In theory, it should be hard for unions to even maintain prior membership levels, much less grow, with the size of government decreasing in every agency. But apparently theory is no match for talented union leadership. In January we congratulated IFPTE, IAFF and the NLRBU for increasing membership despite severe government-wide staffing cuts. NATCA has also now reported a net membership increase last year.  But the big news is that the 800 pound gorilla among federal sector unions, AFGE, has removed all doubt about the success of those four being a fluke.  AFGE just filed its LM-2 for 2015 showing that it increased its net membership by almost 13,000 (From 281,731 last year to 294,257 this year.) That means it has increased membership every year since 2000, which none of its so-called rivals has come close to doing. AFGE certainly has our congrats and admiration, but that cannot possibly compare to the satisfaction it must already be feeling. Nothing is as certain a measure of employee satisfaction with a union as setting membership records year-after-year. Hopefully, other unions will learn from what AFGE has done to reverse their own membership declines. Here is what we can tell you about how it did it.Leadership, leadership, leadership. David Cox (and John Gage before him) have been masters at involving union leaders at all levels in national decision-making to grow their union. (If you want to see how your union has done with membership over the long term, go to the DOL/OLMS “Union Search” site, find the name of your union in the “Union Name” box, indicate below whether you want data about a local or the entire national union, and then click at the bottom of the page. It will bring up the most recent report for your union, and when you click on the union’s name summary data for the last 15 years will pop up.)

Some CEOs, in unions and elsewhere, demand total control over everything and hyperventilate at the thought of having to operate in even a moderate system of checks and balances. The AFGE National President deals with an executive board of full-time, salaried vice presidents with a record of their own achievements strong enough to get them elected and reelected.  They very much care what the National President does (or isn’t doing) because that plays a role in their continued electability and employment.  The AFGE National President also has a full-time, independent Secretary-Treasurer focused not only on ensuring spending decisions are legitimate, but also examining financial operations for suggested improvements to be decided upon by the board. Nonetheless, Gage and Cox have found a way for them all to work as a team to achieve things no other unions has. AFGE gets that intangible value out of any large group that is able to work as a team. Another measure of how significant their membership growth has been is that over the last 8 years alone AFGE has added more net new members than the next largest federal sector union has netted over 75 years.

Some CEOs hire very good people only to sit on them, squashing most of their novel ideas and discretionary energy under a mass of micro-management.   For them, new ideas primarily carry risks, not rewards. So, they stay with the certainty of the status quo.

Gage and Cox, however, seem to have flourished by taking risks.  At a time when other national unions were offering $25.00 incentives to sign up new members, AFGE offered $100.00. and spent tens of thousands upgrading the national web site into a very useable tool for local leaders. Gage and Cox also delegated substantial decision-making authority to groups of local leaders to make key representational decisions for their units.  AFGE calls these local leader groups Councils.  Few things motivate local leaders of volunteer organizations to sign up more members as much as trusting them with the authority and responsibility to achieve on behalf of their members.

Some CEOs work tirelessly to ensure that they preserve the organizational systems, values and processes they inherited rather than push the union to evolve with its environment. They are obsessed with what can be lost rather than gained.  The downside of that is a steady diminishment or relevance to unit employees.

AFGE’s national leaders, on the other hand, implemented a strategic planning process honestly involving hundreds of local leaders in developing a plan how to break from the union’s low-growth period in the 90s. Almost everything about AFGE was on the table and the union obviously has reaped enormous success from its focus on the future rather than tradition.

Another measure of how strong AFGE’s performance has been is how it compares to six other federal sector unions when the number of years membership increased versus held steady or decreased over the last six years. Needless to say, AFGE is at the top of the group with a perfect 6 and 0 record since the 2010 report cycle.  The others range from close behind to way, way behind in this long-term measure.  We have obscured their identity for purposes of this chart.


AFGE                                      6                                              O

#2                                           5                                              1

#3                                           5                                              1

#4                                           3                                              3

#5                                           3                                              3

#6                                           3                                              3

#7                                           1                                              5


One way of looking at long-term trend data like this is to imagine what a corporate board would do to a CEO who delivered poor numbers year after year.  AFGE seems to have done the right thing by raising its National President’s salary above its traditional GS-15 level, but that still leaves him paid substantially less than presidents at other unions that are not doing as well in the membership category. But maybe that is not so bad because it gives him and AFGE another thing to brag about in organizing campaigns, namely, fiscal restraint.

We could go on, but we do not want anyone to lose the main message that it is leadership, leadership, leadership that almost always explains a union’s membership building success–or its slow slide to extinction. Besides when both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders came to meet with AFGE local leaders that is about as strong a sign anyone should need as to AFGE’s gorilla-lie clout in the federal sector.


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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