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The Role of Union Leadership in an Evolving Commercial Landscape

By Heather Kerrigan | May 1, 2019

The perpetual evolution of society means that unions may at some point find themselves representing workers in industries outside their traditional purview. In these situations, union leadership must be prepared to respond to members' changing needs and demands.

While shifting industries can bring a variety of challenges, harnessing the existing strength of the union and developing a long-term plan will help ensure that the union continues to thrive, regardless of what the future brings.

Responding to a Changing Workforce

The United Food and Commercial Workers, or UFCW — long known as the champion of grocery store workers and meat packers — is a prime example of the changing face of unions. The emergence of the legal cannabis industry provided UFCW leaders a new membership base. Today, the union represents tens of thousands of cannabis workers, from those employed by cultivating and processing facilities to those staffing dispensaries. James Araby, executive director of the UFCW Western States Council, told KQED that the sector was a natural match for the benefits and protections unions provide their members. "We've found in this industry that many workers were paid in cash or product or not paid at all, that many of their rights were violated, and that some might not know that they even have rights," he said.

It isn't only the UFCW and the workforce it represents that will experience change now and in the future. A variety of industries are primed for similar shifts as technology and consumer tastes continue to evolve. These include some of the fastest growing sectors of the economy, like health care, delivery, manufacturing, sales, personal services and real estate. Each of these industries needs a skilled, thriving workforce.

Growth in the on-demand economy, and the legislation that regulates it, also raises the possibility that workers who are now considered independent contractors may seek to unionize, as Uber and Lyft drivers attempted in Seattle in 2015.

 Responding to Shifting Membership

Adding workers from new sectors, as the UFCW did, not only boosts the union's rolls, providing added strength, but also invites a more diverse population into the member base. Understanding and respecting these differences is important to successfully incorporate and engage new members.

 It is also vital for ensuring the union's benefits and efforts are well aligned with changing demographics. For example, those employed in the cannabis industry tend to be young; one Colorado study found that most of the state's cannabis workers were under age 30. This is a significant shift, considering the Bureau of Labor Statistics' estimate that union membership is currently highest among those aged 45 to 64. Certainly, these workers still want health insurance, paid leave and retirement plans, but a growing number of millennials are also seeking jobs with added benefits like student loan repayment, continuing education and home savings programs. The union may also find that bringing in members from new industries requires a shift in lobbying or other political activities to better reflect the realities of the work.

Expanding membership into new industries has benefits beyond the union. In the case of cannabis workers, it provided a professional image for a workforce that is at times disparaged by the public. And the union was afforded the opportunity to partner with business owners, patrons and other interested groups to set high standards that protect consumers and address community concerns.

Long-Term Planning Support

The industry shifts that can change union membership are usually gradual, and union leadership must make long-term plans while keeping abreast of industry trends. Begin by considering the sectors that are a logical match for the union and how to build networks. Pay close attention to the unique skills, abilities, demographics and individualized needs these workers have, as well as how those align with your existing structure or how the union may need to adapt.

At the same time, continue to support existing members and their own changing needs as they age, expand their families, deal with injuries and change jobs. As you develop a long-term plan for new members, turn to your own membership to inquire about different benefits they would like and consider implementing or bargaining for these. Keep members informed of changes in the industries your union represents, and start building support among existing members for growth in the ranks and the benefits that come with it.

The existing union structure and its benefits are poised to readily accept new members from diverse and growing industries. Recognizing the differences these sectors and their workers represent — and leveraging that to benefit all members — is key to doing so in a graceful and sustainable manner. 

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.




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