Should I stay or should I go?

March 20, 2018 · by Allison Porter · Filed Under Choices · Leave a Comment

What will public sector union members do when they have a choice?

#janus #openshop #letsgetready

You’re at your cousin’s wedding reception and you are having an okay time.  The cake has been cut and a few people are dancing.  Some people leave who aren’t as close to the family as you are, but you feel you should stay. You are sitting alone at your table when you see several of your cousins getting ready to go and it looks like there is a move to the door.  You start to get up but then you hear a song you like and a friend waves to you from the dance floor.  You hesitate. Should you stay or should you go?

This is the situation I am imagining post-Janus.  When the Supreme Court rules to end ‘fair share’ for unionized public employees, the symbolic cake will be cut.  Those who are already out of the union will immediately stop paying fees and union members will be able to leave without penalty.  I’m interested in what recent studies of human behavior can teach us about how people will make the decision to stay or go.

‘Be there or be square’

Would I wear this hat if I were the only one? No.

There is overwhelming evidence that what others do has a huge influence on us.  This is true from fashion choices [see pussy hat] to voting to mob violence. Underlying behavior choice is an unconscious desire for conformity, yes, but also a desire for inclusion and belonging.  Social norms don’t just create compliance, they actually influence how we feel and what we believe to be true.  That isn’t to say that people don’t step outside of the norms.  There are early adopters and first movers; outliers and iconoclasts.  Isn’t it interesting that language is full of ways to describe the phenomenon – and isolation – of breaking social norms?   Isn’t that more evidence of their power?

Contestants on ‘Inspire Somalia’ take a selfie

The NPR show Invisibilia – ‘a show that explores the invisible forces that shape human behavior’ – reported that the United Nations sponsored an American-Idol type show in Somalia. They wanted it to change the culture in a country where people had become afraid to sing in public. They tapped into the natural emotions and drama of the show’s arch to create a “bandwagon effect.”  The first season they could barely get people to try out, but in its second year, the interest has swelled.

Another use of “norms engineering” you might be more familiar with is the effort by hotels to convince guests to reuse towels.  A straight appeal to save energy yielded 38% compliance.  Then they tried “join us in protecting the environment” and garnered slightly higher participation.  The message that was most powerful?  “75% of guests have participated in our reuse and recycle program” had 53% of us hanging up our towels.  In a similar vein, Obama famously consulted with neuroscientists to increase voter turnout.  One of the strategies was to say “your neighbors are voting”.  This FOMO  [Fear Of Missing Out] effect can override personal preference or simply galvanize it to action.

Social norms in union building

I remember when I was organizing a union at a nursing home and the momentum for the union was so strong that the leader of the anti-union committee flashed her secret ballot marked “yes” to the union observer before dropping it in the box.  Of course, I have also seen it go the other way, where we signed up a majority for the union and the fear that the owner would close the facility turned into peer pressure to withdraw until one day even the most pro union worker wouldn’t answer her door.

As an organizer in the South I was always impressed when I came across a shop where almost every employee belonged to the union.  Usually it was the workers themselves who had made it socially unacceptable to opt out.  They explained to new employees that “everyone joins” and defined the union as “us”.  The fact that “we are union” was a point of solidarity and pride created both an attraction and a social pressure to belong.

‘Join your coworkers’ is a powerful message

I worked with a local union in Michigan that had only been open shop for about three years. About 10% of members had dropped out when they first had a chance.   The difficulty came in signing up new hires.  The process for bringing new employees into the union before was routine, often administered by the personnel office.  After the law changed, it was up to member leaders and staff to get people to join, and neither group felt comfortable asking people directly to pay dues. The result was that union membership declined each year by an additional 10%.  There is the very real potential that they will reach a threshold – is it 60%? 50%? – where belonging to the union is no longer the norm.  At that point, if research on the threshold effect is right, many more people will decide to drop their membership.

How to apply this insight

If we agree that as human beings our behavior is greatly influenced by the perception of what most people are doing, what should we do to maintain strong unions in the public sector?  Here are some thoughts:

  1.  Put members in charge.  Members need to be inviting people to “join us”, not impersonal organizations or paid staff.  Socialization to the union is more powerful than information about the union. Every time the union is visible to employees it needs to reinforce the message that unions are a group of people just like you.
  2. Communicate that being in the union is the norm.  The union is the normal thing to do, not a radical or all-consuming act.  The union isn’t an organization of the outliers, but of everyone who works here.  This can be underscored by differentiating the kinds of roles that members play in the union – including book clubs, mentoring, welcoming committee, etc – so that every union activist isn’t super-human.
  3. Create small self-organizing teams.  Whether by worksite, job, interest, or identity, helping members to come together in small groups to take on a common project. This will create visibility and stickiness.  Bottom line, our structures have to move from everyone connecting to a union staff member to strong member to member ties.
  4. Reinforce belonging.  Creating positive emotional experiences for union members – not just leaders –  through social media, one on ones, actions and events.  Emotional connection is like glue.  We need to get better at thinking through everything we do from the perspective of the average member participating or viewing it.
  5. The messenger is the message.  Media saturation has made us all savvy consumers and suspicious of polished, professional messages.  Member-led, informal, un-screened, honest and authentic communications reinforce that the union is “us”.  We don’t have to fear members who are unhappy as long as there are members who take ownership of the union.  In the age of Yelp and Reddit, it is the volume of opinions that create the impression.

In sum, if we want people to stay, we need the union to be playing a song that people like, and we also need lots and lots of friends waving folks over.

Sources for this article include:

Social: Why our brains are wired to connect, by Matthew Lieberman

Cornell Hotel Management school study on the effectiveness of different messages on reuse of hotel towels:

Science Direct study on how normative behavior influenced social networks on the subject of prejudice and energy use.

Journal article on how social norms influence privacy behaviors on social networking sites .

Study on the concept of thresholds in collective behavior .

Description of the NPR podcast Invisibilia’s story on the Somali TV show .



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