UNION POWER: YESTERDAY, TODAY & TOMORROW

Every American school kid learns that one reason the Brits lost the American Revolution was that its tactics that once worked so well for them, did not work on the American battle field.  Brightly colored red coats marching in large formations and shooting in volleys intimidated and overpowered other armies on open battlefields, but it turned out to be the opposite of what was needed to fight in the American wildness.  Americans have learned the same lesson in the Middle East over the last two decades.  It is not how many boots are on the ground, but the clout each soldier brings to the battle.  Multi-talented Special Operation troops are often many times more effective than traditional infantry.  What unions need to take from these two and hundreds of other examples is that what made them powerful yesterday is unlikely to work as well tomorrow.  The environment changes, the opposition adjusts, and technology presents new options.  Union leaders planning for the future need to think about the fights ahead, not solely how they won in the past.  What will make them powerful tomorrow?  Here are some of our thoughts.

The “Grow or die” union leadership advocates are the modern equivalent of the Redcoats marching in perfect formation into a guerrilla war, especially in the federal sector where the vast majority of all bargaining unit employees are already represented.  Consequently, if a union believes that is the path to greater power it does so in the face of certain grim realities.  First, if the union goes after the unorganized employees, there are only tiny fragments scattered around government.  Winning the right to represent them will give the union very little influence in an agency already heavily represented by other unions or elsewhere.  Second, if the union plans to raid other union in the hopes of grabbing a bigger unit, that is likely going to be costly, especially if the employees are represented by one of the well-financed unions such as AFGE, NTEU, AFSCME, SEIU, etc..  A head-to-head battle with another union could drag on for years in appeal and leave a bitterly divided workforce.  Third, if a union raids one of the less well-funded unions, it has a higher chance of winning the fight.  But remember that a union is not well-funded because the employees have refused to join.  Membership is low to very low and picking up that kind of unit can be a drag on a healthy national union’s resources for years.  About the only easy way to effectively increase the number of employees a union represents is for it to “woo” other units that might be dissatisfied with their current national office, e.g., provide funding, hire its staff, accommodate certain traditions of the target union, etc.  If the locals (or council of locals) hold the certificate of exclusive recognition, it could leave its parent union for a new one via a low-cost Montrose election.   Most important, none of the above seems to have any potential to influence the two largest problem-makers for federal sector unions today, namely, the public opinion and the Congress.

But, don’t take our word for the shortsightedness of a “grow or die” leadership philosophy. You can find a well-reasoned article about the absurdity of the “Grow or die” mentality by clicking over to “’The Grow or Die’ Lie”.  If you need more convincing, check out the journal article with the following statement, “’Grow or die’ is a belief that has no basis in scientific research or in business reality.” Finally, if you want a less academic way to test the validity of the “Grow or die” slogan, drink a 20 oz. Sam Adams Boston Lager ice cream float every night before bed and track how well your ensuing growth helps you delay death. Although sloppy media coverage has made the “grow or die” slogan more popular, the correct version of the concept is “improve or die,” or even “change or die.”  And that concept points to how unions can boost their power down the road.

Before we get to that, however, let’s take a short side trip to look at whom unions need power over in the near future.  Did you ever hear of “Clout circles?” For unions to succeed they have to acquire the kind of power or clout to deal with several, increasingly larger entities, which we think of as concentric circles.  The smallest or innermost circle represents the individual bargaining unit it represents.  Generally, a union gets a lot of power over a unit’s management just by winning exclusive recognition rights, e.g., the right to bargain, grieve, demand information, etc. The next larger circle would be the agency leaders of the specific unit the union represents.  Where the union represents everyone in an agency, as NTEU does at IRS, those circles are the same.  But where they are not, the union needs to develop some power over the larger agency so that it does not impose regulations or orders that harm the represented unit employees.  Given the union does not have bargaining rights with the agency, achieving influence there is about more than getting exclusive recognition over one of its subunits.  Typically, clout depends on developing personal relationships between union and agency leaders.

A third circle would be the department of which the agency is a member.  In the case of IRS that would be Treasury.  Given that the department has the same potential to issue regulations and orders impacting unit employees, this is another group over which the union needs power.

The fourth circle for federal sector unions would be the Executive Branch leadership, which would include OPM, OMB, and the White House.  They issue the government-wide regulations that constrict all negotiations and they have a lot to say about the budget for the represented employees.   One of the best things a union can do for an overworked group of employees is get funding for a few thousand new employees to help with the work—and which typically come with promotion opportunities for the current employees. Executive Branch leadership can also make favorable political appointments for the union as well as order a departmental official to knock off any anti-union activity.

The fifth circle is Congress, but do not think for a minute of it as a single unified entity.  When we say Congress we mean both houses, both parties, and key committee leaders who control the fate of the department, agency or unit involved.  They pass the laws, they slip in the legislative tricks that almost no one ever notices early, they set the budget, they formulate the election messages, they pick the candidates, they can shelter from or set up an agency for public ridicule in hearings, etc.

The final and largest circle surrounding all the others is occupied by the public and the opinions it holds.  They vote, they are the ones that respond to or ignore campaign story lines candidates toss out testing for reactions, and they can generate so many more calls, e-mails, letters and visits to their Congressional reps than a single union could ever hope to.

So much for whom a union needs power over and clout circles.

Starting with the 1960s period of labor relations by executive order and extending through to the early years of the labor statute, federal sector unions did a wonderful job of organizing and consolidating their units. They also did a pretty good job of exerting power over the management of their units through negotiated contracts and litigation.  Some drove deep into negotiating more money for their members, e.g., guaranteed performance and suggestion awards, maximum subsidies, gainsharing, etc. And, some, like NATCA, did a great job convincing the vast majority of represented employees to join the union.

Unions have also found ways to push back against meddling by higher level executives at the agency or department level.   They even found a way to avoid the most threatening actions by the White House, OMB and OPM during the administrations of presidents not friendly to unions.  For example, when the George W. Bush tried to exploit the 9/11 attacks by abolishing collective bargaining in Homeland Security, unions found allies in the court and in Congress to stop him.  (See “AFGE Beats Back Agency Bid to Implement New Work Rules.”)

Consequently, for unions to avoid similar threats in the future as well as undo the ravages of sequestration and improve working salaries, benefits and conditions, they need to focus primarily on the last two circles, namely, the Congress and the public.  A union can put a labor attorney in every local, win every arbitration case it takes, and add a dozen new units, but none of that will make the slightest dent on Congress or the public. Why should it?

While representational power at the unit, agency and departmental levels will continue to be important, the key to the future is political and PR power. And that brings us back to another military analogy to make our point.  Large infantry armies are perfect for controlling and patrolling an area where the military has managed to largely cripple or drive out an enemy.  However, where an enemy is firmly entrenched and dominates a territory, you need a force that specializes in destabilizing, disrupting, subverting, and infiltrating an enemy.  That is what Special Operations teams do, and the reason they can do it is that their soldiers are so highly trained that each individual has far more clout than a larger moderately trained force.

From where we sit the path to greater power for unions is not to double or triple the number represented—generally at the expense of some other union, but to boost the clout of the units the union already represents.  Go after the nonmembers with a passion because they are the raw material of power—not simply employees represented.  Once they “enlist” as members you can start turning them into the kind of members their union needs.

Lead the members to do more. In particular, they have to get deeply into the Congressional and PR arenas if the fights are to be won.  They need to contribute more to political actions committees.  NATCA is the runaway model for that with an average of $250 per member per election cycle. AFGE seems to have the best average of $12. per member among the rest of the unions–almost doubling the next highest.

Unions need more members contacting Congressional and party folks to make their case. Currently, most unions call some members to DC once a year to knock on Congressional doors, but that obviously is not enough.  A recent Washington Post story explained why businesses have not vastly increased their political action contribution once the Supreme Court allowed them to.  The Post explained that businesses have found it far more effective to swarm Congress with lobbyist when key legislation is up for votes.  The National Rifle Association does the same thing, with the result that it also has far more political clout than the size of the organization would suggest.  Union’s might need to do the same thing, namely, call in local members to lobby in swarms at critical times, not just once a year.

Letters, phone calls, emails, showing up at political campaign rallies, volunteering to help campaign for friendly Congressional candidates, protesting rigged Congressional hearings, etc. are another essential. And, it goes without saying that getting members registered to vote and MOST IMPORTANTLY getting them to the polls on Election Day is as important as anything else. If a union (national and local) does not know whether every member is registered and their party, where available, it is leaking power and needs to plug that hole.

Similarly, union public relations efforts have to be dramatically upgraded.  Every time the Koch brothers or similar band of brooding billionaires, looking to reduce government oversight of their personal wealth, makes or funds attacks on how high taxes are, unions, especially public sector unions, have to respond and respond hard.   If an enemy attacks and does not pay a price, it will attack gain and again. Unions need to meet anti-government voices with fact-heavy explanations of just how valuable good government is to citizens.  Taxes should be seen as investments paying very healthy returns, not wasted money.  Unlike Europe, very few Americans have any idea of the return they get on the taxes they invest in this country.  When people fly safely billions of times a year few realize that is thanks to the air traffic control system as well as various transportation safety boards. When growing families do not have to take in aged and infirmed parents they rarely remember how valuable Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare are to the quality of their lives.

The modern government employee suffers from being a target of certain politicians shamelessly seeking votes at the cost of giving the public a fair explanation of the value of government. They have no reluctance to put their own reelection interests above those of the country.  Other politicians are working to defeat them, but we almost never hear any of them respond with a “government is good” speech.  So, it is up to public sector unions to carry that message.  Adopting a realistic and modern view of power is critical to that.  Moreover, they have to begin shifting resources from representation to politics and PR.  That does not mean their representational work will suffer if they use the automation tools everyone else is.  Similarly, they have to reach outside the labor union community and look for allies with mutual interests.  For example, veterans have a very hard time finding jobs, even with various preferences for government jobs.  Teaming up with Vet groups to get more government jobs funded helps both vets and unions. The same can be said about older workers blocked by age discrimination. That suggests that there should be something they can do with the AARP, another very powerful interest group, to help one another.

Or, unions can continue to push resources into capturing new bargaining units, at the expenses of automating, alliance building and political action, and soon become the modern day equivalent of General Motors–which for a long time thought the path to success was gas guzzling behemoths with lots of fins.

About AdminUN

FEDSMILL staff has over 40 years of federal sector labor relations experience on the union as well as management side of the table and even some time as a neutral.

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One Response to

  1. ningauble3020 says:

    I always look forward to reading these articles because they are well-written and thoughtful critiques of a labor movement in free fall. We need to reinvent ourselves.

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