What is a zombie local?  It is a single local of a successful national union, that has chronically low membership, e.g. fewer than 30% of the unit employees belong. It enjoys all the protections and benefits of the national union because other locals, with double and triple their percentage of membership, cover their share of the costs. Federal sectors unions seem unable to effectively deal with the walking dead among their locals.  So, we thought we would share some thoughts.

Before we address solutions, it will help to know more about [f1] the leaders of zombie locals.

  1. Generally, the locals are run by the same person or small handful of union leaders for years, even decades.
  2. These leaders-for-life get elected by doing nothing to change the mix of members who reliably elect them term after term. They know that the fewer members the union has the smaller the odds of a capable challenger arising and the easier it is to electioneer. Sadly, some of them even encourage current members to withdraw if they are causing the incumbents problems.
  3. Another secret of their electoral success is that they accomplish virtually nothing for employees lest employees see how much good the union potentially can do and want to compete to lead it to even greater accomplishments. Consequently, most of their grievance activity concerns themselves of petty issues. You might say that are “playing union” the way children play at house or war.  They are great union leaders in their own minds, not in reality.
  4. Agency management often helps these do-nothing leaders stay in power by permitting them to devote full-time to union duties and providing an office in which to do it.  That keeps the union leaders out of the work place where they might learn about employee problems—or seen by co-workers as the selfish dolts that they are. At times, agency officials will even settle local grievances for petty concessions just to keep the national union from intervening and ruining a good thing. In the eyes of agency union-haters, the next best thing to no union at all is a weak union with little employee support and incompetent leadership.
  5. It is a political fact of life that national union leaders prefer to just tolerate them rather than force change.  The national union often works hard to get exclusive recognition in a unit and once elected typically puts top-flight staff in there to get the local off the ground with a decent contract, including a chunk of official time.  However, once under contract, the national union leaders often move on to other projects and priorities expecting the local leaders to grow the local union. When those leaders do not succeed, the law prevents the national union from firing them, and the core values of too many national union leaders keep them from pressuring local leaders to improve.  Often national leaders are former local union leaders themselves who are wary of a strong national union interfering in local business.
  6. Even if national leaders do want to build the failed local they may have decided that the pay-off more trouble than it is worth.  Will other locals sympathize with a targeted zombie and apply political pressure to protect themselves from an assertive national office? Will the targeted local decertify the national and move to another union—or will it call the Department of Labor, triggering an investigation?

In the business world, national corporate leaders would be setting goals for local executives, measuring their progress weekly, and removing those who habitually fail.  Can anyone image Walmart allowing a local store manager to keep her job if year after year she missed sale goals?

Unfortunately, national union officers cannot fire local union leaders for incompetence. Short of violating the law, ineffective local leaders concerned only about themselves and a few friends can stay in office forever if a majority of those who vote reelect them. That could be a single vote if only one person votes.

Consequently, national unions have to work harder than a Walmart CEO to deal with chronic failure. Here are some things that could be done to deal with the problem. (Please remember that this posting is not about local leaders who fail but regularly try by build membership by doing all the right things.  Call them the “unsuccessful;” this is about the chronic failures to do little to nothing to change.)

  1. Convention delegates should insist that national officers regularly report to all local leaders on ineffective locals, e.g., their percent of membership currently and for each of the last five years, how much money that national union is losing by the continuing failure of the zombies to deliver at even an average level, what steps are being taken to force change, etc.  As we suggested above, normally national union leaders will not publicize the extent of the problem for fear they will lose total control over the issue. So, it falls to local leaders to force the issue through the union bylaws or constitution.
  2. Unions should establish membership goals or targets, e.g. 75% of all unit employees should be members within five years of being certified as a local. Newly organized units should operate under a different set of expectations than older locals so that improvement can be fairly measured.
  3. National unions should offer hefty financial incentives for nonmembers to join and for members who successfully sign a new member. Something between a third and a half of the annual dues paid the national should be used to attract new members during specific membership drive periods. Those periods could be different for every local. And locals should be required to supplement national funding with money from their treasury. (It is assumed that the higher level national leaders will also provide local leaders with chronically low membership expert staff to help them turn that around as well as extra training.)
  4. National unions should also be willing to penalize ineffective local leaders. Three things come to mind.  First, leaders of zombie locals should not get preferred appointments to national bargaining teams or committees.  workers do not support her why should the national union let her represent national union interests?   Second, the national union should step up the frequency with which it directly communicates directly with the employees represented by zombie leaders. No local president likes higher-level union leaders bypassing him/her and talking directly to members, but the right to control that should be earned, not assumed. A third mechanism would be for the national union to retain the power to make important local decisions when those leaders fail chronically.  Why should the zombies have to power to decide which cases go to arbitration, who serve as stewards, or whether to invoke negotiations over local mid-term changes if they are not attacking new members with that authority? Perhaps the powers of a local leader change based on the percent of employees who pay dues, especially after a reasonable period of time has passed without improvement.
  5. Concerned union leaders, whether national or local, should look into other ways to oust and/motivate ineffective colleagues, e.g., term limits tied to the percentage of membership, linking salary increases for national union leaders to their success dealing with zombies, etc.

Disagree if you wish, but the primary measure of a union and its leaders is membership. The higher the percentage of unit employees paying dues, the more effective that union likely is. It has more money to do more things, management knows that employees are behind the union representatives, employees likely know more about their rights and opportunities at work, there is a deeper pool of future leaders available, etc.  A union can win every arbitration case it takes, every court case filed, and every legislative initiative it pursue.  But, if those victories do not generate higher membership they are like the proverbial great tree that fell in the forest when no one was around to hear the majestic sound.

FEDSMILL was started on the idea that capturing the information and ideas flowing freely in our world can generate power for union leaders and supporters because knowledge often generates power. If we are not critical of ourselves and open to creative responses to long-standing problems, no one else is going to reach out to help us. Every day that chronically inept local union leaders are allowed to stay in office further cements their co-workers opinions that unions in general are worthless.  If we do not turn that mentality around, union leaders will all be a member of the walking dead.


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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