Union member retention is more important now than ever

In this article, I want to delve deeper into union member retention. Specifically, what unions can practically do to stop member churn before the members actually resign.

This is of course the basis of member retention programs, and you can read my past issues on this topic here and here.

I originally planned to send this newsletter next week, but as the coronavirus crisis worsens, and the prospects of a severe, long economic downturn becomes more likely, it’s more important than ever for unions to remain strong. Member retention will be absolutely vital in the months and years to come.

It is also vital that unions and progressive organisations solidify our preparedness to resist extreme conservative assaults on the welfare state. Big business and conservative governments are already using the crisis to implement Shock Doctrine policies. In the short-term, fighting this agenda must be a high priority — as well as using the crisis to advance a more civilised, humane society and economic system. We cannot return to “normalcy” after the crisis is passed.

Finally, as many unions (and other organisations) move to work-from-home arrangements, online campaigning and engagement is also more essential then ever. Now’s the time to download and share with your union comrades my free, comprehensive guide to Online Campaigning for Unions.

There are several types of member resignations, but they more or less fall into active and passive resignations.

Passive resignations are things like credit-card expiry or payment bounce/dishonour, or if a member changes job to an industry outside of your coverage, or leaves their job due to retirement.

Most member churn is due to passive, involuntary reasons like this, rather than active resignations. However, over the next 6-8 months, expect a lot of involuntary resignations due to members losing their jobs…

But what about active resignations? Again, there are different types of active resignations, but the main reason is that the member no longer sees the “value” of membership. And to understand what I mean by “value”, I should explain the three categories of why members join unions.

Why do members join their union? Union joining heuristics

Broadly speaking, there are three categories of reason that a worker joins their union. They are:

  1. Utilitarian: A worker could join because they expect a tangible benefit from their membership — for example, a payrise due to bargaining, industrial help, Union Shopper discounts, etc. In this category, the worker could make a considered weighing of options or alternatives to joining (e.g. not join, join a professional association instead, etc). Cost of membership will typically be weighed up in terms of the value of the service (however described) they will receive.
  2. Default (low involvement): A worker could join because it’s the default thing to do. Everyone joins, so they join. Or because they joined in their last job, or everyone in their family is a union member. Although they make the decision to join, it is a more passive decision with no evaluation of the alternatives. Cost of membership is often the deciding factor, but a decent member experience helps maintain the inertia/keep the habit.
  3. Expressive (values): A worker could join because the believe in what unions stand for, or because membership contributes to their own identity, i.e. they are committed unionists or progressives. In this case, cost of membership is secondary and is rationalised after they join, but the union’s values and political positions may often be far more important than the “servicing experience” the member receives. Many, but not all, of your activists and delegates would be in this category (they could equally be utilitarian joiners).

Obviously, the reason a member joined is not necessarily the reason they remain a member. Ideally, members who join for “utilitarian” or “default” reasons can be organised into becoming “expressive” members.

In the diagram above, the rounded boxes show the different types of approaches that are called for to help maintain a member. I’ve categorised them also into three groups: satisfaction, loyalty and relationship. Depending on why a member joined, different tactics will help retain them.

For example, members who join for utilitarian reasons related to a bargaining campaign (e.g. for a wage increase) will have a reasonable expectation of the union delivering the wage-increase, and the union will build the loyalty of that member by continuing to deliver improvements in working conditions and wages.

The reverse is also true: not delivering on your servicing promise (e.g. not winning a payrise) will reduce the likelihood of that member remaining a member.

However, for a member that joined because of “expressive” reasons (e.g. because they “believe” in unionism), winning that payrise is not necessarily fatal to remaining a member. If the union fought hard for the payrise during bargaining but didn’t win it, the expressive member may still remain a member because they “believe in the fight”.

Understanding why a member joined is therefore very important in what you can do to retain that member.

So what can you do to retain members?

Focus on how your membership delivers “value”

Each member will have a different understanding of what “value” is, as I’ve described. This concept of value is crucial for member retention, especially as we head into a coronavirus recession. Having a strong, clear sense of how membership delivers “value” will help members decide to remain members as they face difficult decisions about spending over the next few months or years.

In my Guide to Online Campaigning for Unions, I talk about the importance of segmenting your members. One of the key segments you could consider for your retention campaigns is the broad category of why they joined.

Once you’ve done this segmentation, you can tailor your retention messaging to that reason: to an “expressive member”, the “value” your union delivers is based on self-image congruity — by which I mean, how membership helps the member tell themselves and others “what kind of person they are”.

Likewise, for a “default” member, your messaging could focus on prompts that re-emphasise that “everyone is in the union” (absence of negatives) or is “cheaper/less riskier than not being a member” (low cost).

Members at risk of actively resigning need retention interventions that re-build or re-emphasise the most compelling reason they joined in the first place.

Identify any other problems contributing to churn

Some members may choose to resign because of a struggle to effectively interact with the union in a practical sense.

For example, a member who joins but receives no acknowledgement of joining (i.e. no welcome, no membership card, etc) except for dues being deducted fortnightly.

Another member may resign because of a poor experience with a union service: the call centre, a bad interaction with a delegate or organiser, dis-satisfaction with the union’s micro-credential training quality.

The first step to addressing these kinds of resignations is to identify the reason for the churn.

Sometimes, this may identify broader organisational issues within your union that could take a lot of time or resources (or both) to resolve (e.g. restructuring how your call centre operates). Other times, it may be easily fixable (providing specific training or coaching to a delegate).

Proactively look for signs of resignation-risk

The biggest indicator that a member is at risk of resigning is their lack of interaction with the union over several months.

Specifically, if the member has not interacted or engaged with the union — opened emails, attended a union workplace meeting, participated in a phone-call with an organiser, even logging into the member-only section of your website — they are at greater risk of resigning.

These are all signs that the member does not get enough “value” (however defined) from their membership.

The best way to monitor this is to list what actions or behaviours correspond to how your union is defining value across the three categories. You’ll then need a membership database or CRM that can track these specific actions to specific members. This will help you develop a scorecard for each member.


During times of hardship, especially recessions, workers look to reduce discretionary expenses of all kinds.

As noted, a substantial proportion of members are “price sensitive”. This underscores why it is vital that unions spend the time now to reiterate your “value” — both tangible and values-based — and also review your existing measures to address member hardship.

Many unions already have policies to lower or waive dues for members facing hardship. (Other unions also have specific hardship funds, the terms of which may or may not include something related to a pandemic.)

Looking at those policies now, at an early stage, will enable you to be more proactive, and consider ways to retain members facing hardship due to the coronavirus and its related recession.

For members who may be at risk of considering union membership a discretionary expense, taking steps now, will make a big difference.

%d bloggers like this: