Recruiting workers to the trade union: Tips for organisers

George Mthethwa

Recruiting workers to the trade union: Tips for organisers

num recruiting campaign

Trade unions have several responsibilities to their members. The responsibilities include bargaining for better wages and conditions of employment; nurturing the worker and employer relationships; facilitating collective actions; developing new demands; providing assistance during disputes and grievances processes; and improving the standard living of members and their families. Unions must address the challenges of members, be it the impact of automation, new forms of employment, unfavourable economic policies and non-recognition of worker organisations by employers.

One key indicator of a strong union is a growing membership. Thus, unions need to constantly renew their strategies for recruiting and organising workers and retaining members.

The case for trade union organising

Dr Marshal Ganz, Harvard University lecturer in leadership, organising and civil society, defines organising as ‘leadership that enables people to turn the resources they have into the power they need to make the change they want’, in his book Organising: People, Power, Change. Organising processes aim to involve and retain members of a trade union to build a strong organisation that can effectively champion workplace rights. Organising relationships aren’t simply transactional – the goal should be to build long-term relationships with members. The organising process builds structures and relationships with workers to facilitate comradeship, support and mentoring.

The union should continually educate members about its mission, as well as its expectation from the membership. The union needs to routinely encourage members to get involved in union activities such as recruiting and campaigns. Additionally, the union needs to keep members updated, informed and involved in the decisions that affect both parties.

The trade union recruitment strategy

The future strength of our trade unions hinges on their ability to prioritise organising and recruitment processes. Recruitment is the process of attracting workers to join a trade union. Below are some steps to recruiting successfully:

Conduct research

Information is power, so gather it. Research the companies operating in the union's target sectors. Some of the things to find out are the size and location; layout of the factory; products or services; the market for products and services; ownership of the company; the number of employees; existing conditions of work in wage agreements and sectoral determinations; job categories or job grades; and the priority issues for workers.

Create the recruiting resource pack 

Before starting to recruit, ensure that the materials and resources you’ll need for the campaign are available, for example, recruiter forms, pamphlets and a vetted list of telephone numbers for cold calling potential members.

Use compelling storytelling

Effective organisers use storytelling as a tactic to engage potential members. When done properly, storytelling can inform, engage and entertain audiences in a compelling way. Storytelling can assist in articulating shared values and the benefits of joining a union. Use a variety of stories, from the gains of the union to the losses. Be honest with workers to manage their expectations but also emphasise the union's commitment to collective bargaining for the benefit of workers.

Be innovative

Innovation is required to properly address old and new workplace challenges. Innovation could mean improving the use of online communication platforms to reach a targeted group of workers or broadening union services to cater for vulnerable groups of workers. Create a culture of innovation and be consistent in finding new opportunities and approaches.

The basics of effective union general meetings

General meetings for workers and the union are important and serve as a platform for discussing issues that affect both the workers and the union. General meetings must be inclusive and educational spaces where workers can share their experiences or views and learn from each other. To help keep decorum in meetings, members should have access to key union resources such as the Constitution, relevant handbooks, guides and booklets.

Building the workplace union

Changing workplaces and the emerging challenges mean the demand for individual and collective representation, advice and support can only rise. Thus, the jobs of union officials like shop stewards and organisers are even more important. Effective organising recognises that workers need to take responsibility for identifying and campaigning for the issues that matter to them, while also taking responsibility for creating visibility for the union on the shop floor. The role of organisers or shop stewards is to help workers find their own solutions, rather than spoon-feeding them. The purpose of organising workers is to enable them to build their capacity to act so that they can help others. Thus, organising must be linked to servicing and building sustainable unions. Also, the organising process can help to close the gap between members of a union and the leadership. National or regional trade union leaders should spend time with members to get to know their struggles. And that can be achieved through, for instance, union-sponsored social events.

Trade union membership retention

Members are the strength of the union and will likely stay if they know the union is serious about recruiting.  Unions need to represent and service workers by dealing with their issues and concerns through shop stewards who are well-trained and confident. Unions have the responsibility of providing quality education and training to worker representatives. Well-resourced shop stewards can contribute to the union’s goal of retaining members. Unions that cater to the issues of every member, and especially in the current workplace context, will have the best success at retaining and nurturing their membership.


The Tulec Manual for Trade Union Organisers (Tulec) Organising Skills 1998: Available at Labour Research Service

Sinnot, S. and Gibbs P. (2014), Organising, People, Power, Change. Available here

Recent Posts

Essential Links

Essential Resources

Tags Cloud

Subscribe to receive our email updates

I am interested in: