Most leadership programs put participants in hypothetical situations, give them the facts, and then ask them to lead their group to a solution.  What follows is a tale of two similar locals inside NTEU, but they could be in any union. They all face similar problems.  Look over the facts below, assume that you are the national president of the union, and develop a solution.

Both these locals represent all bargaining unit employees in their agency, both are located in Washington DC, both deal with independent agencies of government (not the Treasury Dept. or other cabinet entity), both have bargaining units of between 1,000 and 3,000 employees, and both units are composed of primarily highly educated professional employees.  There are other similarities, but that list will do for now.

One local had 229 dues paying members in 2001 out of a bargaining unit of 1,379 for a membership rate of 16%.  Over a decade later its membership count had grown to 241 out of 1,087 employees.  While that is a membership rate of 22%, the jump is almost exclusively due to the fact that the unit is almost 300 employees smaller.  The same person has been president of this local since 2001. Stated differently, this local has not grown under the leadership of the president.  (The figures above and in the rest of this report are taken from DOL and OPM reports. Consider them good approximations.) We can find no FLRA decisions involving this local over the last 15 years nor a web site.

The other local had 735 dues paying members in 2001 out of a bargaining unit of 2,198 for a membership rate of 33%.  Over a decade later its membership count had grown to 1,749 out of 2,826 employees for a membership rate of 61%.  Unlike the previous local chapter, its rate grew while its unit size was also growing.  And, unlike the other chapter, this one changed local presidents around 2007 at a time when the local had netted only 200 new members over the prior half-dozen years.  In the half-dozen years since the new local president took office there has been a net gain of over 800 members. This local has had five FLRA case decisions over the last 15 years, generated millions in back pay, and what may be the best web site among federal sector unions. Check out its membership benefits page where you will see this is NTEU Chapter 293 which represents the employees at the Securities and Exchange Commission.  Another good indication of the vibrancy of this local leaps off its Directory page, which shows it has over 60 stewards, board members, and officers—an extraordinarily high rate of leadership participation.

Obviously, union leaders want as high a percentage of membership as possible.  (NTEU has formally established a membership rate goal of 70% for every local.)   In an ideal world, the local president leads it to a high level of membership.  However, what should national (or even regional) elected union officers be expected to do when a local perpetually fails to boost membership from a level less than one-third of the national goal?  Should the National President be expected to do anything or to stay out of the local’s business?  If the National President does have an obligation, perhaps flowing from a fiduciary responsibility or just a campaign promise, what should s/he be expected or allowed to do?

Before you answer, let us put some financial numbers around this problem. Back in 2001 NTEU reported that the maximum amount of dues a member might pay was $455 a year.  Its 2013 DOL report showed a max of $499.  Since these two locals involve highly paid employees, let’s assume that the average member would have paid an average of $400 a year to the union.  That means that had the first local with the chronically low membership rate achieved NTEU’s preferred rate of 70% membership, it would have contributed about $2.8 million more to the national union’s efforts between 2001 and 2013. (About 600 more members at $400 a year for 12 years.)  But, instead either other NTEU locals had to pay its share of the national union’s costs or things could just not be done. Now imagine if there are even just a dozen locals like it or around $30 million dues dollars not realized.

If you want to send us your thoughts, we will post the less obscene, hostile, or sarcastic ones for all to read.  Or, we will post an amalgam. In the meantime, here are some thoughts to either work from or to argue with:

  1. The national president does have a responsibility to step into the situation. Twelve years is a long time to wait for serendipity to intervene and do the job for him/her.  We are particularly convinced of that where the national union, not the local holds the exclusive recognition certificate.
  2. Lots of signs point to the solution being to replace the local’s current leadership.
  3. The law suggests that a national president cannot just go in and throw the sitting, elected leaders out, but nothing bars the national president and union itself from doing anything.  For example, the union could bar the local leaders/stewards who fail to recruit from charging any official time and designate a staff member to deal with day to day problems if it holds the certification. That would remove any benefit locals get from merely “playing” union leader. The national could restrict via its Constitution how the local spends its money, e.g., should it be allowed to spend local funds to attend a training session in a resort town on the other side of the country when the same session is offered locally?  Should it be allowed to pay local leaders salaries when membership is chronically low?   Should the national pay any portion of the local’s bargaining and arbitration expenses once the problem has continued for years?
  4. It could add a clause to its Constitution requiring local presidents to meet certain membership recruiting goals in order to be eligible to run for reelection.
  5. The National President could fund a membership incentive program similar to what we have reported being used in AFGE and NWSEO, among others.
  6. The leadership focus should be on boosting the union’s visibility around the unit, recruiting highly respected employees as stewards and officers, taking credit for every union achievement, increasing access to employees, and creating opportunities for employees to participate in union work.

What are your thoughts? Here is a tip to help you focus.  Ask yourself what would Walmart do if it had an underperforming store manager?  Better yet, ask yourself what the Walmart board would do if its CEO let this kind of underperformance continue for more than a decade.

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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