It's a question you've probably heard from more than one of your members: "What do union dues pay for?"
Simply put, as with any other membership organization, it costs money to maintain the group and look out for the best interests of the dues payers. But framing that to fully encompass the value of union membership in a way that's meaningful to members can be difficult. Focusing on the outcomes of union activities, specifically those most beneficial to members — like higher pay or better health insurance — is key to getting the message across.
Explaining Dues to Members
If a member visits your website, they might find an FAQ or a laundry list of benefits covered by their dues. These may include collective bargaining, legal representation for grievances and arbitration, lobbying efforts, education, on-site training and recruitment. But someone who isn't well-versed in union speak may still be left wondering, in a practical sense, what do union dues pay for.
That means it's incumbent upon the board to take that union lingo and turn it into something that resonates with members and explains how the union impacts an individual's day-to-day life. To members, the most important impacts will likely be those that benefit their personal bottom line, particularly higher wages and better, more affordable health care benefits.
As essential as it is to tell members what their dues cover, though, don't forget to convey what their money doesn't go toward. Especially in today's politically charged environment, let members know that, by law, dues cannot be used for contributions to political campaigns or union election campaigns.
Leveraging the Wins
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the value of membership is to connect it with a recent victory. If the union lobbied on behalf of a piece of legislation that provides new worker safety protections, or if the year's contract negotiations resulted in an employer paying a higher percentage of health benefits, tell your members. Explain that, because of their continued support of the union, they will enjoy a new or enhanced benefit. Define it in terms that will make sense to the most members, for instance by showing a visual that represents the dollar savings a typical family would receive from an employer concession.
When possible, support your explanation of member benefits with nonunion sources to help remove some bias. You can share, for example, evidence from the Bureau of Labor Statistics explaining that union members are more likely to have employer-provided health insurance than nonunionized workers. The Economic Policy Institute also has readily available studies noting that union members are more likely to have paid vacation and higher wages, among other benefits.
Planning the Presentation
Like any financial issue, union dues can be a touchy subject. To ease some tension, it's best for the union to provide an explanation of the benefits realized through dues payments when an individual first becomes a union member. If that isn't feasible, don't feel pressured to deliver this information in a one-on-one, in-person setting. Instead, develop a high-level one-page fact sheet that summarizes what dues are, how they're paid and the outcomes that they help realize. Update this fact sheet throughout the year to document current union achievements that provide real-life, tangible evidence of the benefits of dues.
But remember — explaining the benefits that dues provide doesn't end once a new union member is onboarded. You should frequently communicate (via the union website, emails, newsletters or regularly scheduled meetings) about how dues are working for members. Tie these communications to a current union activity and discuss in plain language what the effort means for the livelihood of your members.
As a union leader, you know that dues solve workplace issues and give members a voice they might not otherwise have to advocate for themselves. To ensure a strong union, it's vital that you communicate with your members and help them see their dues as an investment, not a financial burden.
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.