AFGE membership has grown by 40% since 2003, which puts its growth curve  way, way ahead of all the other federal sector unions.  NTEU increased by only 11% during the same time, NATCA and NSWEO by 10%, and NFFE had zero growth. 

Obviously, AFGE is doing something right that the others may not be doing.  Although AFGE benefited from the enormous growth in the defense, homeland security, and prison sectors during that period, there has to be more to their success than just the increasing size of the Bureau of Prisons, Border Patrol, VA and Defense.  

It would nice if AFGE shared its secret with the rest of the federal sector union community, but most of us should be able to figure it out for ourselves.  Here are 12 things all of us should be doing to boost union support in our agencies.

  1. Identify who the non-members are by work unit, building, or area.  Then share that information with any union stewards, officers or other membership building volunteers who work in the same area.  Recruiters need to be constantly aware of the nonmembers around them.   If your local does not have a current list of nonmembers broken out by work unit, building or area and their email addresses, then your local is not trying hard enough. Sorry to criticize, but this is about as basic a step as there is.
  2. Make recruiting an expectation for every union steward or officer.  Better yet, link any benefits of a union leadership position to them signing up new members, e.g., paid trips to union training sessions, the amount of official time they can take, teams they serve on, etc.  Just because union stewards and officers are volunteers does not mean they can avoid accountability. Demand that they ask every non-member at least once a quarter to join the union.
  3. Offer a regular stream of incentives for new members to join as well as for those current members who recruit new members.  Cash payments, chances in raffles, gift cards, celebration lunches, etc. should be a part of your local’s program.
  4. Make the union very visible in the workplace.  Send out regular e-mails or newsletters to everyone boasting about what the union has accomplished or even just tried to achieve.  Remind everyone who is working for the employees. Use buttons, signs, badges and tee shirts to your visibility.
  5. Look for opportunities to get management recognition for the union local, e.g., issue joint announcements of changes, get space in management’s newsletters, share the stage at award ceremonies, etc.  Employees are less reluctant to join if they see that even management accepts and values the union.
  6. Never miss a chance to get credit for helping employees.  If you softened the impact of some management proposed midterm change, make sure employees are told what you did for them versus what management is doing to them with the change.  If you won a grievance , brag widely via e-mail.
  7. Information is a product employees value and unions should get them information often to reemphasize what the union is doing for them.  The local should have everyone in the bargaining unit on different e-mail lists so that it can target messages for groups based on their interest, e.g., there should be a separate list for the secretaries, for those who work in IT, field operations or even support operations.  Bring in guest speakers that might interest them.  Your local should have one person who several times a week reviews the various on-line news sources about federal employment and forwards links to stories that might interest your unit employees. Today union Chief Information Officers are as important as Chief Stewards.
  8. Drive home the point that the union is in business not just to help those employees in trouble, but all the rest of them who are doing fine but want to do better. Make sure employees know that your union wants to make the performance award system more fair, evaluations more objective, and benefits like AWS, telework, training, and various subsidies more common.
  9. Offer various ways for employees to get involved.  The more a member is connected to the union the more likely he or she is to encourage others to join.  Not everyone wants to be a steward or officer.  Some just want to serve on a committee, help the union send out newsletters, run picnics or leave donation drives, or even just post union signs in their cubicles or offices. 
  10. Dump a union president and his/her leadership team if membership does not grow while they are in charge, especially if less than half the employees in your local belong today.  Too many union leaders get elected and decide they do not want new members because it will change the electorate base that voted them in.  Others just are not good at it or they are a poor face for the union in the eyes of the majority of employees.  Again, sorry to raise an unpleasant idea for current union leaders, especially because we admit that many leaders of locals with poor membership are working hard but getting nowhere due to factors largely beyond their control.  But, membership is the single clearest measure of a union leader and the success of a union.  If all your efforts have not worked, turn recruiting over to someone in the local who is eager to try and then get out of her way.
  11. Never, ever, ever let the agency hire a new employee without getting to that employee is the first few days on the job to sell them on the union.  It is best to get a meeting with the employee the same day he or she is signing lots of other forms for management.  Prepare the best pitch for the union you can, make it and have a membership form ready for the new hire to sign.
  12. And of course, encourage creativity among current members so that they volunteer their ideas of how to increase union membership in their own work areas.  Micro recruiting adds up quickly.


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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3 Responses to

  1. Jason Sisk says:

    AFGE’s cited growth percentage is surely tied to the fact they squeeked out the right to represent the TSA employees over NTEU. If that were the other way around those figures pretty much flip-flop. Just for the record, it is likely not the best outcome for TSA workers either. They may have more numbers as far as BUE’s they represent but they don’t offer the legal reps around the country to legally force results when needed. This directly impacts employees where it counts.

    • Mark Gibson says:

      Sorry to burst your bubble, but since 2005, AFGE has added a steady stream of new members in DoD. In 2011, during the TSA elections, AFGE added over 8,000 new members in it’s DoD units.

      • AdminUN says:

        We know. We have complimented AFGE in several posts for it membership growth. Why do you think we believe otherwise? unions as a whole have stagnated, but AFGE has grown.

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