AFGE CELEBRATES ITS NOT-SO-SECRET SUCCESS FORMULA
Even a quick check of AFGE’s current national newsletter will give you an idea of how proud and happy the union is to have achieved an on-going level of 300,000 dues paying members. While all but one of the more recognizable federal employee unions reported a membership increase to DOL for 2014, AFGE has become the indisputable long-term pacesetter for union membership growth. We intermittently have touched on why it has thrived when other unions are shrinking or at least just growing incrementally. But it might help others if we pulled from our individual posts to create a reasonably thorough, ten-item list of how AFGE did it.
Most of the story begins around the year 2000 when the leader of a large council of social security locals upset the in-house favorite to become National President. Here is what happened soon after that.
- While many union leaders were preaching the need for pre-decisional involvement of members in agency decisions at that time, AFGE jumped way beyond a shallow, PR-only commitment to LM partnership, PDI and similar values by opening up its own national office decision-making structure to more input from the district, regional and local levels. Rather than waste resources trying to corral and contain the influence of others, the national union moved to embrace it.
- It hired a former NTEU national staffer (and former IRS Los Angeles chief steward) loaded with ideas, gave her some freedom, and let her significantly shape how AFGE was going to add 100,000 new members over the next decade or so. That was Sharon (Sukari) Pinnock, now a faculty member at Georgetown University specializing in organizational development.
- It soon imposed some structure on member input by introducing a union-wide strategic planning process that gave local leaders a real voice in national strategic and tactical decisions rather than restricting them to just reading the national office’s plan. You might say that when AFGE national leaders traveled around the country meeting with local leaders, it was the locals telling the national about the state of the union rather than the opposite. (All too often when it is done the other way around the conversation winds up being little more than a political advertisement for the current national leadership’s record of achievement no matter how hollow it might be.)
- Rather than lumber along doing the same old thing, the national leaders moved boldly to create a membership incentive program that gave locals $100 for each new member it signed up. (Previously a $25. incentive was common in the federal sector.) Given that $100 was about 40% of what AFGE national collected in dues each year from a member, the union left little doubt about its commitment to growth.
- It offered extensive training for local leaders in how to recruit members face-to-face as well as through system changes. (National system changes have enormous potential to help boost union membership. Suppose, for example, a national union sent to each steward a quarterly list of the non-members in the area the steward represents.)
- With all that in place the AFGE national office deliberately targeted locals and councils of locals with chronically low membership with a charged-up turnaround program. Although we cannot verify it, all the signs are there that the national union figured out how to actually value and embrace its national vice presidents to get their support for this growth. After all, not every union leader welcomes growth because it changes the make-up of the voters who s/he has previously relied on to be voted into the office.
- AFGE got its finances in far better shape than they were at the beginning of this century. It figured out how to retain ownership of its national HQ building at a time when significant real estate forces suggested selling, and turned around its assets-to-liability ratio.
- It continued to benefit from its affiliation with the AFL-CIO getting access to political leaders other unions rarely could and saving members bundles of bucks by offering dozens of discounts through the Federation’s Union-Plus program.
- Rather than play it safe and wait for the law to change to allow TSA employees collective bargaining, AFGE began organizing them as soon as there was a TSA through a novel hybrid of union and employee association. That saved it millions during the organizing drive and highlighted its willingness to take bold risks for big payoffs. In a short period of time it had thousands of TSA members, soon helped get the law changed to give TSA employees some bargaining rights, won a head-to-head organizing battle against an independent union, and has now negotiated a contract for the employees. The TSA council recently reported to DOL that it now has over 15,000 dues paying AFGE members.
- As the national president elected in 2000 got ready to leave a couple of years ago, he entrusted his likely successor with the freedom to move the union to the next chapter of its history on day one of his new term of office. As a result, when David Cox took office AFGE simultaneously wheeled out a greatly updated web site that is not just useful, but quite user-friendly and readable—especially for those of us who prefer a larger font and less density on our web pages.
We are not saying AFGE is without fault. Like most unions, it needs to improve its contract clauses dealing with guaranteed performance awards, employee stipends, workplace flexibilities, reassignment rights, and merit objectivity. It also needs to substantially increase its automated services to local stewards so they do not wait days for some national staffer busy with six other things, on leave, or just avoiding contact to get back to them. Perhaps most important, it needs to turn its 300,000 members into a powerful political force because federal sector unionism is less and less about grievance representation and more and more about pushing back against nationwide political and media forces hostile to federal government activity. It cannot adopt the senseless blather of those who chant, “Grow or die.” Success is not about growth alone; achieving success is about innovation and getting more from the folks already paying dues or working in a bargaining unit. The correct slogan is “Change or die”—and AFGE has been all about change for 15 years now.
Finally, AFGE needs to begin reaching out to other unions to enlist their support, if not affiliation, for a coordinated federal employee effort to get the political recognition and reward most feds deserve. It needs to use its prominence to gather up the dozen or so unions scattered across government—especially inside DOD where it is not unusual to find six different unions representing employees on the same military base. That will not be easy. Lots of national union leader enjoy being big fish in small ponds, if not shrinking puddles. Those other unions often do good things themselves and some even exceed AFGE’s strength in some areas. But even if one of them was better than AFGE at everything, not one is big enough nor as open to membership involvement in national decision-making as AFGE is at this time.