Last week a conference was held to look at new approaches for American unions. The American Labor Movement At A Crossroads Conference gained a lot of attention from unions and interested parties. The conference was moved to accommodate a bigger audience.
This conference was an opportunity for unions to look at what they need to do for growth and continue to be the strong voice for workers as they have been.
The speakers in the morning session told changes need to be made. The old ways of doing things are obviously not working. The industrial organizing paradigm does not work anymore. Unions, they suggested, need to be more about community. One of the union leaders said unions should focus on community issues and not just focus on their own needs. Unions need to show how their members are needed in the community in addition to addressing wages, benefits and other important issues for workers. Another union leader provided an example of being more involved in communities. He told about a union ignoring the needs of workers within a community. Community members that worked for one employer were threatened with deportation because they wanted to organize. The union ignored the workers plight until the speaker, a union activist, showed them how to help the workers and suggested becoming more involved in the community. By following his advice, the local union increased their membership substantially.
Another suggestion was unions need to change communication mechanisms. The millennial generation wants to be part of the union movement but feels left out because their needs are not being met or current communication mechanisms doesn’t match their lifestyle. Their communication is through social media and many unions need to use social media to communicate.
The speakers had some excellent points but one of the other problems that came out was also the message being delivered to management. It was still a message of demand. It was an overall attitude of “we have to have a say in workplace.” Yes, sometimes it must get to that point of demanding but it doesn’t always have to start that way. In fact, with some people that can be a real turn-off which decreases the chances of being included in decision making. Identifying mutual concerns both sides have may be more of a starting point and suggesting some ideas to resolve problems are a much better initial approach than one of demand. The demands and intimidation can be saved for later if need be.
The other problem we have seen working with unions is some unions don’t understand the concept of their members also being their customers. Unions provide a service to help their members just like cell phone companies provide cell phone service. It’s important for members to see value in being part of the union just as they see value in buying service from their cell phone provider. Everybody has certain expectations from service providers. Union members are no different. They pay dues and they want something in return for that dues money. To give an example, when we have assisted workers in a lay-off situation, they have a lot of contractual questions such as what their layoff rights will be. These are questions stewards, officers and staff reps need to answer but unfortunately we sometimes don’t see those people. Some of the laid-off workers say they call repeatedly but they’re ignored. Sometimes we will say this to stewards or staff reps and they complain because they already told the workers their rights or the workers are angry with them. Well, yes, most laid-off workers are angry just because of the situation and they’re concerned. They also may need to hear the same thing over and over again because they can’t focus due to fear. It’s also important for union stewards and staff reps not to take the anger personally. Anger is part of the process laid-off workers go through and that anger can be at any individual. The point is, this is a time when workers need their union the most and sometimes union leaders do ignore workers just like those threatened with deportation. That is a bad lasting impression on those laid-off workers.
Lastly, unions are no different than any other organization facing change these days. The same old tried and true ways are no longer relevant. Many organizations are strategizing new approaches to maintain their organizations and customer base. This takes some real effort to get it right. It is a significant problem that needs focus on root causes and not just looking for a single solution as the one speaker suggested for the new organizing model. There may be several solutions or several organizing or service models. That speaker did say one thing that was important to remember and that is it will take some risks and it will take stop and starts but it’s definitely worth the try. It will take some patience and some problem solving just like what union members want to do in their workplaces. By solving the problem maybe it can be an example to share with management on how organizations can improve.
Here is the link about the conference. There are several video clips that provide some interesting information.
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