What’s your union’s “promise”?

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What does your union stand for? Can your staff, organisers, delegates consistently explain what your union does?

How members and potential members perceive your union and it’s “promise” is very important to whether they choose to join or remain a member.

What do I mean by “promise”?

Your union’s “promise” is the perception held by a member or potential member that combines their expectations, associations and feelings towards your union.

Essential to this are two factors: trust and credibility.

Large volumes of research shows that the willingness for people to trust your promise, and the credibility your promise has (that you’ll follow through) are the two key indicators of whether someone will choose to join.

Which is why I asked: what does your union stand for? What is your union’s promise? Can everyone in your union, from the leadership to organisers and staff, to delegates and activists, explain what it is consistently?

In this article, I’ll go into more detail about the importance of your union’s “promise” — or brand.

A few years ago, the entire progressive movement, including parts of the union movement, were caught up in the “story wars” craze. Thankfully that period seems to have passed, but the importance of having a clear, concise and consistent brand has not.

In fact, as the union movement as a whole has sustained intense levels of attacks and demonisation by corporate media and conservative politicians, I think it is more important than ever.

Throughout this newsletter, I’ll refer to your union’s brand as it’s promise.

I think this term is probably better than “brand” — it doesn’t have the negative corporate/marketing connotations, and I also think talking about your union’s promise also captures the essential elements that I think are important: trust and credibility.

This may seem obvious, but the key to defining your union’s promise is stand for something. While this may seem simple, it can be devilishly tricky to actually develop.

Defining your promise

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).

A good example of a union promise was the ACTU slogan developed post-Your Rights At Work: “Join for a better life”. (Here’s one of the videos produced for the campaign in 2013.) This morphed into the “Build a Better Future” election campaign in 2016, which I also think was an excellent example of a “union promise”, and both of these clearly and concretely explain the specific, unique and tangible promise that the movement makes to working people.

But your promise isn’t just what 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 with a generic message that sounds like every other union (or sound like HR or an insurance company or the Fair Work Ombudsman), why would they join?

Similarly, if you’re promising something that members don’t want, why would they join or remain members?

Even if you don’t have a “promise”, it is likely that your union is communicating one to your members unconsciously or inadvertently. This could be through the stereotypes, maxims and tropes of unionism — “job insurance” or generic appeals to solidarity. And 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, that the promise is credible. For example: 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.

Academics Tulin Erdem and Joffre Swait, on the topic of credibility, write:

Credibility is broadly defined as the believability of an entity’s intentions at a particular time and is posited to have two main components; trustworthiness and expertise. Thus, brand credibility is defined as the believability of the product information contained in a brand, which requires that consumers perceive that the brand have the ability (i.e., expertise) and willingness (i.e., trustworthiness) to continuously deliver what has been promised (in fact, brands can function as signals since—if and when they do not deliver what is promised—their brand equity will erode). Both the expertise and trustworthiness of a brand reflect the cumulative impacts of associated past and present marketing strategies and activities.

That last bit — that attitudes about credibility and trustworthiness are “cumulative” is also crucially important.

It is why the attacks against unions by the Liberal party and conservative media over the last two decades are so damaging, and why they’re having an impact. Due to the “velcro effect“, the “brand” or public perception of the union movement has accumulated the years of smears, dirt and lies of historical attacks, and perceived (and actual) failures. The consequence is that this puts at risk the credibility of the entire movement.

The good news is that our most active supporters and delegates are the key to turning this problem around. Research by Australian academics Marcus Phipps, Jan Brace-Govan and Colin Jevons demonstrates that high involvement from supporters can build trust and credibility more widely.

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, especially those who have face-to-face contact 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.

Stand for something

The second subsidiary element to building a strong promise is to be very clear about what your union stands for.

This may not come as a surprise, but the unions that stand for something, and who are willing to court controversy (on their own terms), 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.

(Obviously, I don’t suggest courting controversy for the sake of; rather, I mean that your union should have clear, polarising positions on the issues that it chooses. If your opponents, like bosses, conservative politicians or the media, choose what the controversy is, then that’s when you fall into difficulty.)

Consider non-profit organisations that court controversy and make bold stands. For example, 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 stood for something, it meant that people who agreed with their position flocked to support them and existing supporters become more rusted on. (The “downside” of course is that this polarises and many people can be turned-off or reject the stand. This is certainly the case with an organisation like Greenpeace.)

In the private sector, there are many examples of this. For example, the recent controversy courted by clothing brand Patagonia supporting the climate strikes, or Star Bucks in the USA supporting same-sex marriage, or Nike supporting Colin Kaepernick. In those cases, the companies saw a boost in loyalty and commitment from customers (and sales and revenue), as people who supported the climate strikes or same-sex marriage flocked to them. (The same thing happened with conservative fried chicken brand Chick-fil-A and its polarising evangelical Christian conservative stands.)

For unions, standing for something means creating contrasts to define choices for members and potential members.

For example, it means the choice between action and no action, fighting for dignity or not, earning respect or not, getting paid properly or not, having a safe workplace or not.

By defining a choice, your potential members have to make an active decision rather than simply passively passing judgement on your union.

As Tony Abbott might say, you need to draw some battle-lines and make people pick a side.

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.