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  • Bill Cole

Harvard Trade Union Program 2023

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

I have had the great pleasure of speaking with union leaders from around the world, most frequently as part of Harvard’s annual Trade Union Program (HTUP). As a Senior Research Associate at the Harvard Center for Labor and a Just Economy (until recently the Labor and Worklife Program) I have led discussions on collective bargaining, leadership, and organizational development, specifically for union audiences. I have also worked directly with many public and private sector unions across North America on these and other subjects.

At this year’s HTUP I had the opportunity to spend two sessions talking about the dynamics of the leader-member relationship and how understanding the member from a “followership perspective” was a necessary first step in building member commitment and participation. In my view the retail and academic preoccupation with leadership misses the point – to be an effective leader one must understand one’s roles and responsibilities from the perspective of the follower. All of this is in response to concerns I have heard from union leaders about decreasing engagement, member apathy and how to respond to the broader threats to organized labour. “How do we get our members more involved?” is the common question.

There are many moving parts to this relationship, but at its core is the individual’s determination of the value of greater investment in the union (time and effort). This is particularly so for new generations of workers who have little experience with unions, or whose impressions of unions are driven by negative attitudes.

The question of increasing member commitment and participation has formed the basis of my ongoing doctoral research – how can we redirect the leader-follower relationship to build engagement, leverage, power, and influence in your organization?

If you are interested in hearing more about our approach to building member commitment and participation or want to know more about the range of support we can provide, email us at


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