Steward’s Corner: Union Newsletters: Two-Way or No Way

For union members trying to breathe a little life into their local, a newsletter is often the “go-to” solution. But what should go in it? Photo: ATU Local 836

For union members trying to breathe a little life into their local, a newsletter is often the “go-to” solution. But what should go in it?

Say you and a group of buddies at work want to push your union in the right direction, toward greater member involvement. It’s not that things with the union are all terrible; in fact you’ve got a decent contract and stewards do a reasonable job handling grievances. But day to day a lot of problems come up that the union doesn’t seem to touch. Morale is low. There aren’t many union meetings, and attendance is often poor. You’ve got a sense that things could be different.

Perhaps there already is a newsletter—either print or electronic—but no one pays much attention to it. You may be thinking that a new and improved newsletter would be an easy way to stimulate interest in the union, educate co-workers, increase transparency, and motivate engagement. And you’d be right... but only if you keep certain basic organizing principles in mind.

Consider these scenarios, and ask yourself how best to report on them in a newsletter in a way that helps encourage more members to get involved in the union:

SCENARIO 1: GRIEVANCE WON

Imagine that your union has just won a good settlement on a grievance. It involved an employee who felt she’d been targeted by management—watched like a hawk for any small mistake, called out for violations that were typically ignored by supervisors, verbally harassed—because of her age. How would you report on this in your newsletter?

Option #1: No coverage, out of concern for confidentiality.

Option # 2: This month we reached a settlement at step 3 of the grievance procedure on a case involving disparate treatment. Management agreed to remove two discipline letters from the employee’s file.

Option #3: This month we reached a settlement at step 3 of the grievance procedure, defending one of our members who felt she was being targeted because of her age. We were able to show that in fact management was treating her differently from younger workers, and got an agreement to take discipline letters out of her file. Now we want to know if this is happening to others, and to prevent management from using this fear tactic again:

Over the next two weeks stewards will be talking with members to see if others have experienced targeting by management. Please be assured that anything you share will be kept in confidence, unless you say it’s okay to share.

Please let your steward know if this is a concern for you. (Include stewards’ contact info.)

Want to learn more about how the union fights back against targeting? Come to the next “Know Your Rights Coffee Hour” at (time/date/place).

SCENARIO 2: GROUP ACTION

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Are you squandering, savoring, or sustaining your victories? Let’s say a group of workers finally overcame their fear to confront a bullying supervisor as a group. Amazingly enough, the supervisor was moved. How could this be covered in your newsletter?

Option #1: No coverage at all, for fear of management retaliation.

Option #2: We’re pleased to report that a group of union members finally got management to listen to them! After repeated individual complaints about difficulties with supervisor John Smith, five workers in the maintenance department got together, delivered a letter to the Director of H.R., and a week later the supervisor was moved out of the department. Congratulations!

Option #3: Same as Option #2, then continuing… What an inspiration! Here’s what’s next after this victory...

Who knows where their bullying supervisor will land next? So far Smith hasn't been reassigned. Keep eyes and ears peeled and let your steward know if he shows up in your department. We can help you get ready to respond appropriately.

Do you have a bully supervisor? Union members who carried out this successful effort are making themselves available to come to your department and brief you on their experience. Contact so-and-so (contact info) to set up a time to meet.

Preparing for bargaining: With contract negotiations still 18 months away, now is the perfect time to talk about contract provisions we can win to protect our dignity on the job. We’ve scheduled “Bargaining Brainstorming” meetings over the next two months to generate ideas for the next contract. Top of the list will be how to define dignified working conditions, and how to enforce them with the help of the contract.

Newsletter Distribution: Worst to Best

  1. Posted on the union website
  2. Left on a table in the mail room or break room
  3. Put in mailboxes or cubbies
  4. Sent via postal mail
  5. Email blast
  6. Hand distributed by stewards/reps
  7. Individually distributed with conversations
  8. All of the above
  9. All of the above, plus the newsletter includes “discussion topics” for members
  10. All of the above, plus discussions are organized around members’ responses

NEWSLETTER CHECKLIST

If you want your newsletter to help you jump-start the union, here are some basic principles:

  • Show members respect by treating them as partners, rather than as passive consumers.
  • Inspire them with examples of what their fellow members are doing.
  • Provide realistic ways for them to get more engaged.

Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself:

  • What information is really useful to members? What can they use in their own worksites to help them gain confidence, skills, and information and serve fellow members’ interests?
  • Are you providing specific enough detail for members to understand and identify with the situations you’re describing?
  • Are you self-censoring, without seriously talking through when confidentiality is needed and when it's not? (Note, however, that you must have members' approval if you're going to identify them in the newsletter.)
  • Can you offer concrete examples of member action that will encourage and inspire?
  • If you’re reporting on what the president or chief negotiator has done, have you also highlighted what rank-and-file members are thinking, saying, and doing?
  • Are you inviting members to reflect on their own situation, to think more deeply about the values the union stands for, and to consider what they can do if they share those values?
  • Are you asking questions, as well as offering information?
  • Does the newsletter offer ways for members to do something (talk to a steward, talk to co-workers, come to a meeting, send feedback or ideas)? Are you soliciting, and then promoting, brilliant ideas that members generate themselves?

Ellen David Friedman is a retired organizer for Vermont NEA and a member of the Labor Notes Policy Committee.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #467. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.