Recruiting workers to the trade union: Tips for organisers

Recruiting workers to the trade union: Tips for organisers

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Some of the responsibilities of trade unions to their members (workers) are; to bargain for better wages and conditions of employment for members (workers); to nurture the relationship between workers and employers or company management; to facilitate collective action to enforce the terms of collective bargaining; to develop new demands on behalf of its members; to help settle workers’ disputes or grievances, and to improve the standard living of workers and their families. Unions must nurture the strength needed for addressing the challenges of members. The challenges include globalisation; automation; job losses; outsourcing, new forms of employment; economic policies that favour business; and non-recognition of worker organisations by smaller companies especially.

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 must be committed to educating members about its roles and responsibilities, as well as what it expects from the members. The union needs to routinely encourage its members to get involved in union activities such as recruiting and issues-based 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 successful union recruiting:

Conduct research

Information is power, so gather it. Research to identify the companies in the union’s target areas.

Some of the things to find out about the company include 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 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

The best time to contact workers is during lunchtime, and 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. Organisers can use storytelling to articulate shared values and the benefits of unionising. Storytelling can be a source of inspiration and a means to engage and connect with prospective members. Stories are an effective tactic for motivating workers to join the union. Organisers can use a variety of stories, from the gains of the union to the losses. Be honest with workers and manage expectations, but emphasise that as an organisation of workers who are facing different challenges, the union will, for example, continue to collectively improve the conditions of employment for members.

Be innovative

Innovative union practices can be useful in addressing emerging challenges or existing problems more effectively. Innovation can take a variety of forms, including the use of digital technologies and broadening union services to cater for vulnerable groups of workers.


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 need to be inclusive and safe, as well as 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 such as shop stewards and organisers are more important than ever. Organising is the recognition that for change to happen, workers need to take responsibility for identifying and campaigning around the workplace issues that matter to them while also taking responsibility for making the union visible and strong 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. Additionally, the organising process can help to close the gap between a union’s members 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 via, for instance, union-sponsored social events that can be used to boost social relations and inculcate the vision and ideals of the organisation.

Trade union membership retention

Retaining membership is important to trade union growth. Workers are likely to stay with unions that take recruiting and organising seriously. Unions indeed need to represent and service workers, but they also need to ensure that worker issues and concerns are dealt with by well-trained and confident shop stewards. It’s the responsibility of union officials to ensure that they are prepared when engaging employers around workers’ issues. Trade unions can reverse membership decline and promote retention by introducing effective means of organising and recruitment. Unions that identify and analyse workers’ issues, and especially in the context of a rapidly changing workplace, 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

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