HOW MANAGEMENT KEEPS UNION MEMBERSHIP LOW
If you have been following us for a while you know we have often publicly expressed our anguish over union locals where the percentage of unit employees who are union members is less than half the national average throughout multiple terms of office for the local leaders. For example, if 60% of the employees represented by a national union are members, then locals below 25% membership are the kind we are talking about. It would seem that national union leaders owe it to the top-performing locals to fix these situations promptly. They certainly have a number of options ranging from the subtle to the more substantive or even shocking. For example,
staging a multi-local intervention with the local’s leadership team, forcing them to attend an intense membership building training program, giving staff greater influence in the local’s operation, directly communicating with the unit employees to build a different image of the union than the current leaders are providing, asking the leaders to step down, encouraging others in the local to run for office, imposing Constitutional penalties on chronically underachieving local leaders, etc. (Where one local represents everyone in a unit the national union can even “disclaim interest.” That is the legal term for a union refusing to represent the employees of that unit any longer and giving up its exclusive recognition certificate. They can do it because they no longer wish to waste other local’s dues on the underperforming local, they do not want to be publicly associated with the local’s leaders, or they want to wipe the slate clean and try to reorganize the unit from the ground up in another year or so. It is a near-nuclear option, but one it would shake things up.)
Where the local is part of a larger unit with many locals and the national union or a council of locals holds the exclusive recognition certificate, the higher level union leaders can get very assertive, e.g., no longer designate the local leaders as the representational point of contact for the union on local negotiations or even grievances. After all, the local is merely a small internal entity of the institution that holds exclusive recognition as opposed to being a local that holds its own exclusive recognition certificate and chose to affiliate with the national union. Here is how the FLRA has described the national union’s right to withdraw a local leader’s right to represent the union in purely local midterm changes.
In this consolidated bargaining unit, therefore, to be effective, a request to bargain must have been made by AFGE, or by its agent, Council 214, unless authorization to bargain had been delegated to Local 1592 by the exclusive representative and unless AFLC agreed to local level bargaining…. Unlike Wright-Patterson III, the record in this case fails to show that Shoell had been delegated authority to bargain or that Shoell had notified Ogden of a delegation of authority to bargain. When Shoell made his bargaining request, there was no indication that he was acting on behalf of the exclusive representative or its agent. See AFGE, 39 FLRA 1409 (1991)
But you can’t fully understand this problem until you focus on how management also keeps these chronically underachieving local leaders in place. Imagine for a moment that you are an LR manager of an agency where the local is led by some leaders with very low membership who are kept in office largely because only a handful of the members even vote in elections. If the local leaders are not doing much to impact the agency, then why not keep them in place? Never respond to a local’s bargaining demand by driving home the point that so long as only 13% of the unit employees pay dues, it is hard to treat what the union leaders say as credible. Always offer to trade more personal benefits for the individual local leaders in return for them dropping demands that might actually arouse the interest of employees or motivate them to join. For example, offer the underachieving local leaders more official time if they will back away from demanding more visibility at formal meetings, the disclosure of more data about which employees get preferential treatment, or an expanded telework program.
We wish we could tell you how to stop an agency from working to keep underachieving local leaders in place. But we do know that if the underachieving local is part of a nationwide multi-local the agency might be shocked out of its support of local leaders if the union suddenly said everything for that local must be done nationally or at the council level.
In closing and in fairness, council or national leaders are not under any outside obligation or even expectation to push local leaders to achieve. It is a matter of their leadership philosophy, values, or even where they came from, which only the voters in council or national elections can judge.