Top ten ways to better include new union members

By Nora Loreto

120123-BabineLake-MeetingBurnsLake-01Ten tips for bringing new workers into the union

Regardless of the age on our birth certificates, the divide that exists between new and less new members of a union can be difficult to bridge. Considering how important solidarity among members is in a union, we’ve come up with our top ten pieces of advice for getting (and keeping) your new members involved.

1. Make space

Older members will likely have more information in meetings and might take up more space in meetings or events. Be aware of how often you’re speaking and find ways to help limit the participation of people whose participation tends to dominate. Find ways to encourage the participation of people who talk a little. When everyone has the opportunity to participate as equals, we can build a solid base of goodwill.

2. If the union represents workers who are short-term, tend to be younger or who are in precarious contracts, make a special effort to reach out to these workers, explain the structures of the union and encourage them to get involved

Unions that are comprised of workers that are younger, short-term or precarious can be harder mobilize. If you’re responsible for coordinating large events like congresses, meetings or trainings for your union, it is imperative that you try to surpass the barriers that exist to help foster local union representatives’ participation. For example: a union local at a university that is comprised of short-term contract workers who are mostly new to the labour movement will likely be disenfranchised or even turned off if they miss a motions deadline for an upcoming congress. Reach out to these locals. Call them and ask how they would like to be involved. Finding meaningful ways to get new workers involved in these structures will go a long way to strengthening the capacity of the labour movement.

3. Be patient

Patience is definitely a virtue. And, when you’re under pressure to get through a meeting agenda because everyone has to leave in 47 minutes, it can be hard to find the right balance between patience and moving things along. But if new members of your executive are consistently asking questions that seem obvious, your committee is probably not explaining things as well as it needs to. People ask questions when they are looking for answers. Be patient with new members. Their questions demonstrate that they want to be involved. And sometimes, in asking these questions, you might realize that there is a need to change how certain things are done.

4. Give new members the opportunity to chair committees or hold other offices within the union.

Sometimes the best way to learn about an organization is to dive right into it. Most executive committees coordinate sub-committees. These can be an excellent way to get new members involved. Ask what these members are interested in. Do they like communications? Is labour education their priority? Allow them the freedom to get creative with committee work and support their involvement with constructive guidance. Conversely, if new workers are simply too overwhelmed, don’t pressure them (or anyone) to over extend themselves. We can’t afford to burn ourselves out.

5. Be open to changing things that are done “just because it’s always been done this way.”

Sure, 2:30 PM every Tuesday has been the meeting time that has worked for years, but new members of the executive have said that they struggle to be present as the time doesn’t work for them. Be flexible and open to change. If you find yourself answering the question “why” with “because it’s how we’ve always done it,” you have a problem. Allow for all members to participate equally. This might mean having to change things that have always been done one way, to be done in new ways.

6. Don’t allow assumptions to make an ass out of anyone.

Walking into a new group of people can be daunting, regardless of the setting. It can be even harder when the group has a history that stretches back decades! Ensuring that people are on the same page means that everyone has to actually be on the same page. Going back to basics and ensuring that governing regulations like bylaws and policies are being followed can help to get past assumptions and move a new group into a cohesive group of activists. Try not to make assumptions that new unionists are getting involved for the same reasons that you did: there are many ways for people to enter into the union, and their experiences could be be much different than your own.

7. Spend some time as a group reviewing bylaws

This would provide all members to get on the same page about your union’s bylaws. It should be an informal, informative session that allows people to understand their roles, the roles of their colleagues and how the union fits into the broader workplace environment. Learning together helps us grow together and there’s never any harm in reminding ourselves what the documents that govern us, actually say.

8. Don’t be defensive!

When someone is defensive, they are usually projecting an anxiety about something. This can turn others off, create tension and derail productive conversation. If a new member identifies behavior that she perceives to be sexist, for example, take it seriously and recommend ways in which this can be addressed. We need to meet our colleagues in the assumption that they’re operating in good faith. When we get our backs up, tensions rise and often, the chance for rational and calm discussion diminishes.

9. Don’t waste peoples’ time

The last thing you want to do is turn off an eager new member by needlessly wasting time. This could be through holding too many meetings or by not being in communication close enough in case meetings need to be cancelled. Sometimes, new members will recommend ways in which to move things along. Sometimes, older members will have recommendations too. If your weekly meetings are causing people to resent the time they’re dedicating to the union, examine why you meet so often and ask yourselves: can this be done more efficiently? The answer is almost always “yes.”

10. Be open to new ideas

It often takes takes fresh eyes to see opportunities that others can’t see. This is the magic of having new members involved. New members bring experiences and ideas that come from other places and they can inspire a union local to take on new projects, or change how things are done. They might say something that triggers new ideas from older members too. Our projects are strongest when they’re collaborative. Working together is important, and welcoming new ideas into the fold can only strengthen out work.

This piece was originally published by the Canadian Association of Labour Media

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