How will Public Employee Unions Compete if Membership Becomes Voluntary?

Later this year the Supreme Court will decide if membership in a public employee union like SEIU or CTA is voluntary or mandatory. It was back in Jerry Brown’s first stint as governor when he made collective bargaining possible for public employees like teachers, firefighters and nurses.

As Dan Walters pointed out in a recent article, collective bargaining and the dues that come with it have been a boon to state Democrats. For all intents Democrats in California are really a labor party with many elected officials coming out of the public employee unions they once worked for/with. Because of the consistent membership dues, public employee unions have been able to create teams of lobbyists, political consultants and public affairs professionals that have influenced legislation and won elections for union-friendly Democrats.

By this June however the Supreme Court is to determine if union membership is voluntary and if spending on politics is as well. While they are often wrong, most Supreme Court observers think the unions are about to take one on the chin. IF that happens– and it’s a big if, it is unlikely unions will pack-up their tent and head home. Their job will just become harder.

As Walters pointed out, higher income union members– police, firefighters, engineers etc, will likely still pay their unions dues. Low income union members like janitors, and home healthcare workers would be more likely to hold on to dollars that previously went to SEIU and others. This could count to millions in campaign contributions democratic candidates will not receive.

So what do you do if you’re SEIU or another union with members that make just more than minimum wage? Unions with low income members should not wait until June before they take action. They need to communicate effectively and often with their members to remind them of the value of union membership. They need to create that believable value proposition now, well before their members have a chance to opt out.

Yes, we know that unions do today communicate often and effectively with their members but they need to be driving those members to take actions today that will keep them paying dues. They need to be able to segment their members on social media, create landing pages that lead to commitments and send email that will be opened, tracked, analyzed and adjusted. In short, they need to do more than send out a newsletter, a big part of the answer is digital marketing.

In talking about social media today, too many people spend far too much time talking about likes and page views . We have moved well past those as any sort of valuable measurable metrics. Social media is most valuable when a message generates an action. Unions will need to drive conversions if they want to still play a powerful role in upcoming elections.

Unions will also need to regularly and quickly determine the effectiveness of their messages by mining for sentiment on the Internet. Advocacy.Marketing has taken the position often in this space that traditional polling is not nearly as effective as it was once. It is still however just as slow and expensive as always. Sentiment monitoring could tell unions daily how their message is being received so adjustments can be made in hours rather than weeks.

It will be fascinating to watch if this mandatory v. voluntary decision comes to pass. It could change California politics for a long time to come.

Note: We have told you in this posting what unions should do now to cope with this potential change. In our next blog we will point out what unions adversaries could do now to further hamstring public employee unions.