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In this newsletter, I want to talk about one of the main barriers to union growth: dysfunction.

Most unions are large organisations, and the larger any organisation gets, the more complex it becomes. Complexity and bureaucracy are major inhibitors to growth: it can distort decision-making, slow it down and contribute to perverse outcomes. Add to that the purposely-created over regulation of the Registered Organisations Act and FWA requirements for unions, and there’s a recipe for dysfunction.

In my view, the barriers to growth facing the union movement are many, but a major barrier is internal, not external.

Of course, there are external challenges and contributors to complexity. But the roots of growth still remain largely within unions’ own ability to overcome friction, complexity and dysfunction within themselves.

How do we do this? Simple: focus on defining and delivering on your union’s core promise.

Almost all growth-based organisations, whether charities, corporations or unions, experience significant challenges to growth, which are related to their size, complexity and internal processes.

External factors of course play a role, but overcoming the challenges to growth is within the power of unions themselves, even under very adverse conditions.

Many unions today struggle to grow, but do not struggle to sign up new members.

The reasons for declining growth and complexity are varied (and retention is a massive one obviously — see my previous article), but broadly in my view come under several headings:


Your union’s decisions about where to prioritise its resources will have a big impact on growth. Read my previous issue on strategy for more on this. If you don’t have clear priorities, then it can be hard to act decisively, build or maintain momentum or keep in touch with members.

Staffing limitations

Despite best efforts, sometimes key staff are not up to their job. This could be at any point through the union (front-line, admin, finance, comms, or leadership). Similarly, your union may lack key expertise that could be recruited in to fill a skills-gap. Unions no longer have the luxury of carrying low-performing staff – we owe it to our members to either train & develop those staff up to standard or help them find another job.

Organisational structures

It’s been widely commented that unions remain designed for an industrial relations system that no longer exists. This is true throughout many union’s organisational structures. While organisational change is difficult and painful, sometimes it is crucial to unshackling your union from obsolete structures and path-dependencies. This isn’t just about amending rules, but about how your union operates as an organisation – management & reporting structures, culture, IT, membership databases, processes for handling offs, and the like are all important.


Making the right decisions at the right time is probably the most important thing union leaders have to do, but of course is very difficult. If a union’s leadership is making the wrong calls about something, or making the right calls at the wrong time, then it will have an impact on how effective the union is. And of course, if a decision is bad, it won’t matter how good your team is at executing the decision.

External factors

There are of course external factors that impact on how effective your union is and how it can grow. These include:

  • Regulation (like FW Act, ABCC and the RO Act) plays a role in creating dysfunction within unions, as especially over-regulation from the ROC distorts how unions prioritise resources into compliance activities rather than growth.
  • State of the economy or the jobs growth in the industries your union covers — if there’s a mass shut-down of jobs, that will of course have an impact.
  • Actions by bosses and HR, etc — hostile actions by employers, or decisions by HR departments, can impact on how hard or easy it is to sign up new members.

My view is that external factors are important, but internal factors are more often much more important when it comes to assisting or hindering growth.

Overcoming internal dysfunction

If complexity is one of the root causes of dysfunction, the solution is to re-discover your union’s core purpose or “promise”.

Years ago, I wrote that having a clear, simple promise for your members is essential for unions to win. This remains true today.

Having a promise, a clearly stated purpose, helps you, your staff team and your rank-and-file leaders, focus on the most important activities and priorities for your union.

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? (More here.)

A major part of this is saying “no” to things — especially old things that the union may have been doing for a long time but may be bogging you down. It may also mean saying no to new things.

It’s also worth stressing that developing a clear purpose and promise shouldn’t just impact on your organising team. It’s really essential that the admin, industrial, finance and membership side of the union are aligned as well.

For example: If your union’s core priority is to grow, but your IT and admin are not assisting this, then that’s a source of “dysfunction”. (And by this, I don’t mean that the admin staff are necessarily doing things wrong or badly, just that what they are doing may not be assisting the union’s priorities.)

Tim Lyons makes the point in his paper Organising Ourselves that when corporations take on new business lines or undergo restructures, they typically invest a substantial sum into doing it (normally as debt).

When you examine the financial accounts and strategic plans of a mid-sized private company that has confidence in its business model and a strategy to grow, you often see a number of things. You see some debt, with borrowings used to fund a growth strategy. You see a serious commitment of resources to human capital development, to product innovation, to R&D and to strategy development and execution. You see not a lot of cash sitting around doing nothing. You don’t see a lot of superfluous assets like property.

These days, you will usually also see evidence of a digital strategy that goes to back-end efficiency, new channels of contact with customers, and work on the development of genuinely new products.

The business has a plan and a model that it believes will work and it is allocating resources and investing accordingly to that plan.

What do you often see when you examine similar documents for unions? None, or very few of these features. In fact, you often see the reverse. You see large reserves that are slowly eroded to fund general operations. You see little investment in human capital innovation and R&D. And you almost never see sufficient resources (people, systems and processes) devoted to strategy. You see large amounts of waste through duplication of systems across divisions, and a failure to use the scale of the whole organisation when procuring. Many, perhaps most, unions have ‘lazy balance sheets’, they are sitting on significant cash and underutilised or underperforming property assets.

Investment in growth is a serious endeavour in business. On the other hand, in unions the extent growth strategies are pursued it is sometimes less a product of strategy as it is panic about decline. Some unions are captive to an existing declining membership base and sacrifice the pursuit of new members in strategic new industries in order to satisfy existing members in declining industries. Our structures reflect the economy of the 1980s not 2018, and resources are not well matched to opportunities: some of the unions with the most potential for significant growth have among the lowest levels of existing resources, and vice versa.

Like Tim Lyons, I don’t suggest running unions like a businesses.

What I do suggest is that unions should look honestly at dysfunction and complexity within their organisations.

What I did at UnionsACT

When I took the reigns at UnionsACT, the organisation engaged in a lot of “non-core” activities; we ran a building, ran an RTO and were involved in a large number of activities that we’d said “yes” to over the years. Furthermore, our IT and admin systems were very antique. In short, UnionsACT was a good organisation with a lot of “dysfunction”.

The first steps I took were to reorganise our IT and admin systems — we moved from old, slow and out-dated systems to faster, cheaper systems like Google Apps, Dropbox and Xero. I went through the painful process of shutting down our loss-making RTO, and selling our under-used, remotely-located building. And I withdrew UnionsACT from a number of longstanding but peripheral sponsorships.

And I spent 6 months consulting with affiliates (and staff) on UnionsACT’s core promise; we agreed that the number 1 priority would be to turn UnionsACT into an effective campaigning organisation. Activities and functions not tied to campaigning were stopped.

To conclude this newsletter, I’ll reiterate: in my view, the key to recapturing growth is largely in control of unions, not external. But it involves the hard task of recognising and repairing the dysfunctional things inside your union — the things that aren’t working any more.

This can be difficult, it could be painful, but it is necessary.

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