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Member Engagement & Participation

Member Engagement and Participation Newsletter

No. 3, June 2024            

In the first newsletter on member engagement (Summer 2023), I introduced the historic circumstances that contribute to the current distance between union leaders and members. A transactional or “business” model embraced by labour organizations, generations ago, created a structure where members would seek out the assistance of their union on an “as-needed” basis. Members were expected to pay union dues, but maintaining their membership in good standing did not require them to participate in their union’s daily activities. Today, members’ commitment to their union covers a range from those who are deeply opposed, to those with high levels of attachment to the labour movement. There is, of course, a greater number somewhere in-between, or simply unaware of the role and purpose of their union.

 With this as a backdrop, many union leaders today see the need to build stronger connections with their members, developing greater organizational depth, leverage, and strength in a more challenging labour environment. This newsletter will introduce one of the foundational principles of building engagement in your organization – understanding the notion of “followership” and how your members determine their relationship with the union – while the leader has an important role in this, their influence is not as great as you may think.

In the study of organizations, the position of “leader” has traditionally been considered part of a hierarchical structure – a chain of command where someone who possesses authority by occupying a “higher position” gives instructions to members who are expected to be passive and obedient. Such a structure satisfies the instrumental nature of employment – “work for pay” – but does little to encourage a meaningful or lasting commitment to the organization. Since the “work for pay” relationship does not exist between union leaders and members, how do we build engagement? To start, we need to put the union leader-member relationship in context.

While the organization’s bylaws or constitution may prescribe certain expectations of members, a union leader cannot “order” members to attend a meeting, read a newsletter, or promote the interests of the organization. The relationship between the union’s leader and members is limited, and not at all like the one between employee and employer. To bring the member into a “follower” role, the member needs to be persuaded that there’s a value to investing the additional time and effort – after all, historically the business structure of the organization has only expected the payment of dues. Therefore, in our analysis of member engagement we characterize members as “volunteers.” By framing the leader-follower relationship in a volunteer context, we open the door to a study of what attracts people to certain organizations.

People are attracted to, and engage with, volunteer organizations where they feel that there is value in its purpose, mission and vision. The strength of those feelings typically influences the degree of investment the person is prepared to make – general interest may be sufficient to make a financial donation, or to read literature produced by the organization. A higher level of interest may result in the person volunteering a more valuable asset - their time. Levels of commitment, particularly early in the followership relationship, will be transitory.  Someone’s commitment may be focused on one issue, after which their interest will wane.

Therefore, in the volunteer framework the member and leader have an exchange relationship – the member becomes a follower, at least for the one issue that brought them in, and the leader articulates the purpose, mission or vision. Of course this leads to the question: has your organization determined its purpose, mission or vision? And, if you have, is that part of the communications strategy you have with your membership? Of course, this is a simplified description of the leader-member exchange theory, as it is described in the scholarly literature on leadership, but it is important in that it defines one of the key motivations in the process of members transitioning to followers. Contrary to common perception, members do not follow the organization’s leader in as much as they follow the organization’s purpose, vision or mission. It is the challenge for the leader to articulate those aspirations, bringing the message to the members and encouraging their involvement.

If we position our organizations in their present state and consider how we are to get to our desired state, we start with the realization that having structured our organizations in a transactional, “as needed” business structure for so long, our task to build engagement is really starting from the ground up. Unless your union has only recently been certified, it is unlikely that anyone in your membership was present when the union was created – the point where, among the membership, the awareness of the organization’s purpose is often at its peak. It may be that before we articulate our organization’s mission and vision, it will be necessary to invest time to educate members on the organization’s purpose.


            This newsletter introduces the concept of exchange in the relationship between the leader and member in our efforts to transition the member to follower. By framing the analysis in the context of volunteers, we are able to consider what attracts people to certain organizations. For unions that attraction focuses on the organization’s purpose, mission or vision. In this way, we understand that while the leader plays an important role, it is the organization’s aspirations that have the greatest effect in building engagement. For the leader, the tasks if to articulate those aspirations, bringing the organization closer to its members. Having a strong sense of followership between the members and union is important to the organization when unity is key – during collective bargaining, or weathering other challenging times.

In the next newsletter will further explore how developing the notion of “followership” will build your organization.

     Copyright - Cole Labour, June 2024

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For more information about COLE LABOUR, visit our website here.



Bill Cole created COLE LABOUR in early 2023 to focus on collective bargaining, interest arbitration, negotiation training and organizational development for labour unions, with a particular focus on first responders and health care. Bill has extensive experience representing unions in collective bargaining in the police, firefighter, health care, airline pilot, hotel workers, steelworkers, broader public and private sectors.  He has wide-ranging experience in mediation and interest arbitration in multiple sectors and jurisdictions across Canada. Bill has developed and delivered introductory, intermediate, and advanced negotiation training to thousands of union representatives across North America.

Bill is a Senior Research Associate at Harvard's Labor and a Just Economy. He is a regular speaker at Harvard's annual Trade Union Program where he works with union leaders from around the world on issues relating to collective bargaining and member engagement. 

He is the co-author of The Art of Collective Bargaining available at Thomson Reuters.  


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