Defining your union’s promise and standing for something

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If the conversations that I’m having at the moment are any judge, many unions and progressive organisations are looking closely at their communications and narrative. In countries or states with hostile conservative governments, like Australia or Canada, this is especially pressing.

The key to nailing your narrative and developing a strategic communications plan is simple: define your union’s promise and stand for something.

Your union “promise” seems simple, but it can be devilishly tricky to actually develop.

Your union’s “promise” is the unique commitment that the union makes to its members when they sign up and participate collectively. The promise, ultimately, is made for two reasons: to encourage workers to join the union, and to deliver on the objectives of the union (both in an industrial sense and wider social sense).

The promise isn’t just what you think your union is saying; more importantly, it is what your members and potential members hear.

The essence of your union’s promise is shaped by a range of things, both internal to the union and external. For example, the political position of the union, the capabilities of its organisers, staff and activists, but also the activities of employers and governments, and by rivals (e.g. other unions, other organisations or even a company’s HR department).

Your union’s promise must be both unique and it must address a genuine need in your membership. If you’re going to members and potential members sounding like every other union, why would they join? Similarly, if you’re promising something that members don’t want, why would they join or remain members?

If you don’t know what your union’s promise is, then it is likely that you are communicating one to your members unconsciously or inadvertently. This would be through the stereotypes, maxims and tropes of unionism — “stronger together” or “membership as job insurance”. An inadvertent promise would also be communicated to your members and potential members daily by delegates and organisers.

There are two areas that unions should consider when developing a promise.

Firstly, the promise must be able to be delivered on. There’s no point in promising job-insurance if the union can’t actually ensure significant job security for members. If your union has a promise about defending members rights, then the leadership of the union must invest in the organisers, legal staff and delegate structures required to actually provide that defence. You will run into major problems if there is a gap between what you’re promising and what you’re delivering.

Secondly, once you have developed your promise, you need to ensure everyone knows what it is. By everyone, I mean, all your staff, organisers, and delegates, who are essential in communicating face-to-face with members and potential members. If your delegates don’t know what your union’s promise is, or have it muddled, or don’t agree with it, then you will experience problems. Tied to this is that your promise must be consistently communicated; consistent over time and through multiple channels. If you are regularly changing your promise, then you will just create confusion in your audience and for your advocates.

The second subsidiary element to building a strong foundation for your communications strategy is being very clear in what your union stands for.

This may not come as a surprise for many unions, but the unions that stand for something, and who are willing to court controversy, generally have a much clearer promise to their members and potential members.

By standing for something, you build the loyalty and devotion of your committed members, who more easily become activists, leaders and delegates.

Consider non-profit organisations that court controversy and make bold stands. The ones I have a lot to do with are environmental, Greenpeace and The Wilderness Society. Greenpeace in particular is known for taking controversial action, including the Ice Climb, and the protests against oil drilling in the Arctic.

These were controversial because they challenge entrenched power and economic interests. Because Greenpeace was standing for something, it meant that people who agreed with their position flocked to support them and existing supporters become more rusted on.

In the private sector, there are many examples of this. For example, the recent controversy courted by ice-cream brand Ben & Jerry’s supporting the Great Barrier Reef, or Star Bucks in the USA supporting same-sex marriage. In both cases, the brands saw a boost in sales and revenue as people who supported the Reef or same-sex marriage flocked to them. (The same thing happened with conservative fried chicken brand Chick-fil-A and its evangelical Christian conservative stand.)

For unions, standing for something means creating contrasts to define choices for members and potential members. It means the choice between action and no action, fighting for dignity or not, earning respect or not. It means that you avoid your members or potential members simply passively passing judgement on the union.

Combining your union’s promise and standing for something to define a choice will embolden and energise your passionate members, who in turn will advocate for your union. Excited, engaged and impassioned delegates and activists are key to building union power. Understanding and owning their union’s promise and values will give your members courage, and just as importantly, will build the commitment of your union’s organisers, staff and leadership.

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