Five essential elements of strategy for unions to win

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What strategies do unions need to adopt to win?

Unions around the world face very harsh organising and industrial environments in which to grow, thrive and stand up for the interests of their members. This point was made several times over the course of the two-day LabourStart International Solidarity Conference that I spoke at today.

Because of the often exceptionally extreme factors that unions must contend with — hostile employers, anti-union work laws, union-bashing politicians — unions must develop more effective strategies to win. For unions, clarity and discipline are essential. The goals for unions — almost universally — are the same: joining more members to the union, increasing density in workplaces, and winning better working conditions to improve the lives of working people. Often, especially in developing nations, the rule of law and civil society are non-existent or weak — which compounds the difficulties for unions and their members.

Some of the other challenges that unions face include:

First: Cynical workers (both members and non-members). Unions in western industrialised nations face increasingly disengaged workers, and many working people are instilled with a deep distrust of collective action and unions from the moment they start their first job. With union density at record lows, many workers have never had a “union experience” and so may be skeptical or disengaged from the messages that unions take into the workplace. In developing nations, the cynicism can be due to “yellow” or corporate unions or corrupt officials who are in the pocket of local bosses, organised crime or multinational corporations.

Second: Unions face an overwhelmingly hostile media. Most media organisations are owned and operated in the interests of big business, and despite the claims that there is a “liberal” (or left-wing) bias in the media, reporting on unions almost exclusively focuses on conflict and “scandal” — if there is any reporting at all.

In Australia, union reporting is increasingly conflated with the hostile, anti-Labor political reporting. With the fall-out of the HSU investigations, unions are facing an level of scrutiny that corrupt corporations and business people do not even face. Unions and unionism are constantly facing media attack.

Internationally, unions face a near total mainstream media black-out. Media organisations collaborate with multinationals and local executives to defame unions, or simply maintain a silence on the issue of workplace rights altogether.

Third: The growing culture of instant results and gratification put unrelenting pressure on unions for immediate results and delivery. At a shop-floor level, union members increasingly expect immediate resolution of workplace disputes. This expectation is party the result of members’ experiences with large private-sector service organisations — with large call centres and support teams. The reputation of a union can be severely challenged in a very short period of time if union organisers and industrial officers are not instantly responsive. Furthermore, dues paying members expect unions to win campaigns and improve working conditions — and have more avenues than ever to express their dissatisfaction when their union “doesn’t deliver”.

In my view, these challenges are faced by unions at an almost universal level. The strategies that unions must adopt are therefore very similar — although the tactical implementation of them will vary depending on local circumstances. Obviously in some places, like Mexico, Fiji or Bahrain — unions must also face governments that brutally oppress or suppress unions.

Here are five strategy elements that I believe unions must consider in order to tackle these challenges and achieve their goals of growth and success for members.

1. Choose your target and focus on them

Your strategy should begin by identifying who the primary audience (or audiences) for your union is. An important step is to develop an understanding of who “typical” non-members are — what demographics are they, what are their views on important issues, where to they live and so on. Build a profile of them. The same should be done for members. Unions should have a detailed understanding of who their members are and why they joined.

Many unions do this on an ad hoc level — a kind of gut instinct — but it should be done on a systematic basis.

Creating a member and non-member profile, and then prioritising those audiences will allow unions to better maintain a consistent focus during bargaining and growth campaigns, and to avoid being diverted.

2. Know your industry

Industries are increasingly complex and global supply chains means that decision-makers often live in far away cities or nations. Identifying your union’s “competition” — potentially other unions, employers and management teams, shareholders and financiers, related companies and suppliers — and understanding the economics of your industry will help you develop your organising and campaign strategies.

A union’s own strengths and weaknesses are only ever relative to those of its opponents — and understanding their weaknesses and strengths will help you build your own strengths and address your weaknesses. Understanding your industries will also better help you understand your members and potential members.

Unions are unique organisations whose primary strength is its members. More often though, unions are facing enormous multi-national corporations with nearly bottomless pits of money to wage industrial warfare. The management teams of these organisations understand traditional union tactics and operate contingency funds to “wait out” strikes and pickets, and fund massive and costly legal action. These same companies spend millions in lobbying to governments to change workplace laws, making traditional industrial action illegal or difficult.

However, these same companies must answer to investors, banks, corporate regulatory authorities, suppliers and customers.

By understanding the industries you work in completely and in great depth, you can discover ways to insulate your union’s own vulnerabilities and capitalise on a hostile employer’s weaknesses.

3. Position your union

I’ve written about positioning before in a political context — and simply put, positioning for unions is influencing how your audiences think about your union. The essential element of positioning is radical simplicity — how can you get your union into the minds of your members and potential members in a way that best serves your union’s interests?

Once you’ve determined your union’s target audience(s) and understood your industry, you can start to determine your union’s positioning. You need to determine what concepts, values and ideals you want your audiences to associate your union with. Your goal is to occupy this mental territory and do so more convincingly than your opponents.

The oft-cited case for Australian unions is the Your Rights At Work campaign — which was successful across many levels. One of those was how the ACTU positioned itself as a champion for your works at work in a way that convincingly displaced Work Choices as a way of thinking about workplace rights.

4. Create a contrast to define a choice

Effective campaigns work because they define a clear and simply choice. Action or no action. For unions, the most common choice would be joining the union — but it could be to sign the union card, become a delegate or shop steward, go on strike or take some form of industrial action or any number of other things.

If you’ve positioned your union well, the choice will be clear.

By focusing on the choice that you’re asking your members or potential members to make, you avoid them simply passing judgement on you. This kind of passive engagement with your target audiences is risky and potentially very dangerous for unions. Given the negative media and hostile employers or governments, asking your audience to just pass a judgement — do they support you or not — will not result in any action.

A choice (and corresponding action) will be effective if you’re able to offer a compelling contrast.

5. Discipline and perseverance

Fundamental to an effective strategy is discipline in following the strategy once its decided, and persisting with your campaign over the long haul. To unite your strategy with what happens on the ground with organisers and delegates, you must carefully consider what your union’s narrative is — what is the story that drives home your positioning and highlights the contrasts and choices you’re asking your audience to make.

In a conflict in the workplace, you are effectively caught in a battle for dominance between two competing narratives — the union’s story and the employer’s story. Every day that you spend being defined by your opponent’s narrative weakens you and vice versa.

Having a narrative is also important because it helps align everyone in your union and more broadly (e.g. community supporters, politicians, etc) with the strategy. Having a strong, easy to articulate narrative means that from the General Secretary down to the rank-and-file, the union’s strategy is understood.

The hostile and extreme environments that unions must organise in means that we must apply a much more rigourous, clear and simply strategies to win. While issues are often complex and intractable — involving scores of people and organisations — a winning strategy is one that boils down these complexities into something tangible and understandable.

If you want to look at how unions can adapt to internalise this kind of thinking, I’ve written a detailed post about what I call an “integrated organising-communications” model.

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