Ask People to Join

Credit: Laborers Local 79

The best approach is to integrate the membership ‘ask’ into union routines and workplace campaigns.

Unions should be able to motivate most people at a union workplace to become members and pay dues. After all, workers are under attack on the job—whether it’s a bullying boss, short staffing, or a grab at your pension. Presumably your union is campaigning on the issues your co-workers care about. (If not, flip back a few pages.)

So it’s not hard to make the case for why the union matters, or to find an opportunity to raise the topic. Make this conversation part of every steward’s routine and every activist’s agenda in every workplace campaign.

TALK ONE ON ONE

It starts with talking to your co-workers one on one. People won’t join if you don’t ask.

You’ll be surprised how many you get. “We did a training on building our union, and about 18 of us took that information and went and talked to our co-workers about joining,” said Amanda Miller, president of the Kalamazoo teachers union (NEA) in Michigan. “Not only did they all say yes, they did it happily. We just had to ask.”

Many of us shy away from encouraging people to become members. It can feel like selling something or being too pushy. But the union is not a consumer product. Dues are an essential ingredient for a strong union—fuel in the engine.

The other side of the coin is that unions must use members’ dues responsibly. If members grow cynical or mistrustful about where their money is going, they won’t want to pay. The more transparently and democratically your union handles its spending, the less you’ll have this problem.

Union officers and staff shouldn’t be the only ones asking. Letter Carriers Branch 82 in Portland, Oregon, trains stewards to sign people up. Stewards, in turn, are encouraged to figure out which members are friendly with each non-member and enlist their help.

Indiana teachers formed a membership committee in each big school or cluster of small schools. They divide up the list of non-members, giving assignments to school site representatives (stewards) and activists based on who has a relationship or has something in common with the potential member.

Activists regularly get together to debrief these conversations. When someone has declined to sign, they talk it over: “What was holding this person back? Is it something we can fix?” Most non-members get a second and third attempt, often from someone else with a different relationship or approach.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, teachers agree that you often have to go back multiple times. The answer is “patience, persistence, and not writing them off,” Vice President Amy Mizialko said, “not making an enemy of this person, and being very curious and non-judgmental about why this person hadn’t joined.”

Your conversation should be about a lot more than joining the union. Mizialko tries to follow the 80/20 rule—listen 80 percent of the time, talk 20 percent. When she catches herself talking too much, she stops and asks an open-ended question (not yes/no), such as, “What keeps you going in this job?” or “What do you wish you could change?” She listens to identify areas of common ground she can build on, workplace issues this person cares about, and which co-workers could have influence.

ORIENT NEW HIRES

Welcome new employees into the union right away. Otherwise the union will continually shrink as members retire or quit.

The upside with new hires—it’s a clean slate. Many have never been in a union before, and almost none have been in your union. This is your chance to introduce what the union is—where it came from, what it stands for, and what it has won.

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Many employers will do their best to sour people on joining. So don’t wait. You want contract language that allows a union rep or steward to meet with all new hires on the clock, without the boss in the room. Try to hold this orientation on day one, advises Communications Workers Local 4900 President Tim Strong in Indiana, who reports a 99 percent success rate signing up new hires.

“When we catch somebody who’s been here for a week or a month, it’s much more difficult,” he said. “They’ve gotten used to those dues not coming out of their check.”

Michigan nurse Heather Roe asks orientees to define what a union is. She doesn’t supply the right answer—group discussion always produces a good one. She asks what they expect being in a union will be like, and fields questions like, “Doesn’t the union protect lazy workers?” and “What do my dues pay for?”

“Don’t just throw a member application at them,” she said. “Take some time to listen to them and then build their understanding from a positive place.” Typically they all sign up.

If your union doesn’t have contract language or an agreement with the employer, be creative. Find out when orientations happen and set up your own lunchtime meetings, or work with stewards to approach new employees one on one.

The goal isn’t just to sign them up, but to keep them as active members for the long run. Offer concrete support in learning the ropes of their new job, assign a union mentor, and look for ways to involve them in the union right away.

An Organizing Conversation

Your job is mostly to ask questions. Any organizing conversation—whether you’re asking your co-worker to come to a rally or to sign a membership card—should be based on issues.
Don’t lay on the guilt or make it about doing you a favor. You want your co-worker to realize:

  1. She cares about a problem.
  2. There’s a decision-maker who has the power to fix this problem.
  3. The decision-maker won’t fix it until someone pushes them to.
  4. If she really wants this problem fixed, she has to join you and others in taking action.

But just telling her all this wouldn’t be effective. Instead, ask questions that get her to say it herself. We tend to remember what we said, not what the other person said.

CREATE URGENCY

Membership should be a year-round priority—think monthly reports at union meetings. “We try to weave it into the culture,” said Willie Groshell of the Letter Carriers. “Everybody knows who the non-members are, and everybody feels empowered to engage them.”

That doesn’t mean you shouldn't hold sign-up drives. Sometimes it’s necessary to create urgency. Teachers and school employees often use the beginning of the school year. A membership drive can create momentum for a challenging campaign, such as a contract fight.

Membership matters at the bargaining table; a show of strength or weakness will make the boss take note. The teacher local in Maconaquah, Indiana, was able to fight off a benefits cut after increasing its membership from 58 to 70 percent.

In Oregon, two postal unions teamed up to knock on non-members’ doors in pairs. They found a few people who’d never been asked and were happy to join. Others had reservations, and the home visit allowed a more productive, relaxed conversation away from the boss’s ears.

But the end goal wasn’t just to get the membership card signed—it was to connect those people into the union and start addressing their workplace concerns.

“We had to let them know this wasn’t just a one-time thing,” Groshell said. “You have to be honest, you have to follow through on whatever you say you’re going to do, and you have to tell people the truth, rather than what you think they want to hear.”

WHAT INSPIRES PEOPLE TO JOIN THE UNION?

  • Seeing the union win fights that matter.
  • Experiencing collective action firsthand.
  • Trusting that you and your co-workers have each other’s backs.
  • Being asked to join, by someone you respect.
  • Confidence that the union can protect you from the boss’s retaliation.

WHAT DOESN’T INSPIRE PEOPLE TO JOIN?

  • A guilt trip.
  • A sales pitch.
  • Fear-mongering.
  • Comparing dues to the price of a latte or a gym membership.
  • Perks, such as retail discounts or liability insurance.

WIN THEM OVER

Winning people over can be a long-term project. In rural Monroe County, Tennessee, teacher activist Sarah Amos reported in 2016 that a teacher who’d been refusing to join for 24 years had finally signed up.

In fact, she became a building rep and union activist—“red hot and one of our most active members,” Amos said.

How’d that happen? “She saw us fight for everyone,” Amos explained, “for retiring teachers, for new teachers, for students.” The union made impressive membership gains that year by mobilizing members and non-members alike to fight off a threatened pay cut and defend grievance rights.

“Sometimes people think that union members are lazy and that we need a contract to protect us,” Amos said. “But then she saw us fight, and recognized that lazy people don’t fight this hard.”

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #472. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.