Running a national labor unions well demands a lot of skill. AFGE, for example, has an annual budget of over $100 million, 300,000 members, and thousands of locals involving almost every government agency. Even NTEU and NATCA spend tens of millions each year. On top of that, today all of them have to worry about a problem their unions did not have decades ago, namely, a massive political movement to starve government, downgrade federal employment, and destroy public sector unions. It is no longer just about grievances and negotiations, the typical concerns of most local presidents. So, we thought we would share some ideas on how unions can develop national leaders out of local presidents.

We recognize that there are far easier ways to find talent for the top jobs. For example, politically elected leaders can hire CEO-level executive talent from outside the union to run the operation as executive directors. Or, unions can develop CEO potential in current national staff. There is nothing wrong with either; in fact, they have some distinct advantages. But why would a union ever bypass the opportunity to develop its many local presidents?  Leading a local gives one insights that staff and outsiders rarely have, e.g., directly soliciting members, building relationships with first and second line managers, telling a member the union cannot help them, winning elections, etc. Finally, isn’t it more than a little dishonest for a union to demand agencies give members first consideration for promotion, but not have more than a skeletal program for filling its own leadership vacancies from within? The development of members’ potential is either an organization value or it is not.

Developing national leadership potential in local presidents is different than just filling the top jobs via an internal election; in fact, very different. Hold an election and someone will win. Unions need more than that–just like employers recognized a decades ago that they need formal succession development programs to fill leadership slots.

An internal development process typically starts with the national Executive Board because that is where leadership involves more than grievance handling and bargaining skills. Board members can make strategic operational decisions about departmental and program-level funding, short and long term planning, membership growth, staff performance metrics, investments, mergers & acquisitions, organizing targets, major capital purchases, and multi-unit problems. They do not have to; they can defer to the national president and staff. But when they don’t the union loses an opportunity to develop its local leaders and renders the board jobs more honorary than high impact. Moreover, as we have said before national union leaders cannot credibly ask agency executives to give employees pre-decisional involvement if the union does not give its own members a larger role in key decisions.

We are undecided about how often boards should meet. Two or three times a year seems inadequate if it is engaged in substantive versus honorary work. But at a minimum board members should be receiving information about the union’s operations quarterly, if not monthly. For example, monthly budget figures, case processing metrics, etc.

Beyond the board’s agenda, board seats have to be open to the top local leaders in the union without forcing them to give up their local presidencies–unless board seats are full-time jobs as AFGE has. If unions bar local leaders from holding their local elected position while also serving on a national board, they cut off the ability of their best local-level talent to grow and learn more about the union. We are not saying that union constitutions should allow local presidents to hold any combination of multiple elected positions. But the potential payoff of having the best local-level talent also serving on national executive board far, far outweighs any disadvantages. There are advantages to blocking local presidents from also serving on national boards, but we will not comment on them (or who reaps those advantages) here.

Another mechanism for boosting local leadership development is the structure of the district or region the board members preside over. If they are limited to employees of one agency, the board member misses a chance to network, learn, and grow. For example, AFGE structures its districts purely on geography, which forces its board members to learn far more than their own bargaining unit can teach them. If a union decides to structure its board regions by agency, then it should consider creating a process where presidents of all locals in a geographic area meet regularly to work on certain projects, e.g., lobbying drives, media campaigns, local economic benefit programs, etc.

Finally, Board members should be paid for their work. DOL reports show that AFGE pays its board members, who work full-time for the union, a GS-14 salary. NATCA pays them $2,000 a month on top of their federal salaries, plus expenses. If Board members are doing an effective job, they will be taking days or weeks of annual leave or other personal time over a year to do the work and that should be compensated. In fact, isn’t it a little hypocritical for a union to not pay someone for work they expect to be done? Like it or not money motivates, and if a few thousand dollars attract better candidates and produce better work from those elected it is money very well spent.

Beyond the executive board, the next most important mechanism for developing leadership talent is for current national leaders to increase the information they share with local presidents. If a union represents employees in more than one unit, then any information the national president distributes to the local leaders of one unit should be available to local presidents of all the units. (We cannot even think of a good reason to withhold this information from local presidents under any conditions?) If the union obtains a benefit for one unit, why should the other units not know about it? If the union wins or loses a significant case in one unit, e.g., an adverse action or appraisal matter, why should not all local presidents have a chance to learn from the decision? Certainly, management trade publications do not restrict information just because it concerns another company or agency.

There are other things unions can do to build national leadership talent among today’s local leaders, e.g., ensure that national bargaining team or convention committee assignments are distributed reasonably; encourage local leaders to enroll in university on-line programs in employment law, legislative processes, leadership concepts, and union administration; provide short term assignments to national office staff work; etc. But this is enough for now. We promise to return to this topic before the winter is over with even more thoughts and details.

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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