Union density is at an all-time low; rank and file members express concern that the nationals and leadership don’t feel their pain; conservative leadership and members part ways over 2016 endorsed presidential candidate; unions hold their collective breath waiting for the US Supreme Court to end agency fee and/or congress to pass a national right-to-work law either of which would roll back ninety years of labor law. Membership holds the key for the survival of unions in the United States.
Membership has long been the Achilles heel of organized labor. Regardless of the size of a union, there is a tendency for the many to rely on just a few to direct the work of the union and do quite simply the necessary work to advance the cause of labor. Elected officers at all levels as well as paid union staff become the scapegoat for every ill a union member suffers at the hands of management as well as state and national politics. In the meantime, union elections like national elections lack energy and turnout.
Membership inertia can be laid partially at the feet of leadership stagnation as evidenced by the recent international election undertaken by the Teamsters as reported in Labor Notes. Long-time Teamsters president James P. Hoffa met a stiff challenge from reform candidate Fred Zuckerman, who with the assistance of Teamsters for a Democratic Union nearly beat the 70-year-old Hoffa. With grassroots engagement by members, the reformers proved that effort could get out the vote resulting in a 65% turnout where they actively engaged members while other locals that experience little or no active engagement from the establishment candidate or reform candidate reported a dismal 35% turnout. Hoffa’s narrow victory is a prime example of membership lethargy.
Union leaders need to devote more time working the membership establishing and/or expanding on the core group of activists. This will require a cold hard look by the leadership at how unions have pushed their political agenda over the last four decades. Accepting subpar candidates for blanket endorsement must stop and labor leaders need to hold the Democratic Party accountable. Endorsements with COPE and PAC monies need to find their way into the hands of candidates who are unabashedly pro-labor not just paying enough lip-service to warrant the nod. For too long the Democrats have put up candidates only marginally palatable based on their likelihood to do no significant harm to organized labor as opposed selecting candidates who will actively pursue progressive labor legislation. If this election cycle taught us anything it was if the rank and file members grumble union leaders better pay attention as opposed to just assuming their members will fall into line.
Union membership must accept responsibility for the future of their unions as well. The days of them resting on the effort of the few must end ALL need to take a hand or they will bear witness to the end of days for organized labor in the U.S. Engagement on this level relies on a well-informed membership. Regardless the size of the local, this means attending local union meetings, reading email, keeping up on social media, and not leaving it up to the next person to do the heavy lifting. Volunteer. If asked to participate, say yes. Run for an elected position in your local or at the state level. Sound like a lot of work? Wondering why if you pay dues you should pitch in and work for your union? Because it is YOUR union.
Membership, as always, remains the key to success. Union leaders and union members need to understand that doing business as usual stops now!