The biggest obstacles to union growth?

Almost all unions recruit members. In fact, the union movement last year recruited over 150,000 workers.

So what are the barriers to growth? Why isn’t the movement 150,000 members larger than in 2021?

There are numerous difficult cultural, operational, strategic, political, and budget issues that must be overcome by union leaders and staff if we want to genuinely grow, not just recruit.

Over the years, I’ve spoken with many union secretaries, directors of organising, lead organisers and comms staff, and there are common obstacles that come up time and time again.

Here are some of the most common barriers to growth.

Cultural barriers

The culture at many unions is typically powerfully shaped by the industries they cover, and (from a recruitment and growth perspective) path dependency.

This means, culturally, most unions are comfortable doing recruitment in the predictable way they’ve done it previously. Attempts to change how recruitment happens — to try new approaches — is rarely greeted with open arms. This is especially the case if there is a perception that the new approach may “cannibalise” on the existing approach, or if the new approach might up-end the current model of organising. (Read more how dysfunction impedes growth here.)

Most unions have leaders and staff with long memories. Long-timers remember — and rarely hesitate to remind their comrades — of all the past attempts at new approaches to growth that didn’t work.

The cultural barriers to growth are very resistant to large changes — and attempts to do anything more than small tweaks often provoke strong reactions.

For leaders and staff who do want to try new approaches to growth, recruitment and retention, overcoming the cultural inertia for the status quo is a major challenge.

Cultural change is very difficult, but having a culture that facilitates growth is vital. As the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Put another way, no amount of good strategy or tactics will overcome a culture that impedes growth.

A related problem is that changing how your union recruits and retains members can often make some inside unions feel uncomfortable, like they’re being criticised or edged out. This can be linked to the objection related to “cannibalisation” — the idea that new initiatives can undermine existing membership activities. If this view is prevalent in your union, then there can be resistance to a new growth initiative that potentially competes for resources within your union.

As a union leader, you can’t stop every political squabble or objection, but you can be clear about what the union’s priorities are, what staff are expected to do and how others are expected to support it.

Lack of insights or data crucial to growth

Most unions have representative structures that allow leaders to detect signals from members, workers and workplaces. And similarly, most unions act well on those signals.

But those representative structures and signals are typically very focused on industrial matters — bargaining, disputes and the like — and are very often qualitative.

So unions are very good at detecting risks and trouble related to restructures, underpayments, change management, consultation, redundancies and lay-offs, etc.

However, these aren’t necessarily growth signals. They can be — and unions often cite these as “organising opportunities”. But the practical experience of these organising opportunities is that only rarely do they result in long-term, net growth.

The challenge we have is detecting and then acting on growth signals.

What are growth signals?

At a basic level, this could be metrics and data about recruitment and churn — where and when, and the drivers of that churn. Is churn caused by dues defaults, retirements, employer redundancies, in a particular worksite or linked to a specific delegate or organiser? Is high volume, sustainable growth coming from workplace issues (“organising opportunities”) or other activities (e.g. inductions, your website’s membership form, a specific organiser)?

Those growth signals are also the representative structures, where delegates and workplace leaders see something important. This then requires your union to have growth processes, as well as industrial processes to act on those signals.

What is member churn?

Churn is a term that indicates number of members your union loses over a specific time period. “Churn rate” designates the percentage of a union’s total members who churn for whatever reason, and often refers to members resigning their memberships. Churn is a critical metric of union growth.

Lack of budget

Growing takes money and resources. And increasingly, this means resources dedicated specifically and singularly to growth (recruitment and retention), as distinct from organising.

While most unions put the majority of their resources into organising and industrial support, it does not follow that organising resources equals growth resourcing.

Especially when many unions face frozen or declining membership and inflation, having a dedicated budget for new approaches to recruitment and retention is vital.

A recruitment and retention budget allows your union to trial new approaches to growth.

This budget does not need to be large — for many unions, especially small and medium sized unions, having a sizable budget will likely be impossible. Having a specific budget will allow your union to trial concrete recruitment and retention projects in addition to organising-as-normal.

Getting the right strategy or vision

I’ve written previously on the importance of unions having clear, unambiguous priorities. Having a clear set of priorities ensures your leadership team and staff are clear on what they’re supposed to be doing.

Without a clear set of priorities, your union’s efforts can wind up feeling scattershot and isolated.

When it comes to growth, making recruitment and retention a core priority is vital. This needs to be led from the union’s most senior leadership. The most effective way for this to manifest is through creating clear expectations for your union’s various teams.

For example, your admin, finance and membership teams need to know and understand how they can contribute to growth, as do your policy and industrial teams, not to mention organisers and communications teams.

Underlying this is the need to break down internal silos and barriers between different parts of your union. Regular communication and bridge-building should occur between (for example) your organisers and your admin/membership team. As a leader or senior staff member, you should look at what metrics or measures can be used to track not only the performance of growth activities, but also the functions and organisational units that your organisers or growth teams work with to implement their ideas.

Finally, long-term commitment is essential. Sometimes, internal union culture creates pressure to abandon projects or activities for a new flavour-of-the-month.

Growth initiatives, especially fostering a truly growth-oriented culture inside your union, can take time. Retention projects or IT/digital projects (like upgrading to a new membership system to facilitate growth) also take a long time. There are no magic fixes that deliver instant results.

Anti-union laws

There’s no doubt that since the 1998 workplace law changes under Howard, workers’ rights have been eroded, especially when it comes to unions’ ability to deliver for workers.

This is not just an Australian phenomenon. Across the world, the casualisation of work and transfer of risk to workers from business has coincided with decline in living standards, worsening inequality and rise in dangerous right-wing political parties.

The crux of how anti-union laws impact us, in my view, is primarily in two areas:

Firstly, the increase in precarious employment arrangements — casualisation, contracting-out, labour hire, sham contracts and ABN work, gig-work/Uberfication and so on. All of this creates major structural and cultural barriers for workers to join a union. It also worsens retention — workers who are easier to sack, make redundant, etc, can’t remain a union member even if they want to.

Secondly, 25+ years of anti-union work laws and court decisions have eroded the ability for unions to effectively uphold workers’ rights — wage-theft being one of the major examples of how the law has been restrictive and punitive. The consequence of this major impediment to unions’ effectiveness.

Obviously, unions over the past 25 years have continued to achieve major victories. The anti-union laws and decisions haven’t completely (or even mostly) removed unions’ abilities to win.

Nonetheless, anti-worker, anti-union laws are a major obstacle.

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