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Why Labor Unions Ought To Develop More Leaders

Organized labor reminisces too much. I understand why. Look at this graph. The percentage of union workers peaked in 1954 at almost 35% and has been in steady decline since. Today, a little over 11 percent of the workforce claims union membership.

Union membership has sharply declined in recent years, strong leaders are needed to address this issue

Innovative leaders are needed to reverse this decline in union membership

The reasons for labor’s decline are numerous and complex. While we continue to blame (deservedly) the one percent that runs our country for our woes, we also need to take responsibility and ask ourselves, “What can we do to fix organized labor now?”

Before it’s too late.

The strength of America’s middle class depends on the strength of our unions. When working people stand together to bargain for fair wages and decent benefits, our middle class gets stronger.

How Can We Start Developing More Leaders?

Here are three areas where I believe labor unions can do a better job and make progress: Leadership Development, Communications and Vision.

How many young kids say, “I want to be a labor leader when I grow up,” or “I want to run a Local union when I graduate?” Or better yet, how many people get their MBAs and say, “I want to run the AFL-CIO some day?”

Not many.

We have a few excellent union leadership training programs including City College of San Francisco’s Labor and Community Studies curriculum. But we can do so much more.

Where to begin? To borrow a phrase from the environmental movement…Think global, act local.

Effective Leadership Starts from Within

As local union leaders, we need to identify the best people in our unions, the top 20 percent, and develop their leadership skills. Teach them and mentor them not just in the art of negotiation, but also in practical skills like how to prioritize…how to run a meeting…how to listen to members and employers.

Teach your developing leaders how to move beyond their comfort zone and embrace the unknown. That’s where some of the most productive and exciting work happens.

Most importantly, teach your leaders how to build relationships. In my experience, relationships are at the heart of every successful transaction.

Leaders are the Future of the Labor Movement

Good leaders are hard to find. And often when we find them, we feel threatened that they’ll take our jobs. I’m telling you today. Find a place for your leaders.  Give them roots and then give them wings.  Let them soar. Our labor movement desperately needs good leaders if we are to survive and more importantly, thrive.

Stay tuned for Part II of my blog post when I discuss why labor unions must develop better communications strategy and vision.

Image credit: BoogaLouie (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Next Clicks:

Who Will Lead Tomorrow’s Labor Movement?

Why Labor Union Leaders Should Run for Elected Office And How We Can Help

How to Grow Your Union Membership


About the Author:
FX Crowley is a Public Affairs and Labor Relations Specialist, and former 15-year Business Manager of IATSE Local 16, San Francisco. A third-generation San Franciscan, FX can break down any football game from Pop Warner to the Pros and analyze it for hours. Contact to learn more ››