The union leader’s blueprint for growth in 2023

Union growth has been at the front of my mind for the past three or more years, and I know almost all union leaders think constantly about how we can achieve sustainable membership growth.

While some unions are growing — and growing fast — growth remains elusive for many other unions. Achieving membership growth that outpaces population and workforce growth is especially difficult.

It is also important to note that most unions don’t have a recruitment problem — they can sign up new members just fine, just enough to replace retiring and resigned members. It’s a growth problem. The pace and scale of recruitment that means that for many there is no net growth.

The decision to grow is just that — a decision, an explicit choice that your union must make.

The ACTU’s investment since 2019 was one such decision, where the ACTU’s Executive and leadership determined to allocate substantial resources to new, innovative growth initiatives. The decisions required for growth will impact every part of your union — it’s budget, it’s staffing, it’s structure and it’s culture.

And growth doesn’t necessarily happen immediately. The investments and changes made by the ACTU in 2020 have often been long-term, with long-term digital projects paying off 12 or 24 months later.

Has your union made that explicit decision to grow, or is membership recruitment just one of many priorities that are part of someone’s long list of responsibilities?

When your union makes the organisational decision to prioritise growth, it shapes (or should shape) decision-making across almost every part of your union. Recruiting new members is not only good for those new members, but it also helps strengthen the power of existing members — so growth should help create a unifying sense of purpose for your union’s leadership, staff and delegates.

The publicly available data shows that only a handful of unions have seen sustained and significant growth in the past 5-10 years. This is not for want of trying — as noted, most unions are fine at recruiting new members. It is growth that is hard.

With Australia heading to a potential economic downturn, it is especially important for unions to re-focus on growth.

Unions have a lot of natural advantages. We are financially stable and resilient. We have a core of members who are exceptionally loyal, and who promote and advocate membership to their co-workers. We have a natural presence in workplaces through our delegate and shop-steward structures, as well as teams of organisers who can personally visit workplaces (or visit them digitally).

The challenging economic times are therefore an opportunity for our movement to invest in growth and to further accelerate our digital organising, campaigning and recruitment capabilities that were sped up during the pandemic.

My observation over the past few years is unions that are growing, or investing significantly in growth, have leaders who have developed a specific mindset for how they want their union to behave, how they measure effectiveness, and a distinct attitude to focusing on what members want. This means they invest in growth enabling activities, technology and systems differently.

I also want to highlight that the ACTU has produced a detailed report, based on a major insights research project, called Battles to be Won. Contact the ACTU Insights Team for a copy,

I’ve been enormously privileged at the ACTU to work with some truly exceptional comrades and colleagues, and to have access to incredible data and insights.

Here’s some steps and core capabilities that I think are vital to help foster effective, sustainable growth for unions in 2023.

Note: it goes without saying, but although I refer to ACTU resources in this article, everything in this article is my personal view and does not represent the view of the ACTU.

A “growth” culture

Having a commitment to growth means trying to create a set of mindsets and behaviours (which together contribute to culture) in your union that facilitate member recruitment.

This means:

  • Putting growth first: new member recruitment becomes top of the agenda for staff leadership meetings, and committee of management meetings, and this priority is communicated clearly to your union’s staff, delegates and other internal leaders.
  • Taking (calculated) risks and having a willingness to fail: Unions that grow not only invest in new modes of organising (e.g. digital recruitment) but also in new areas, industries and geographies. While it is important to ensure your core sites and industries remain strong, growing unions also have multiple growth projects — this means you can see what is effective and scalable, without risking significant losses if your new initiative isn’t effective.
  • Really focusing on what members want: While most unions put their members first, growing unions take this to the next level. This means spending time and resources understanding what members want from their membership. Many of the unions who have grown the most in the past decade have strong member insights, and leaders who take those insights into all decision-making about the union’s operations, workflows and systems. This is more than just running campaigns on issues that members care about, this is about changing your union’s structures to fully serve members.
  • Willingness to face facts: Not all areas of a union’s membership are suited for growth, and sometimes these areas can be a major drain on the union’s resources and ability to deliver for all members. Growing unions are willing to make these hard decisions — and avoid the sunk-cost fallacy.
  • Break down internal barriers: Union growth requires everyone in the union to be committed to it — not just recruitment officers or growth organisers. This means that union leaders in growing unions seek out internal barriers to growth — silos, turf battles, lack of resources, cultural resistance — and try to diffuse them.

All of these elements contribute to building a “growth culture”. But it’s not something that will happen immediately. This is about fostering a culture over the medium and long-term, across the entire union.

It is also crucial that this mindset and culture has buy-in and support across the entire union. From your committee of management or executive, to your delegates and leaders, and importantly with every team of staff in your union. Without a unified commitment across the entire union to growth and to building a culture that welcomes and encourages new member recruitment, it will be very difficult to sustain the activities and systems you need.

Three pathways for union growth

There are three main pathways to growth. These are the decisions that union leaders face constantly — so these aren’t new by any means.

  • Growing in your “core”
  • Expanding to new (unorganised) worksites / industries / occupations
  • Growth through amalgamation

None of these are mutually exclusive. In fact, balancing these are part of the strategy of growth — how much do you invest in your core membership areas vs invest in new potential occupations or worksites? There’s no simple answer that I have — it will be different for each union.

Expand the “core”

Growth should begin with your core. Unless you have +80% density in your main worksites, there is likely significant growth to be had in your union’s large workplaces, industries and sectors.

ACTU research shows that there are around 20-25% of workers who are “Union Believers” — workers who strongly support and approve of unions. This equates to around 2.5 million workers. Fewer than half of Union Believers are union members yet. Similarly, there are another 20-25% of workers who are pro-union to a large degree (albeit, less strongly than Union Believers — contact the ACTU Insights Team for more information, The ACTU’s research and insights also goes into great depth about the key drivers and barriers for those workers.

This means that almost every union will have a reasonably large cohort of potential members who are pro-union, but have not yet joined, in your already organised workplaces. This is as much as 50% of the workforce.

Of course, we should be looking for new audiences — but growth begins at the core. Lifting density in those core is a very legitimate and effective way to achieve long-term, sustainable growth. And it is easier than expanding to new, unorganised sectors, because you already have structures, networks, mapping, etc, in place.

Member and non-member insights are vital to reaching those workers in your core who have not yet joined. Your union’s commitment to growth means that expanding in your core areas still requires systems and structural change.

For example, what are the barriers to those potential members? What part of your membership offering do they most value? Is there something really valuable you have as part of membership that non-members simply aren’t aware of? Do you need to expand or improve the value of membership? Are your member retention systems truly effective?

Having a growth culture I wrote of earlier is especially important for your core. To grow beyond your current levels in your core sectors requires change (otherwise your membership would be higher!), and it is a safe bet to prioritise growing in your core before devoting significant resources to expanding into new, unorganised sectors.

Expand into new sectors and innovate with new tools

It is vital to have a strong core membership base. This strong core is how you build the resources to expand into new sectors, or to adopt new innovative tools and tactics.

Most unions have coverage of sectors, occupations or industries outside their core, which are not strongly organised. These are the next obvious place to expand into for growth.

This could also include new geographies. For example, state-wide or national unions may have a strong core of membership in certain geographic areas, but limited membership in suburban or regional areas.

Alternatively, there could be complimentary sectors to your existing core where your union has coverage but low density.

Many unions increasingly are looking at longer-term demographic changes to identify these new sectors. In Australia, service industries, new manufacturing, increased automation and knowledge work are all megatrends that union leaders should be aware of; establishing a strong union base in sectors or industries that are small today but will potentially dominate in future.

It is also important that your expansion into new sectors or geographies are still relatively close to or similar to your core areas of coverage. This is important for your union’s internal cohesion, but also because the further afield from your core you try to grow, the harder and more risky it becomes. By remaining close to your core, it means you can leverage the strength you have in your core membership — your delegates, your organisers, your union’s systems are more familiar and able to adapt to the new sector.

Another growth avenue is to trial new modes of membership. An example of this was the United Workers Union Hospo Voice project — where the union both entered into a new unorganised sector (hospitality) and used a new mode of organising (digital only).

Another “new” mode of growth is the opportunities that arise from the new Secure Jobs, Better Pay laws, and the potential for multi-employer bargaining. For most unions, this type of bargaining will be a new experience, so to succeed, it is vital to engage early with the ACTU to get the best information and capacity support.

Amalgamating to grow

Growing your union through amalgamation and mergers is something unions have done for many years, and is an entirely legitimate way to grow. There are obvious benefits for members to be part of a larger union — but realising the most valuable benefits (economies of scale, better systems, lower costs) takes a lot of effort and commitment from the leaders of the new union.

It is this commitment — a conscious focus from the leadership and senior staff, that will really unlock the benefits of a union amalgamation. A few thoughts on this:

  • Ensure there are clear roles and governance: the new union’s leaders and staff need to ensure everyone knows who has what role, both at a leadership level but also across the entire structure. Role clarity and good governance is vital for to ensure your new union is making good, effective decisions.
  • Effectively communicate within the new union and to members: effective union amalgamations over-communicate, with their staff and with their members. Internally to the union, a merger can mean anxiety for staff — will I have a job, will my job change, will my status change, who will I report to? Similarly, members will have questions — who will my organiser be, how do I get support, will my worksite still get visited, will the parts of the union I really value remain? Prioritising effective communication both with staff and with members is crucial.
  • Actively manage culture and cultural differences: Union amalgamations in the past have often seen a clash of culture. These days, mergers are much friendlier, but it is still important to be very mindful of how even small cultural differences can impact the effectiveness of your amalgamation. For example, attitudes to things like right of entry, pickets and industrial action, or language used in member communications are all important.
  • Prioritise your new “core” membership: As part of the amalgamation, there should be clarity that preserving your existing membership is vital. This often requires significant work in administrative and operational teams, but it is also important that if the merger results in new structures or organising teams that pockets of members don’t get “lost” or “forgotten”.

Execution is everything

You can have the best strategy in the world, but unless you can actually make it real, it is worthless. It is this intersection, where plans become action, that is the most important part of achieving growth.

Enabling this action — execution — requires systems and workflows, adequate resources and resource allocation, and key functional capabilities in your union.

Systems that promote growth, and resourcing growth

Unions that are fully committed to growth, as I noted earlier, slowly but purposely change how their union operates and where resources are allocated. This means giving up on “the way things are always done” and ending reliance on historic budgeting allocations.

There is no one system or workflow that is guaranteed to deliver growth. What is required is that your union’s systems are centred around making growth easier, ensuring that all staff facilitate growth, recruitment and retention.

At a starting point, you should review your union’s systems with this in mind. I go into a lot of depth about this in this article, Have you joined your own union recently?

Undertaking this process also means committing to change. Remember, the purpose of reviewing and revising your union’s operations and workflows is to remove the internal organisational barriers to growth and recruitment.

It also should involve introducing (or reviewing) the metrics that you track for success and recruitment. As they say, “what gets measured gets done”, so it is important to look at what numbers you collect and report on. (Here’s four metrics every union should track.)

Furthermore, your union needs to adequately resource growth. This could mean dedicating specific staff whose role it is to service new members (which assists retention), recruit new members (some of the largest unions grow through their dedicated recruitment teams) or train staff and delegates. What proportion of your union’s budget is dedicated to solely growth and recruitment?

Improving your union’s functional capacity

You can’t effectively act if your union doesn’t have the right functional strengths, skills and capabilities within your union’s staff or leadership.

The vital functional union capacities have rapidly changed because of the pandemic — having digital capabilities is now absolutely crucial, for example. As a union leader, you should be looking at what skills your staff, organisers, industrial officers, etc, need in the short-term but also for the next three to five years.

For example, as the economy has undertaken a massive digital shift, it is vital that organisers, communications staff and industrial officers all know how to use basic digital tools like Zoom, Teams, Office, Slack and so on. Similarly, many unios have adopted the new IMIS membership system — which will require staff to know how to use that tool effectively, as well as how to create and understand the various reports that IMIS (or any modern membership CRM) can generate.

Basic digital literacy is now a key “tool of the trade” for all union staff and union leaders, regardless of what your function is in the union. Those basic digital tools like Zoom, Teams, etc are all “force-multipliers” for your union. Ensuring all of your staff are familiar with how to use Office, Excel, Word, Teams etc is a “must”. This is before you even start to look at valuable but optional tools that could assist organising and growth, like WhatsApp, Signal, or digital analytics tools.

By lifting the base capacity and digital literacy of your union, you’ll incrementally improve the ability for your union to act across every area of activity.

The key investment for union leaders is training for your staff, and insisting on a standard of digital literacy across the board. The old excuses of “being too old” to learn how to use new basic digital tools should no longer be acceptable.

Another capability for unions is in insights. This is something the ACTU has invested in heavily — and this capacity is available for affiliates. By insights, I mean the ability to deeply examine your members and potential members, their needs, desires, concerns and attitudes.

The union movement now has the ability to more effectively and deeply understand workers than ever before. Incorporating these insights across your union will help you deliver on growth strategies. You can contact the ACTU Insights Team by emailing

“Choosing to grow”

The purpose of this article is to highlight and define the key elements that union leaders could focus on to deliberately, purposely and sustainable grow their unions.

Hopefully it prompts some important questions:

  • Does my union have a culture that encourages recruitment and growth?
  • Does my union’s leadership and staff have the right skills and capabilities?
  • Does my union have the right enablers for growth, and have we removed barriers to growth?
  • Does my union have clarity of purpose that helps guide staff, delegates and leaders to grow?
  • Does my union adequately resource growth?

The decisions that you make, as a union leader, will have a massive impact on your growth in 2023.

Next year has the potential to be an important culminating point for the union movement. With the new Secure Jobs, Better Pay laws coming into effect (mostly) in July 2023, there are massively expanded opportunities. But the unions that grow in 2023 will be the ones that make the decision to grow.

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