI) to alert the Uruguayan trade union movement about them. A broad alliance then formed against the agreement. Academics did research and provided crucial information. Civil society organizations and the trade union movement alerted the public and took to the streets, even making withdrawal from the negotiations a key demand of a general strike. Ultimately, the government respected the decision of a national plenary of the Frente Amplio, then the progressive governing coalition. Political factions allied with the trade union movement, once informed about the nontransparent negotiations and alerted to the possible liberalization and deregulation of services provided by state-owned enterprises, pushed for withdrawal. Ideally, these close relations of unions and political parties facilitate a kind of institutionalized political advocacy. But as the case of the TISA withdrawal shows, international and community links are crucial to activate this institutional power (cf.

Uruguay trade union movement: An example of successful coalition-building for policy advocacy.

The central position that trade unions have in Uruguay’s political life is largely due to its links with the coalition of left-wing and progressive parties - the Frente Amplio / FA (the Broad Front) - which ruled the country for three consecutive terms between 2005 and 2019. Trade unions’ cooperation and solidarity were part of the inspiration for the 1971 creation of the FA, as an alliance of centre-left and left-wing political parties. Given this historical background, the alliance between the Frente Amplio and the trade unions comes as no surprise. “Most of the electoral platform, and not only those aspects related to working conditions, were discussed and agreed with the trade unions, and actually several of them became flagship policies of the first left-wing government,” says Eduardo Bonomi, labour minister in the first FA government. “This also explains the high number of union leaders who ended up occupying important positions in the new government, including several ministers.”  José Mujica, the country’s president from 2010 to 2015, said of the relationship between politicians and the unions “Each plays their role, but is aware that their future is at stake, and bad times for one means bad times for the other”.  [ Padron/Wachendorfer: Uruguay: Building Trade Union Power, available at]

For more case studies concerning alliance-building and other elements of power resources cf. MICHAEL FICHTER, CARMEN LUDWIG, STEFAN SCHMALZ, BASTIAN SCHULZ UND HANNAH STEINFELDT July 2018, The Transformation of Organised LabourMobilising Power Resources to Confront 21st Century Capitalism,

How to build effective advocacy coalitions and alliances:

In general, moving beyond the sphere of workplace activities toward building social alliances with civil society and community actors is often challenging for unions because of their distinct organizational culture. Moreover, depending on the level of engagement and the issue at hand, very diverse allies can be identified and mobilized. Therefore, it is advisable to:

  • agree on common policy objectives, while respecting different interests in other areas (within limits);
  • define specific advocacy/campaign roles and areas/types of action, while respecting each other’s boundaries and limits;
  • coordinate messaging and actions by ensuring good communication within the alliance (through regular updates, for example).

Key questions on alliance-building

Building alliances to strengthen your voice

Early in your policy advocacy, you will want to start thinking about who else you should bring to the table to be part of both the planning and take part in actions.

Which organisations would increase the impact of your campaign [your policy advocacy]?

  • Which organisations work most easily with your union?
  • Which organisations have the most to gain by joining an alliance?
  • What can each organisations contribute to an alliance?
  • Are there sympathetic experts or researchers who can be invited to join the alliance?
  • What are the roles that need to be filled in a campaign?
    • reaching a wide audience (eg membership organisations);
    • direction and resources on communications strategy
    • policy advice
    • expertise and research;
    • contact with grassroot workers
    • outreach non-traditional audiences – for example traditional church women’s or mothers’ organisations might join campaigns against trafficking.

From the PSI toolkit "Campaigning for a Fairer World", link:  Consult also the chapter on building and sustaining coalitions from the Leadership Conference Education Fund’s Tool Kit ( For further details on how to identify allies and build positive relationships, especially beyond the “usual suspects,” consult the materials on Targets and Allies Campaigning and Organizing.

Developing Proposals and Messages

For effective policy advocacy, you have to develop strong policy proposals and messages that resonate with members, allies, the public, and decision-makers.

Policy proposals: The development of effective policy proposals, for example concerning legislation, involves thorough research and expertise. Many workers have little regard for experts such as lawyers and lobbyists, however, most policy issues and debates are so complex that they will require the input of such experts. Among other things, they can condense complex issues into readable executive summaries. For effective rank-and-file policy advocacy, you will have to develop a deliberative process that facilitates the input of experts, lawyers, and lobbyists while securing ownership for members and workers. In other words, the experts need to be understandable and accountable to the rank-and-file.

The role of legal and policy experts

  • Experts analyze, summarize, and discuss relevant research, policy studies, and other materials;
  • scrutinize legislation and administrative rules;
  • help develop policy positions and proposals;
  • write amendments or full legislation;
  • testify on behalf of the union in hearings or public forums.

Developing effective policy proposals requires three key elements:

• Developing and using a sound evidence base, that comes from solid issue identification, problem analysis and outcomes-based research

• Understanding and managing the political context, including how and where decisions are made

• Being able to communicate complex issues in a manner that is clear, compelling and which inspires action


From the NDI tool kit, Policy Development and Policy Advocacy, Section 2.6: Best Practice for Developing Policy Proposals,  available at: 20Advocacy%20Workbook_EN.pdf

Presenting your evidence and proposals

After your collaborative participatory research that combines the expertise of researchers and the real-life experiences of members/workers to frame the research questions and approaches, try to develop presentations that address different audiences:

  • draft a policy paper or a shadow report for politicians or a fact sheet – or primer – for the general public or media contacts
  • organize oral presentations by those affected,
  • invite community speakers to a conference aimed at decision-makers,
  • draft a pamphlet,
  • upload a YouTube video/documentary,
  • launch on online forum.

[Adapted from PSI tool kit "Campaigning for a Fairer World", link]


Regardless of whether policy advocacy takes place in the context of a comprehensive campaign or not, you need to develop a clear, simple and resonating message to appeal to members, allies, and the general public alike, in order to gain their support vis-à-vis decision-makers. Be creative! Get good communication professionals on board, select good spokespeople to spread your message and tell effective stories, and let yourself be inspired by other campaigns.

Sometimes, messaging comes down to clearly informing the public that No means Yes as in the Uber/Lyft drivers’ case in California. In 2019, California Assembly Bill 5 was passed, designed by lawmakers to require companies to classify ride-hail drivers and other gig-economy workers as "employees". Opponents of the regulation managed to put a proposition on the ballot in 2020 in order to invalidate the law.

California Proposition 22, the App-Based Drivers as Contractors and Labor Policies Initiative, was on the ballot in California as an initiated state statute on November 3, 2020. Proposition 22 was approved.

A "yes" vote supported this ballot initiative to define app-based transportation (rideshare) and delivery drivers as independent contractors and adopt labor and wage policies specific to app-based drivers and companies.

A "no" vote opposed this ballot initiative, meaning California Assembly Bill 5 (2019) could be used to decide whether app-based drivers are employees or independent contractors.

However, the fight is not over: On Aug. 20, 2021, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch ruled that two sections of Proposition 22 were unconstitutional and that the measure as a whole was unenforceable. Proponents announced they would appeal the ruling.


Repetition is key!

Spread your message in every feasible and useful way to directly and indirectly inform and pressure decision-makers, their staff, donors, and constituents; the media and general public; as well as members and workers. You can use action alerts; give testimony at hearings and in other fora; send media advisories; hold press conferences; give interviews to journalists; write letters to the editor; etc. Mass letters, e-mails, and social media messages, and mass phone calls can be made easy with pre-formulated texts or by using tools such as Megaphone to start a petition (

For more helpful tips and samples, check out the chapters on “Communicating effectively” and “Using social media” in the Leadership Conference Education Fund’s Tool Kit (]

For finding out more about how to define demands and develop messages, read the materials on building strong campaign messages.


Much of the public discourse on policy issues can seem boring, obtuse or even irrelevant to people’s lives. This is particularly true if the discussion is highly technical or involves measurements or statistics without context. Stories, which explain the relevance and the background of these figures, are a critical tool to help target audiences understand the importance of an issue or policy alternative.


In advocacy, a good story:

• Enables a leap in understanding by the target audience so that they can more easily grasp the problem and what the proposed solution would look like in practice

• Is short: no longer than two minutes

• The impact is not through transferring large amounts of information, but by helping the audience grasp the issues at stake faster

• Is generally true

• Stories can come from research or experience on the issue

• Include at least one statistic that validates the key point

Construct a story that illustrates your policy initiative and why it is important. Make sure that it is short (no more than two minutes long), clear and uses descriptive language. Use statistics to validate your point if you have any available.

from the NDI tool kit, Policy Development and Policy Advocacy, 5.1,]

Informing/Pressuring the decision-makers

There are several direct and indirect avenues to assure that the voices of unions and their rank-and-file policy advocates will be heard in the decision-making process.

Directly informing and pressuring decision-makers involves:

  • Lobby decision-makers to adopt your position: personal information or negotiation meetings with individual lawmakers, government officials or bureaucrats;
  • (in addition to the work of professional union lobbyists) organizing mass lobbying: showing up in large numbers at many different offices;
  • sending your message to decision-makers: letters, phone-calls, emails etc.;
  • attending your target’s public meetings to raise questions;
  • testifying at legislative and other hearings in the legislative process: friendly lawmakers may be able to arrange testimony from experts in support of the union position. Depending on the issue at hand, rank-and-file policy advocacy can add the unique quality of first-hand experience, for example from the shop-floor or the community;
  • giving voice to others who are personally affected, as part of national and international advocacy coalitions;
  • organizing pledge cards or commitment boards (where decision-makers publicly sign something to support the campaign or issue).

[in part adapted from NDI, Policy Development and Policy Advocacy, Section 3.3: Advocacy Tools for Working with Decision-Makers, and from the PSI Tool Kit "Campaigning for a Fairer World", link]

On Meetings with legislators, regulators, and other policymakers:

  • One-to-one communication with people in power, or those that have influence over them (such as public servants), can take many different forms ranging from informal conversations in social settings (for example, over lunch or coffee) to formal meetings in official settings (e.g. in a politician’s office) and written letters.
  • Your aim is to inform, persuade and move people to action. Develop one clear core message, which clearly summarizes your position and the changes you want to bring about.

The core message will guide slogans, sound-bites or stories.

[from the PSI Tool Kit "Campaigning for a Fairer World", link]

Indirectlyinforming and pressuring decision-makers (via the media, the public, the voters etc.) involves:

  • Policy papers and briefings: Commission a report or a piece of research that argues your case; develop a policy proposal or policy brief;
  • introduce legislation or amendments reflecting the union’s position (via political allies);
  • using community radio, traditional media and social media to inform the public and to mobilize them to write or call decision-makers;
  • Hold a press conference
  • Informational websites
  • Blogging and tweeting: Set up social media campaign using Facebook, Twitter or YouTube etc;
  • Try to put your issues on Television debates and roundtable discussions
  • Campaign launch events
  • Network or coalition events
  • Public or community meetings: Hold a public forum on a topic to explain the issues to the public or policy makers,
  • Public rallies: Stage a protest, rally, march or vigil; organise a speak-out or public debate where members or affected groups can speak of their experiences;
  • Organise a flash mob to draw attention to an issue:
  • organizing letter-writing-campaigns, public petitions or referendums: rank-and-file support is crucial to generate many signatures, making sure that a majority of members sign up;
  • Conduct a quick survey (e.g. at bus or train stations, or in another public place) on the performance of the government or the issue you wish to highlight;
  • informing and pressuring decision-makers’ key relationships.

Media attention will not be generated primarily by the issue’s relevance, but by surprising and news-worthy approaches and events. What is appropriate and feasible obviously depends on the context and the available resources. A public event with high-ranking or celebrity speakers, including those provided by political allies, and/or at an unusual location can be attractive. Obvious powerful opponents might be invited and their likely absence made symbolically visible by an empty chair.

[in part adapted from NDI, Policy Development and Policy Advocacy, Section 3.3: Advocacy Tools for Working with Decision-Makers, and from the PSI Tool Kit "Campaigning for a Fairer World", link]

Exercise on tactics, tools, and actions

Think about which tools of informing and pressuring decision-makers are most useful and effective in your context! Would direct or indirect ways serve your goals better? Consider the following questions and then go through the lists of possible direct and indirect tactics, tools, and actions presented above and select three to five of them.

• Where do decision-makers get their information?

• In what format do decision-makers like to get their information?

• What do decision-makers need to know about the issue?

• What do you want decision-makers to do? What’s the best way to ask them to do this?

• What type of engagement would be most meaningful or motivational for a decisionmaker?

• What would offer the most effective means through which to persuade a decision-maker?] [from the NDI tool kit, Policy Development and Policy Advocacy, 3.3,]

Advocacy never ends: Compromise, enforcement, and lessons learned

Positive changes are needed to level the playing field vis-à-vis corporations when it comes to institutional power, to secure the physical and social infrastructure provided by the state, and to improve working and living conditions around the world through progressive policies. And rank-and-file policy advocacy to this effect can only work if members, workers, communities, and allies are highly motivated and fully mobilized to wholeheartedly push their proposals. Unfortunately, in today’s political environment much of policy advocacy is defensive. Sure, holding the line against further privatization, deregulation, and liberalization is also of utmost importance. But perhaps more so than in the case of CBAs and strikes, the outcomes of political decision-making are likely to be more or less satisfying compromises. While it is crucial to sustain members’ and workers’ motivation and to hold your advocacy coalition together, the ability to compromise can be equally important. Make sure to:

  • manage expectations regarding policy advocacy realistically;
  • avoid the TINA-mentality (“there-is-no-alternative”) of neoliberal propagandists and technocrats;
  • consider the possibility of serious backlash, especially concerning very controversial and divisive issues, even if you have the majority to push something through. It is often better to bend a little in order to have more solid support for progressive change.

Compromise, enforcement, transnational challenges

Take the case of the German due-diligence legislation that was recently passed, almost at the last minute of the 2021 legislative session, shortly before an election that will pit the members of the governing coalition against each other. Literally nobody is fully content with the legislation, which establishes some level of corporate responsibility for, among other things, labor standards along the chain of production. But the German unions know that even this compromise is a hard-won success, a first step, and that they will live to fight another day for a better law (most likely at the European level). For now, they will focus on pressuring the government to actually enforce the law once it takes effect in xx. As is obvious from other cases of transnational legal activism, such as following the Xx Bangladesh textile factory fire, ultimately, only national legislative changes and effective collective employee representation along the global chain of production worldwide will make such legal efforts effective. [cf. FES publication “Transnational Legal Activism in Global Supply Chain” and xx (German due diligence).]


Policy advocacy does not end with the successful passage of a law because laws have to be transformed into administrative rules and they have to be enforced. Thus, advocacy is a continuing action and involves follow-up. Consider the following steps of the enforcement process at all level of government:

  • the concretization of legislation in the form of administrative rules: As detailed as legislation can be, quite often it ultimately provides only broad strokes. The devil is in the details and proponents and opponents will try to influence this next step in the process as well, in order to either water down or strengthen the policy. This is even more of an inside game than the legislative process and often the ball is dropped by advocates at this stage as they move on to the next project or crisis. Do not let that happen to you! Organize the follow-up from the beginning! Also, do not forget that even labor-friendly legislators who pushed the legislation may have other interests and may not be completely unhappy with watered-down administrative rules or little actual enforcement!
  • the effectiveness of a policy crucially depends on the commitment of enforcement agencies, in terms of financial resources and personnel. For example, no labor inspection without labor inspectors, whatever the rules are. It is therefore crucial to monitor if legislation and administrative rules specify these issues sufficiently and that sufficient budgets are allocated. Even if they do, if the government lacks the political will to enforce, legal action and/or renewed advocacy may be necessary.
  • Enforcement will often involve filing complaints and lawsuits, in the case of non-compliance by employers and other companies. Court rulings may lead to improved compliance but at the same time, they will often reveal the weaknesses and loopholes of rules and regulations and will thus lead to a new round of policy advocacy.

A rather infamous example of all these elements is the temporary prohibition of alcohol in the United States in the 1920s: Decades-long advocacy (against the resistance of many working people, immigrants, and businesses) resulted in a rather vague constitutional amendment but also in very restrictive legislation to implement the amendment. At the same time, this Volstead Act provided many loopholes, and, more importantly, the government did not commit the necessary resources to federal enforcement of the act, leaving it largely to the states and local government. Thus, enforcement varied tremendously across the US, providing opportunities for the thrifty exploitation of the loopholes in the law and for organized crime. Ultimately, the public largely ceased to respect the law and the constitutional amendment was repealed.

Key questions on enforcement

Do you know the rules of the game?

How and by whom is your desired change going to be enforced?

Does the legislation include sufficient funding for enforcement?

Who controls the process to turn legislative policy into administrative rules?

Do you have access (e.g., to key legislators and their staff)?

How will union lawyers and the advocacy coalition follow up?

Are legal challenges feasible?

Lessons learned

Many if not most unions work in a constant mode of crisis management. Every additional campaign, every additional coalition-building exercise, every additional event just adds to an already overwhelming workload. This is no different for policy advocacy, especially advocacy not left to professionals alone but with a strong rank-and-file element. Afterwards, regardless of victory (or compromises that can be sold as victories), everybody is exhausted and probably off to the next, equally challenging task. But in an ever changing political, cultural, and media environment it is crucial to factor in the need for a systematic evaluation of policy advocacy. You can use the concepts of the Power Resources Approach to capture what worked and what did not:

  • what institutional power has been used? What are the limits of your available institutional power? Was there an overreliance on institutional power?
  • has associational power been used – have members and workers been involved? Was there an overreliance on associational power, which may lead to exhaustion and disengagement of members and workers?
  • has societal power been used – have political coalitions, social allies, communities been involved? Were there conflicts about policy proposals or the feasibility of actions? How were they resolved?
  • has structural power been used – were there strikes, walkouts etc.?
  • what were the respective possibilities and limits of the power resources?
  • were there transnational uses of power resources?
  • have power resources been increased?

For further information, consult the materials on how to structure the continuous evaluation of your progress.

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