In this article, I want to make the case that the union movement should invest significantly in rebuilding its social and civic activities, which were a prominent feature of Australian (and other nations) unionism in the early 1900s.
By consciously re-starting and re-instituting a range of deliberate social and civic activities, unions can make their membership more “sticky”.
(What do I mean by “sticky”? Simply that your members are more likely to want to remain members in the face of adverse situations, like financial hardship, career change or hostile bosses.)
Social and civic elements were crucial in my view to the early success of unions to become legitimate, lawful organisations (afterall — we were illegal in the 1800s).
In this period, unions were involved in, established or ran numerous social and civic institutions, including schools and training shops, meal clubs, friendly societies, sports clubs, newspaper and radio stations, funeral clubs and theatre groups. Unions and unionism were integrated into the community, not just the workplace.
Furthermore, deep civic participation by unions built a culture of collectivism and collective action that permeated through geographies and across industries. This assisted in the establishment of class-consciousness, and the building of collective identities for working people and their communities.
By the 1970s, more or less, the deep social elements of unionism were in decline, and to my knowledge by the mid 2000s only a few social/collective activities that were explicitly “union” remained.
Firstly, we need to recognise that social legitimacy is always contested — and unions must always remain dynamic organisations capable of genuinely representing working people, not just in workplaces but in civil society too.
Secondly, we should re-capture our historic role and mission to be active beyond narrow workplace matters.
What is the benefit of civic activities for unions now, when unions face growth, recruitment and retention challenges, a hostile government and ruthless businesses?
In my view:
- the more union members engage with their unions in multiple forums and environments, the more likely they will be to remain members, even in adverse situations;
- the more potential members see unions engaged in positive, pro-social, constructive activities, the more likely they will be to be positive towards unions and be open to recruitment conversations.
Lots of unions have social elements to their activities — and in fact, lots of delegates socialise with each other.
But I think as a movement we need to consciously reintroduce strong social and civic elements to how we operate.
Here’s some ideas:
(More) Social events
As I noted, many unions have social events, but having a deliberate and planned social calendar for your union’s members, delegates and volunteer officers.
These events should have the explicit aim of building stronger connections (and hence solidarity) between your members and activists.
Furthermore, they should be regular and smaller — and not always tied to an explicit organising or campaign push. The point is to have a place/event where people can safely interact with each other, without some kind of transaction.
It’s worth noting that neo-liberalism has created a loneliness epidemic. The atomisation of workers and casualisation erodes the natural social bonds created in workplaces.
The business sector already knows this. Which is why there’s a growing cottage industry of charities and for-profit groups creating “meet-ups”. Many of these revolve around micro-industries, and are explicitly networking events.
But unions can do something more through building social connections: strengthen class solidarity.
Mass social events
The union movement in most states and territories still holds Union Picnic Days (in fact, we re-launched our Union Picnic Day in the ACT a few years ago, with a large Labour Day Festival).
But I think we can do better.
We need to structure our events to be large, welcoming and inclusive — and to not be a financial drain on the movement.
The point of holding these mass-events is to open the movement to non-members (as well as existing members) and draw them in. To re-normalise interactions and socialising in an explicitly union-space.
There is a powerful psychological effect that comes with a mass-solidarity event like a rally. And a similar effect comes when there are large numbers of people socialising together, for example at a festival. (This is a feature of large music festivals for example.)
Small groups are the basis of workplace organising. In the Organising Works framework, they’re Workplace Organising Committees (WOCs) — small groups of 5-10 workplace activists, led by a delegate and supported by an organiser.
There’s a lot of research (e.g. Peetz) that demonstrates that the presence of delegate in a workplace is causally linked to increased union membership, density and power.
This research also points to the importance of supported, trained delegates. Having a WOC for your delegates materially increases their effectiveness — and adding the development a social support network for your delegates and your WOCs will further strengthen their resiliency.
Benefits of adding a social element to your WOCs include:
- Increasing attendance at WOC meetings
- Emotional validation and strength
- Greater objective understanding of workplace issues
- Improved resilience in a time of crisis or conflict in the workplace or within the group.
Other techniques to make your union “sticky”
There’s always been discussions and debates about union growth, and increasingly that discussion has turned to retention.
The truth is that most unions are actually very effective at signing up new members. But there’s a massive “leaky bucket” problem.
While there’s not precise numbers, the cost of signing up a new member is massively higher than retaining an existing member (often between three and seven times as expensive).
Here’s some additional things your union could consider to try to improve retention (and many of these are already done at unions across the country).
Over-servicing in first 12 months
A number of unions have recently made the decision to “over-service” new members in the first 12 months.
My own experience when I worked for different unions (and charities) was that the more direct interactions that a new member had with the union very early in their membership, the more likely they were to remain a member. The interactions could be attending an event, a face-to-face meeting with a delegate or organiser, receiving help for an issue, using one of the union’s services (like Union Shopper) or anything else.
Other examples include:
- having new member kits that include union-merch (t-shirts, badges, stickers, even lunch-boxes)
- a regular out-bound contact program from the union’s call centre or by organisers to call new members at regular intervals (e.g. within a week of joining, then a month later, 3 months later, six months later and nine months later, etc).
I used to be completely scornful of union merch. Years ago, I believed that most union merch was a waste of money.
I’ve changed my mind.
Union merch that is well-designed, that looks and feels good, and that a member or supporter would voluntarily wear (for example, going to the gym or on the weekend), can be a great way of making unions “sticky”.
Decent union merch can tap into the commitment and consistency principle — taking people from being passive supporters into people who self-identify as strong union supporters. This is something that sports clubs know very well, and it’s why they produce vast quantities of merch aimed at kids — turning children into life-long fans (obviously the merch is not the only thing that does that, but it contributes).
This is a new area that a few unions have taken the lead on.
Micro-credentialing is a kind of training and professional development that focuses on a single skill or competency — and which does not come with a full certificate or degree.
There are a number of benefits for unions to provide micro-credentials:
- A low barrier, inexpensive and scalable way for the union to interact with large numbers of members.
- Assists members to achieving their career goals (this is something that increasing volumes of union research demonstrates that members want).
- Can be a revenue stream for unions, even if the training is provided at low cost for members.
The ASU is one of the leaders in this area, and I really suggest checking out what they’re doing in this area.
Members-only sections (make sure they log in quickly)
Lots of unions have member-only sections on your website. I’m not the biggest fan of these, but if they’re used correctly, they can help retain members.
The number 1 thing for member-only sections is to ensure your new members log in as soon as possible.
Research conducted in other membership-based organisations show that member-only websites can contribute to retention, but only if they’re used by the member, and used early on in their membership.
Along with the member-only section, your union should look at what’s in the member-only section. Why would someone want to log-in and keep logging in?
Other membership organisations for example have extensive libraries of member-only “content” — blogs, news, tools, forums, resources, advice, discounts, etc. Does your union’s member-only section have anything like this?