Janus forces unions to confront head-on the problem of how to attract and retain members.
While the “free rider” challenge at the heart of Janus is unique to unions, the need for clearly-defined value propositions is something membership-based organizations have been grappling with for years and unions can learn from their experiences.
The Janus ruling against public unions is one in another “death by a thousand cuts” unions across the nation face. In response to attempts to disempower and defund unions, some propose “members-only” unions, others a bottom-up organizing model proposed by Jane McAlevey. Most agree there is no silver bullet. Concurrently, membership-based associations face declining numbers as economic conditions force them to regularly justify their value. What lessons can unions learn from associations?
1.) Engage them Early and Often:
Amanda Kaiser believes people decide whether or not to utilize (and thus renew) their membership in the first few weeks and months of joining. She encourages Associations to create a member engagement plan so members feel a part of the organization and excited about opportunities it presents.
This begins with a welcome phone call or meeting from an actual person. Unions can adopt “buddy programs” that match new members with old, organizing models that include regular check-ins about what the member is experiencing on the job, and letting them know what opportunities are available to them. From a staffing perspective, this can be a heavy lift, but organizing models that bring other members into volunteer outreach and mentoring roles can ameliorate this burden.
The most important aspects of this approach are a personal touch and reaching out to members not just when the union needs them to take action, but proactively. As in politics, relationship-building is key to member retention. Locals should use a database – even a spreadsheet – to identify the last time their members had a touch point and schedule check-ins. Each conversation should be logged, just like political campaigns track touch points.
Many successful associations also incorporate an element of fun and friendship into their events and culture. If you think about it, members will be less likely to leave an organization their friends are members of. Group trips, family events, and other community-building activities foster that critical sense of belonging and adoption of the organization as their “tribe”.
2.) Trust (but educate) them to be part of the political process:
Any good lobbyist will tell you their asks of lawmakers are only helped by having constituents make direct asks as well. And one-on-one conversations with decision-makers are always more effective than a phone call or an email from a member. But many organizations are fearful of involving those rank-and-file members too much. What if they say or do something that damages their credibility? What if they alienate their lawmaker? What if they come across as uninformed or uninvested?
These concerns are completely valid. Yet politics isn’t rocket science and it doesn’t take a degree to understand core ‘ground rules’ about relationship-building, credibility, and political capital. Unions can train their members how to become union ambassadors all year long, not just on lobby days or a budget time. They just need an easy-to-understand-and-implement training program.
On the flip side, other unions would be thrilled to have their members be more involved in advocacy but can barely get them to fill out a form email. But here’s the thing: most people hate politics and/or are confused by it. No one wants to do something they don’t understand or don’t feel is a good use of their time.
But if they are given a true education on how politics – and their involvement – truly works, they’ll feel more comfortable stepping up to the plate. Most people are far more likely to be willing to take action when asked if they understand the why and how behind the ask. A solid education is critical, but then unions need to trust their (educated) members to be good ambassadors. The more they participate, the more they will see the value of union advocacy.
3.) Ask more, not less of your members. And expect them to do the same:
It may seem counterintuitive, but many membership-based organizations have found the more they ask their members to be part of their community and engage, the more ownership the members have in the future of that organization.
For unions, this means flipping the idea of “the union” as a monolithic “them” into a collaborative “us”. The key to the associations’ success here is ensuring members see the outcome of their volunteer hours. That means more than sending out an e-blast about the outcome of an amendment or a bill. It means incorporating the aforementioned personal contact into communications. It means doing member “shout outs”, highlighting success stories in communications to build a culture of engagement. It means sharing some of that insider knowledge; if a bill got one committee step further in the legislative process than it did last session, share that information, as opposed to simply telling them the bill failed to pass. Unions need to share the little victories with their members so that they will see the level of work union leadership puts in on their behalf.
4.) Test, measure, repeat:
Political campaigns, advertisers, and membership-based associations have all learned this lesson from scientists. Take a theory – about what members care about, how to engage them, or what events they’re most likely to attend – and then test it. Track the data. Are the results expected? If not, tweak one aspect of the theory and try again. Measure again. Only through quantifying the results of their outreach can unions really determine if they are demonstrating value and success to their members.
Going back to the database mentioned in 1), unions need to identify the touch point for each member. If they have the technology, track email opens. Just as campaigns track conversions, unions must determine how many touches it takes to get a member to take action, and what communication method works best (even drilling down to identifying whether a text works better for one member while a call works better for another). This will enable the union to not only increase the participation of members, but reduce time and money on methods that don’t convert.
Lastly, unions should quantify the value of any member programs, discounts, or freebees they offer. The AFL-CIO offers members discounts on AT&T, scholarships, and competitive mortgages, among other benefits. That’s a LOT of value. By identifying which member benefit individuals took part in and their value, the union rep can reference the value in a check-in. “Hey Joe, how’s the new house? Everything okay with the mortgage company? Y’know, you’re probably saving a couple grand a year ’cause you’re going thru us.”
Or, “Maria, I want to update you on your investment in the union. This quarter you’ve gotten X in savings or benefits out of your membership. Let me know if you ever have any problem accessing these or if you want us to pursue some other sort of benefit.”
Janus is a dark cloud, but the silver lining is that it forces a reckoning before it’s too late. Most union leaders know many members no longer see the union as truly representative of who they are. This changing perspective has been a long-time coming. Combined with political attempts to disempower them, there’s an existential crisis on the horizon. But if anything, Janus forces unions to confront the problem and sharpen their value proposition before their resources and political power are completely depleted.
And while unions are most certainly under assault, the need to prove their value is hardly unique to them. Everyone, from associations to businesses to politicians needs to be continuously innovating, engaging, and measuring in order to survive. It’s the reality of consumerism.
Adopting the strategies of associations, creating more value, and changing the nature of member engagement can turn the tide and change the way unions are perceived, both internally and externally.
Stefanie Coxe is the founder & principal of Nexus Werx LLC, a political training company offering the Learn to Lobby line of online and in-person training products including Effective Activism 101, Lobbying 101, and a Community Monitoring Program for membership-based organizations. Sign up for her e-newsletter to get tips on training and mobilizing members and activists.