The 80% Equation: how the open shop turns the traditional union formula on its head

July 2, 2018 · by Alvarez Porter Group · Filed Under Choices · Leave a Comment

“8 out of 10 unions members are disengaged. They want unions to exist, they just don’t know what that has to do with them.”

We shouldn’t be surprised that an historic moment in the U.S. labor movement didn’t make much of a splash. It wasn’t even the biggest news coming out of the Supreme Court that day [Kennedy’s retirement was] or the most talked about 5-4 ruling that week [the Muslim ban was]. The marches that followed focused on family separation and rightly so. No, the Janus decision was like a drive by shooting in a blighted neighborhood: only the people who live there really care.

Don’t let the headlines fool you

It might not be big news, but it is a big deal. The intent of the Koch brothers et al is to chip away at organized money and people power of unions. They will succeed unless unions take this as the sea change that it is. Unions spend the vast majority of time and resources on bargaining and enforcing the contract. On a day to day basis, only about 10-20% of members connect with the union. It tends to be those who have problems and the amazing elected leaders and union activists who volunteer their time. That has been the formula for union success.

Unions have amazing stewards and activists – but not enough

Only now the equation is flipped on its head. 8 of 10 union members are disengaged. Most want the union to exist, they just don’t see what that has to do with them.  It’s this 80% that will determine the union’s relevance and impact in the future. That’s because if they drop out and the new hires opt out, the slippery slope sets in.  If they stay in and get engaged, it’s a new day. The truth is, we won’t engage them if we just keep doing what we’ve always done.  It’s time to innovate.  

Innovation and the 80%

There are three different kinds of innovation. One is where you develop ways to do what you are currently doing in a better way. Another kind is when you actually start doing something new. And the third way is when the new way eclipses or disrupts the old. In order to solve the 80% equation, unions need all three.

Some unions have already been doing the developmental innovation. Putting in place Member Resource Centers that take care of questions and grievances from a central location; developing apps that enable members to get questions answered and receive union communications; and upgrading data systems to track membership in real time.

Some are introducing new ways of connecting to members. Setting up issue-based committees across worksites, developing online tools for members to share resources and support, using social media to build affinity groups online, and testing before introducing new benefits to find out what the interest is. Unions are used to coming up with new programs and ideas. What is challenging – and worthwhile – is to develop and introduce new ideas using human-centered design, prototyping and other innovation methods.

Fewer in the labor movement know about or attempt the kind of innovation that disrupts the status quo. This would be, for example, an entirely different approach to collective bargaining, a willingness to rethink basic assumptions about governance, or a whole new look at the value proposition of the union. This kind of innovation is by its very nature threatening to “the way we do things around here.” It needs high level sponsorship, space and resources to ask the big questions and experiment with big ideas.

If unions wants to embrace the future, not just build a better bunker, they will have to figure out how to do all three kinds of innovation in a concerted way. Stay tuned for future blog posts where I go deeper on individual innovation efforts to see how they are actually working.

Let’s go!

My Facebook feed is full of people holding up hollaback signs to Norma Rae and reminders about who brought us the weekend. The powerful experience of belonging and the concrete gains for working people that unions have brought us are now threatened. We need to be sure that the fierce belief in the moral rightness of our cause – which I share – becomes the energy we need to face the future with open hearts and open minds.


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