What to Expect When You’re Expecting (To Win)
You’ve done it. Your team of rank-and-file members has run for union office and won. In a few short weeks or months you will leave the truck, classroom, or hospital floor behind and join the staff of your local union. You’ve made promises to the members, and you don’t want to let them down.
Back in 2009 I was in exactly this situation. I had been a member of Teamsters Local 814, packing art in a warehouse and filling in as shop steward. When incompetent leaders plunged our local into financial insolvency, our slate decided to run for union office. Soon we won our election and I found myself principal officer of our local union.
It was overwhelming at first. The local was in debt, our pension fund was in the red zone, and our medical plan was in such bad shape that members had lost their entire prescription benefit. We survived, and eventually righted the ship, but it wasn’t easy.
But not all transitions from rank and file to union office are successful. Many new officers fall short, and quickly find themselves on the losing end of an election. So what steps can you take to ensure that you meet the challenges of your new role?
TAKE A BEAT
As a new union rep or officer, you may find yourself immediately swamped with urgent phone calls and emails from members. Every unresolved problem from the previous regime will suddenly come out of the woodwork. Members will want answers, and it can quickly get overwhelming.
While getting back to people is important, do not let yourself drown in it. Step back for a moment, gather information about your situation, then make a plan that answers a few important questions: What are your slate’s goals for your first year in office? How is your team going to get trained to accomplish these goals? What resources can you rely on for help?
GET (PROFESSIONAL) HELP
One of the best resources you can get is a mentor—an experienced person to talk you through the tricky situations you will face in your first year.
This is probably the single most important determinant of success or failure for new union administrations. In the first few months, you will be tested. Employers, members, trustees of benefit funds, even politicians—everyone will give you a little shove to see how you react. How you respond can set you up for reelection or defeat.
An experienced mentor can walk you through these situations as they unfold, and help you craft a strategy that shows your strength without alienating people or breaking too many laws.
It’s okay if this person can only be with you for a few weeks or months—you should take what you can get. But it’s better if you can hire them on as a “Chief of Staff” or “Director of Bargaining” to help you long-term.
And I know it’s tempting, but don’t use a lawyer from an outside law firm in this role. Some attorneys could be effective mentors, but the bills pile up fast and can sink a union before anyone realizes how far they are in debt to the firm.
ATTEND TRAINING CLASSES
Once you’re in office, shooting from the hip doesn’t cut it anymore. You need training.
Zoom has made union skills trainings more accessible, including Labor Notes workshops and classes at university labor education programs. But often you will need to commit time and money to traveling somewhere.
We’re all busy, and it can be painful to give nights and weekends, or even a whole week, over to a class on bargaining or arbitration. But these are the skills you will use for the rest of your time in the labor movement. You can either keep faking it and hope you’re never really tested, or you can buy some books (see box) and get trained.
I recommend that you start taking classes even before you run for office, and of course don’t stop once you win. Make sure your local commits staff time and money to an ongoing training plan for each employee.
YOU’RE WHITE COLLAR NOW
If you weren’t white collar, you are now. Maybe you were a rank-and-file mechanic, and brought your own tools to the shop. It was an expense, but it was worth it. You used the tools every day, and you knew that with your own stuff, the job would get done right.
It’s time to accept that you have a new trade with a new set of tools—but instead of by Snap-On, they’re made by Microsoft, Google, and Apple. You have Excel for costing, Acrobat for contracts, and Outlook for email, meetings, and everything else. If you need to brush up on any of these programs, take a class online or at your local community college.
Also, if you did not have to manage your own schedule before, you might be surprised to learn that time management is now your most important skill. Many union reps face a barrage of phone calls and meetings every day. If you don’t block out time to focus and complete tasks, you will feel increasingly lost and burned-out, and your personal life will suffer.
I am serious about managing my time. Every event, no matter how short, whether it’s personal or work-related, goes on my calendar. This means I calendar little things—prep time for bargaining, a weekly 15-minute meeting with a co-worker, a shop visit, a call with a friend, or picking up my daughter from school. I try to stick to my calendar, have short, focused meetings, and not multitask through them.
Every Sunday I review my schedule for the week, go through my list of ongoing projects, and create a list of tasks. I use the approach from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, but I’m sure there are other good systems out there. The important thing is to be intentional and have a plan.
MAKE A STRATEGIC PLAN
Speaking of planning, organizations need plans just as much as individuals do. In my new local, Teamsters Local 399, we sit down in January and make a plan for the entire year.
Our principal officer tells the staff what the goals are for internal organizing, training, political outreach, etc., and each business agent submits proposals with dates for each event. She evaluates these proposals and decides how to allocate resources to each one.
Then the events are all put on a staff calendar for everyone to see and participate in as necessary. Most effective organizations do something similar.
LEARN TO MANAGE
If you are going to be a principal officer or have a management-level position at the local union, you have a whole additional set of skills to learn. You need training in managing staff, budgeting, hiring, and other organizational skills.
Thankfully, these skills mostly overlap with what is taught in the business world, so there are plenty of resources available. For instance, The One-Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson offers straightforward advice on giving direction and feedback to the people you supervise.
In sum, if you’re new to union office, I encourage you to stop what you’re doing and make your own plan now.
Write down each area of skills that you need to develop, and how you are going to get there. Order some books, register for a few classes, and if you’re still feeling lost, give Labor Notes a call. They’re here to help, and let’s be honest—you’re probably going to need it.
Jason Ide is former president of Teamsters Local 814. He is now the Contract Coordinator at Teamsters Local 399, which represents workers in the motion picture industry.