Traditional Unions Transition Into Modern Times

21 Sep 2017

Union membership has changed and technology is right there with them

It’s undeniable that union membership has been on the decline for decades. Organized labor accounted for almost 1 out of every 3 members of the workforce in the 1950’s. Today, it’s barely 1 out of 20 workers. Unions throughout the country such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), The United Brotherhood of Carpenter (UBC), The National Education Association (NEA), to name only a few have become all too acutely aware of what would be considered by them as an epidemic. So- one must pose the question- what are they doing about their hemorrhaging membership?

A vast number of their members are still from the “old school” train of thought. They know how to organize rallies and they know how to collectively bargain. But that still requires a style of communication that takes time, energy, and interest. It requires phone calls and meetings. It requires newsletters and commercials. Members from traditional trade unions still receive much of their communications through the mail...and leaving off an e - before the word “mail” was indeed intentional.

Union leadership knows this needs to change, and they’ve already begun taking dramatic steps toward these cultural shifts. Among these is to increase their longevity and reach by recruiting a younger and more diverse demographic. Unions now cater to bilingual members, female members, and apprenticeships for those coming right out of high school. And of course, these steps to “modernize” include the basic elements of digital work that one would think are fundamentals. Facebook, websites, and email communications - but union strategists have gone well beyond these methods.

Using apps with push notifications to encourage attendance at events is also a next step forward for pretty much any member with a cell phone. Unions are now connected to digital databases that allow members to log online and view their Out of Work Lists (OWL), and utilize one primary number (like a Social Security number) with all things associated with their dispatching and job site information. Teacher unions are utilizing voter demographic information (as they’ve been on the forefront of political activism for years) to target voters who believe in candidates that support union values and public education. This voter data then turns into messaging to those would be supporters. Unions have started to use cookie based advertising to spread their messages of workers’ rights and fair wages.

And- what’s perhaps one of the most important changes is that these national unions have shifted their focus from convincing only their existing membership to proactively support their values to a message of worker rights for all, regardless of whether or not those individuals are part of a union at all.

The success of these methods seems to be working, but all in all, is largely untested. Time will tell if the Gen X and Millennial membership becomes engaged enough through these methods to do more than just stay union members but take the initiative to engage with their unions on a political and policy related level.


Geoffrey Borshof

Founder and Partner at Mosaic, Geoffrey spends his time working with clients to build impacting strategies that heighten community awareness and grow organizations.

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