In earlier articles, we’ve offered some thoughts on the role of unions in the workplace. Today, I want to share some other ideas on unions and what they need to do to maintain relevance with today’s workers.
Last week, we discussed the growing popularity of unions among younger workers. While the AFL-CIO has initiated programs such as Working America to carry the needs of all workers, union or not, to legislators, some local unions are not picking up on this effort. As a result, newer workers in union shops may not recognize why their membership and involvement is important.
When I began my working career I was in a public-sector organization where union membership was completely voluntary. After I started on the job, absolutely no one from the union approached me about joining the union or the reasons why membership was a good idea. It was about two months after I could have joined before a steward said anything to me about membership.
It seemed to be the union just assumed I would join. Although I did join a short while later, it was primarily due to actions of management toward the workforce, not being recruited by the local.
As I look at some unions today, I see the same kind of attitude. They take for granted that new members will embrace the union and support their efforts. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. New employees may not understand the role of the union or the reasons they should become members. They may see it as little more than the organization that deducts money from their paychecks.
Unions need to be proactive in overcoming this attitude. We suggest they consider these steps in addressing new employees.
Begin by answering the question, “What is the vision of the Union?” Ask yourself why the union is important and what you want to accomplish. Address why these issues are important to workers, their workplace, and their personal lives. Consider how you address these goals and how they fit into the everyday activities of the union.
Any organization flounders without a vision. It cannot move forward without an idea of the direction it wants to go. The vision should be forward looking so that it remains relevant to all employees. Developing a vision and/or mission statement can help frame your thinking about what you should be.
Convey the vision to all employees, being certain new employees hear the message. It should tell these employees why being members is relevant and important to them. Tell them in a variety of ways so they are likely to hear the message in a way relevant to them.
Let them know the history. Unless they were raised in a union household, new employees are not likely to understand the history of unions and the benefits they have won for workers. They may believe their working conditions were established by management on their own initiative. Let new members know the history of how the current situation came to be and what the union is doing now on their behalf.
Do not leave the impression being a union leader is only about fighting. Be sure to include examples of how cooperation between the union and management has helped resolve workplace concerns.
Determine the issues and needs of new members and work to achieve them. Do not assume the things veteran employees want are relevant to new members. Their ideas may address social issues of importance to them in addition to workplace concerns. The best way to find out what interests new members is to ask them. Individually or in small groups, meet with new members and listen to what they tell you. Follow up a short time later with the things you have done or are doing to capitalize on their ideas. Tis will let them know you listened to them and giving their opinions in the future is worth their time.
Encourage them to become active in the union. Shortly after I joined the union I was elected to be a steward. Leaders in the union recognized my interest and energy and capitalized on it.
In some unions, new, energetic members are viewed as a threat. Existing leadership may fear if new members become active in the union they could end up challenging current leaders for their jobs. By discouraging involvement, the established union loses the opportunity to benefit from the ideas of the new members and build their commitment. This is particularly significant as more veteran union leaders are preparing to leave the workforce.
Provide training for potential new union leaders. Capitalize on the interest of new members by letting them know more about the role of the union and the skills necessary for leadership. Recruit potential new leaders to participate, and use the training to help identify individuals with leadership skills that will make them good stewards and officers.
Remind new members that merely joining the union is not enough. Building and maintaining the union is essential, and their active involvement is critical to that process.
Recognize that one you begin this process, you cannot stop. This needs to be a continuous process to build the long-term future of the union and commitment of its members.
Accomplishing these tasks will require the commitment of current union leadership in developing an involvement process. CALMC has worked with several unions to help them identify their needs and develop training for new leaders. Let us know if we can help you shape the future of your local.