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I went to my favorite local Italian restaurant over the holidays with a couple of leaders and consultants close to the US labor movement.  

Inevitably our conversation shifted to the topics of organizing, technology, and all the stuff political people do all day in between writing sarcastic emails, pacing back and forth, and talking on their cell phone. I was mostly interested in the excellent Dolcetto I brought (it was a BYOB place) until one particular statement caught my attention—and I haven’t forgotten it. After the usual lamenting of labor’s decline, a particularly brilliant strategist said, “Well, I think NationBuilder could save the labor movement.”

Initially I thought this was a pretty bold, if not exaggerated, statement. But then I changed my mind. She was absolutely right and I felt compelled to write a blog post explaining exactly why. Now you’re reading said blog post. (Thanks—keep reading.) 

Back in the days before the Red Sox dominated the World Series, I was labor relations major at Cornell. I lucked into an amazing internship with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union local in Cincinnati, OH. The national union was revamping organizing programs at a handful of locals and this was cause enough to bring a Bostonian like me to the midwest.  

Armed with a six-pound laptop, I was prepared to advise the local’s President on strategy issues. Instead, the first thing they asked me to do was build a list of the workers at a handful of local hotels.  

Why?

Because the entire process of organizing basically boiled down to knowing your community and then engaging the individuals. I realized unions usually can’t call up the Hyatt and say, “Hello, sir, may I please have all your employee files so I can help them demand higher wages?” So, I found the information by other means that shall remain between myself and a Catholic priest. 

The next crucial step involved meeting everyone on the list at their house, having conversations, taking notes, and scoring their support. I created an awesome Excel sheet on my laptop and nobody else could see it and I doubt anyone still has that information. And that’s the heart of the problem

As unions grew they completely lost track of the basic relationship between the leaders and the memberships. Employers, on the other hand, didn’t. Sure, the legal and professional environment has shifted in ways that have made it hard to organize but in the end it all comes down to good organizing. MLK day was Monday—and he sure didn’t have a favorable legal environment—he had good organizing.

In the 1930’s and ‘40’s era of great labor movement growth, direct connection between workers was happening all over America. It’s what helped the labor movement grow and secure rights for workers that created the middle class in the US. Local labor leaders, called shop stewards, were the connectors who knew all of their fellow employees and started tracking their support with a 1-5 scale, establishing a metric for their relationships.

Shortly after, the labor movement blew up. Unions started engaging in politics and talked to their members through direct mail. Because information on members and their level of support wasn’t being shared, the communication was impersonal and the local leadership deteriorated. Their lack of data impeded their organizing efforts. Community diminished, morale sank, and anti-union forces seized the opportunity.

Today most unions don’t have a gauge on who actually supports them. My parents have four decades of combined union membership and I don’t think at any point the union realized when their support was waning. 

On top of that, in the age of social media, unions also lack a standardized process to identify their most socially influential members. Show me a local where members can simply go online and create an event on a shared platform to bring their coworkers together. Leadership, like being a shop steward, can feel more like a punishment instead of a reward. Meanwhile, they’re spending millions of dollars to influence elections for candidates who may not truly support their values. 

The good news is that there is a solution. Unions like United Voice Queensland in Australia are already in on the secret. The trick is simply sharing the data and the member support ID like the Obama campaign did with precinct captains. If the local leader can take ownership, ID everyone, and engage people with data before seamlessly moving it back to the top, then the entire ship would turn around. Access to data and engagement tools was the crucial difference-maker in Obama organizing and now its time for unions to follow suit.

Here's what every union can do right now for a just few dollars, in just a day or two:

  1. Create a site like miamidadedems.org, which was built without any html edits on a $19 template. Use it to keep people up-to-date and enable members to have an advanced site with things text-to-join functionality. 
  2. Load membership data into NationBuilder’s control panel and let NationBuilder Match work its magic. Then use Klout scores and sort by highest Twitter followers to identify your most influential members. Ask them to lead.
  3. Give every shop steward a login to the control panel on their NationBuilder site so they can see, live-time, all the actions their members are taking, track conversations, and tag their members with key issues of concern. All of a sudden every union in America will have 10X the organizers.
  4. Set a simple goal, like knowing the 1-5 score for every member. This is native in the NationBuilder profile, because it is fundamentally organizing software. Surveys of course help provide the data. Everything gets recorded automatically and robust membership profiles are now swiftly built.
  5. Then use the info to reward 1's &  2's and spend time with 3's & 4's firming up their support. This isn’t possible until the data is right, is sharable, and the leader is empowered. Items one through four make that the case.

When the data is used to build leadership, those leaders can build community. When members feel like they’re part of a real community, paying union dues becomes a sign of pride—not a tax—and unions can regain their edge.

photo via Michael Fleshman

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