Sunday, June 20, 2010

It's Time to Admit That There Is a Problem

The labor movement in general, particularly at the local and state level, struggles with self promotion and a positive public image. There are exceptions, particularly at the international level, but as you look down the hierarchy of labor union organizations, those exceptions become harder to find.

It's no wonder this is the case, because organized labor has been a corporate and political punching bag for a long, long time. One can only imagine how frustrating it must be to see your membership dwindling, despite your best efforts, while constantly trying to protect your local union's market share. Yet you keep doing what you're doing, because that's what you know, but nothing seems to change, does it? As a result, merely surviving unofficially becomes the order of the day, by circling the wagons and keeping to ourselves, running an ad here and there, trying to help the right political candidates win, and depending largely on word-of-mouth and limited organizing and outreach opportunities (not to mention funds) to find new members and contractors. This can be especially true in right-to-work states where labor leaders must represent all workers when a contract is in place, even those that are not compelled to pay dues.

Once you find yourself in this mindset, it gets difficult to think out of the box and come up with new and creative ideas, particularly for the long standing unions who have traditions to uphold and respect.  A great deal of the union culture is steeped in its roots and history, but as the older generations age that remember better days, and the younger generations start to come up the ranks that don't have a clue, the culture is starting to erode.

However, complacency in this struggling labor movement will be the kiss of death. It is, in fact, dying a slow death. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) initially began collecting labor union statistics in 1983. At that time, union members made up about 20% of the workforce in this country. Now it's down to 12%. In 27 years, we've lost 8% of the market share. What should this number tell you, labor leaders and activists?

Labor cannot keep doing what it has always done and expect a different result. We cannot wait for the pendulum to swing the other way, because it might not. We cannot expect our up-and-coming apprentices and journey workers to think and act like us when there's a two generation gap. We cannot operate in a vacuum. We cannot sit idly by and complain about the lack of participation by our members, and reminisce about the good ol' days when union meetings were filled to capacity, yet now we're lucky to get five, because "they just don't get it."

Maybe, just maybe, we're the ones that don't get it anymore.

That 8% loss means it's time for change. No, strike that. We've been losing percentage points for decades, so the time for change was long before now. But today, it's do or die, otherwise we'll be nearly extinct in another 27 years.

Change - real, meaningful change - comes slowly. On the international level, change has been in progress to a varying degree. They've updated their look, modernized their technological capabilities, improved communication systems, developed dynamic websites, built impressive international training centers - the list goes on. Unfortunately, this change does not always filter down to the local level.  Local and regional labor organizations often don't have the level of funding necessary to do a complete overhaul.  But let's be real here.  Some of you in the more established industries - building, construction and manufacturing trades - aren't comfortable with change, or a computer, the internet, maybe not even email.  You came up through the apprenticeship program, then up the ranks working your tools, paying your dues, putting in overtime, learning your craft and becoming an advanced journeyman, then later perhaps taking a leadership position with your local.  You are not, nor should you be expected to be, a natural-born accountant, public relations or marketing expert, or an IT professional.  However, a good leader recognizes his/her limitations, and surrounds themselves with those they trust and can fill in the blanks.

So, your union membership is withering away - where do you start?  What can you do?  Even the most savvy labor leaders can use a new perspective from time to time.

A good place to start is with your public image. You won't be able to change public perceptions overnight, but small changes to your public relations strategy (or starting from scratch with one) can be inexpensive and high impact.  You've gotten a bad rap over the years. You're characterized as short sighted, unreasonable, old fashioned, difficult, irrelevant, crooked mafia bullies. Movies, TV, comedians, books, media, politicos - they continue to perpetuate this image. Is there any truth to it? Do you think any of these words describe your organization, or - dare I say it - you? Or is it just an old reputation that refuses to die?

Let's be brutally honest, here. A few of them might be true. I would argue that "crooked mafia bullies" can be categorized as an outdated reputation as a whole, although there will always be a few bad apples in the bunch, whether you work for a union or on Wall Street. We will forever be linked to the Jimmy Hoffa's in our country's history one way or another. But irrelevant, old fashioned, short sighted? Well. . . maybe a little?  Here's a quick quiz to figure it out.

  1. Is the exterior of your union hall an eyesore, because it's exactly the same as it was 30 years ago?
  2. Are you still using the same furniture from the 60's, 70's or 80's?
  3. Do you rely on your secretary to check your email for you because you don't like using a computer?
  4. Do you believe that a website for your local or council is not necessary and a waste of time and money?
  5. Does your local union have a website, but it hasn't been updated in five years?  Three?  One?  Six months?
  6. Do you still keep your records in a ledger and track very little electronically?
  7. Do you still rely heavily on mass mailings to communicate with your members?
  8. Do you think Facebook and Twitter are just for teenagers?
  9. Do you feel frustrated because no matter how many career fairs you attend, your local or council is just not getting many applicants anymore that you consider good quality?
  10. Is attendance low at monthly union meetings, and you can't understand why, since you mail out 300 reminder postcards every month?

If you answered yes to any of these, then I urge you to check back next week, when we'll start to uncover some steps you can take towards improving your union's image, both internally and externally, why you should even bother, and the potential payoff if you do.