The Pew Research Center has estimated that until 2030, 10,000 baby boomers will reach retirement age every day. If they haven't already left their positions, chances are they won't wait long to start planning an exit, meaning unions around the country will continue losing vital members and leaders. How you prepare for and manage group retirees is essential not only to their security in their postwork years but also to the health of your organization.
Preserving Institutional Knowledge
The businesses your members work for need to ensure that institutional knowledge doesn't walk out the door with retirees, and the same is true for unions. Many of your members likely have a long history with the union: They know the ins and outs of union benefits, the best methods for recruiting new members and how to get members involved with union advocacy events.
The first step in ensuring you don't lose institutional knowledge is to figure out which of your soon-to-be retirees act in leadership roles, even if informally. Ask yourself what each member contributes and what impact their retirement may have. Then, formulate a plan to prioritize a knowledge transfer. Start by approaching these individuals to have honest conversations about their retirement plans. Explain that you value their expertise and want to harness it once they've left a union role. Work with these members to determine how they prefer to share their knowledge.
Your knowledge-transfer activities can be as simple as a brown-bag lunch for the board or other union representatives. If you can identify members seeking leadership positions with the union, start a mentoring program and encourage your outgoing members to meet with rising leaders to share experiences, lessons learned and best practices. Also consider asking your outgoing members if they'd be willing to act as volunteers on an ad hoc basis to assist your board or new union representatives when questions arise.
If your group retirees have been with the union for most of their careers or held high-profile positions, their retirement won't just create a knowledge gap — it might also leave other members wondering where they can go for questions, guidance and general union enthusiasm. Much like pairing your incoming leaders with outgoing retirees to transfer knowledge, a more general member-matching initiative could make the shift from member to retiree smoother for everyone involved.
Ask your retirees to share what they know about your members, beginning with broad questions like the best way to communicate with them and what union activities they're passionate about. Ask new leaders to work side by side with outgoing members as they lead discussions or develop programming. By introducing your new leaders to the membership and helping them cultivate relationships, you allow for a more seamless transition.
Managing Retiree Benefits
Depending on their collective bargaining agreement, union workers may enjoy a number of benefits in retirement, like pensions and health insurance. It's important for the union to ensure the best benefits possible for retirees when negotiating with employers, but perhaps even more critical is letting members know what benefits they can expect in retirement. Many factors contribute to the decision of when to retire, and members have to be confident that the union will continue to support them.
As you begin providing retirement benefits information, avoid giving the impression that you're trying to force members into retirement. Instead, characterize any information you share as a tool to help members think about how they plan to spend the next phase of their lives, whether that means working for the foreseeable future or retiring early and traveling the world. Outline exactly what benefits your members will receive and direct them to free online tools that can help them calculate their health care spending and monthly pension benefits.
After retirement, continue communicating with members to let them know about the health of the pension plan and any changes they can expect. Media outlets frequently publish stories about underfunded pension plans and cuts to retiree benefits, so it's important to be upfront about any issues and let retirees know that they can still contact the union with questions or concerns.
In the end, your time is best spent showing respect for your more veteran members and the depth of experience they provide by easing their transition into retirement. The relationship between a union and its members is a partnership — supporting members nearing retirement with collaborative initiatives is just one way to make sure both sides can lean on each other and reap the benefits.
Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy, with a specific focus on public workforce, environment, health care, education and technology issues. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered freelance editorial services to a variety of outlets, including serving as volume editor and lead author for SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and editor-in-chief of The Kanter Journal. Heather also blogs for two government-focused publications, GovLoop and NEOGOV, covering issues of importance to federal employees. Heather is the author of the book Retire Rich With Your 401(k) Plan. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.