Can Public Employee Unions Save the Labor Movement?

January 5, 2018 · by Allison Porter · Filed Under Choices · Leave a Comment

Imagine this:  hundreds and even thousands of conversations happening all over the country.  People in pairs, small groups, big halls. Whispers growing into chatters growing into a cacophony of excitement and possibility.  Listen as the talk leads to action which leads to learning and a new paradigm. As we at the Alvarez Porter Group see it, this is what the leaders, staff and members of public-sector unions will be doing to reinvent the labor movement and inspire a new generation in 2018.  Many already are.

The serenity to accept the things you cannot change…

It isn’t easy to move from opposing the open shop to embracing the challenge it represents.  After all, this isn’t a random series of law suits: it is a well-financed and calculated strategy to reduce the power of working people and their organizations.

But the reality is pretty clear: before June 30th of this year, the United States Supreme Court will rule on Janus vs. AFSCME.  Thanks to Trump’s appointment of Justice Gorsuch, the conservative majority will issue a decision forbidding the collection of union fees for public employees who are non-members. They will no longer pay their “fair share,” but will still be entitled to receive union benefits, including negotiated raises and representation.  Then the anti-union groups will ramp up their efforts to get people to withdraw, and some number will. Estimates are a 20-30% decline in revenue in 2019.

… the courage to change the things you can

Unions have been working hard to minimize the impact of the open shop.  They have been signing up non-members, re-signing current members, and orienting new hires.

These preparations are often illuminating.  Unions are finding it extremely challenging to talk to every member, for example. Their effort to organize and track data often reveals outdated and limited systems. This is what happens when an organization built to do one job is suddenly asked to do another.

Preparing for Janus has been hard and has taken discipline and focus at all levels of the organization. But as important as this work is, it is insufficient.  Across the country unions are beginning to turn from preparation to the question of ‘what next’?  They are beginning to address the fact that the status quo is unsustainable and what is needed in the future of ‘voluntary unionism’ is not yet clear.

…and the wisdom to know the difference

The standard union formula for the past few decades has connected 10-20% of union members to the organization, primarily in meetings, negotiations and grievances.  The remaining 80-90% benefit from the collective agreement and the political power of the union, but they don’t get involved. This formula works where a large, mostly passive membership is sufficient to manifest union power. There is no penalty for unions who don’t know very much about their members or hear from them very frequently.

The open shop turns that old equation on its head.  Now it is the 80% whose choices will determine whether or not the union succeeds. Ignoring who the members are or what they think will be the organization’s undoing.  Which is why it won’t be enough for unions to simply work harder with fewer resources at the same work.

When movie rentals became less popular, Blockbuster tried to keep going, while Netflix flipped the script.  When book sales declined, Borders tried to hang on, while Amazon created a new paradigm. Blockbuster and Borders were great companies in their time, but they failed to adapt.  Netflix and Amazon not only began doing their old work in a new way, they expanded their offerings and increased their power and influence. For unions to adapt and expand their role will similarly take great risk and great ingenuity.

Can we do it?

It is unlikely that the labor movement will run out of members anytime soon, but it is highly likely that those who don’t change will become more and more out of touch and ineffective.  Union leaders have a choice between seeing the best days of the labor movement as behind them, or seeing the best days ahead.

So, as we imagine all these conversations happening in and around public employee unions – who will still have millions of dollars in revenue, powerful allies and a strong base of members – what do we imagine them actually talking about?

One source of answers is to look at what we know is already happening.  Unions have been actively testing ideas on exclusive member benefits such as free tuition, for example.  There is lots going on in the area of new hire orientation and the broader concept of the “new member experience.” There are those who are looking at increasing the breadth and depth of their campaigns – from workplace issues, to legislative battles, to an economic and racial justice agenda. And there are education programs being developed to provide members with new skills and leadership roles.

These and other experiments are being launched to reach whole new groups of employees and engage them in new ways.  At the same time, unions are looking at how to become more efficient in the traditional union work they will still have to do, like grievances and bargaining. These innovators see the world through a mindset of abundance, not scarcity.  Their leaders make space for brainstorming, set aside time for planning, and sponsor fresh ideas.

Yes we can

To advocate for, support and scale these ideas, leaders need to develop new agility muscles, innovation methodologies and better tech tools. In our work with public employee unions over the past few years, we have been learning that the best way to do this is the following:

  1. Conduct an organizational assessment with an eye to where new approaches are already happening and where change will have the greatest impact;
  2. Design an inclusive and innovative process that results in an adaptive vision and concrete steps forward; and,
  3. Lead innovation and change from a growth mindset, restructure around teams and empower people like never before.

Yes, public sector unions can save the labor movement.  And we are really hoping it will.


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