Joseph Courtney | CUPE Research

CUPE National’s Leadership Survey discovered a lot of useful insights for building stronger union locals. Two themes in particular emerged across the board: the idea of “taking the union to the members,” and the need to talk to members in person.

The project took place over the course of 2016 and 2017. It consisted of a national, online survey of elected CUPE local leaders; focus groups with CUPE’s national equality committees and the National Young Workers’ Committee; focus groups with CUPE members who are precariously employed; and an online survey of CUPE national servicing representatives.

The survey identified some excellent practices that will help locals be more inclusive and engage more members in local union activities, including members of equity-seeking groups, precariously employed workers, and young workers.

Key findings

  • About half (50.5 per cent) of elected CUPE local leaders who responded to the survey told us they are dissatisfied with the levels of member participation in local union activities compared to the 35 per cent who are satisfied.
  • The main reasons members aren’t more involved in their local unions include: a lack of information from locals, a lack of interest, family responsibilities, work commitments, shift work, and working more than one job.
  • Locals that provide food and other incentives for attending meetings, activities and events (like Union swag) found their member participation rates increase.
  • Locals can also improve participation by adjusting the time and location of meetings and events to accommodate members’ schedules and inviting guest speakers to appeal to members’ interests.

Taking the union to the members

So, what do we mean by taking the union to the members? It’s all about meeting with members in their workplaces, in person, and talking about what matters most to them.

Here’s what one survey respondent says:

  • Meet the members where they are at work and talk to them about the issues they care about; involve the members in a plan of action not just listening and then telling members that “the union” will take care of it – this sends the message that the members aren’t really necessary after all.

Taking the union to the members underscores the need to talk to members in person. One-on-one conversations between union leaders and rank and file members builds community within the local, and is the most effective communication tool to engage members in local union activities.

Here’s what one survey respondent says about face time:

  • Face to face conversations between current union activists and members is essential. The more we know each other at a human (non-transactional) level, the more likely it will be that we will come to the aid of each other and assist in union efforts when requested.

Four key ways elected local leaders can “take the union to the members:”

  1. Conduct regular worksite visits to discuss members’ concerns.
  2. Hold small group meetings with members in specific classifications and occupational groups, along with shift workers and precariously employed workers, to discuss issues they care about.
  3. Make meetings accessible. Hold general membership meetings at the workplace or close to the work place to make attending more convenient for rank and file members.
  4. Rotate meetings throughout the day to accommodate member’s shifts and give them more opportunities to attend.

Better information for better communication

Members want to know what’s going on in their local union and want to participate, even when they can’t attend meetings and events.

Here are three ways to keep members informed and facilitate communication:

  1. Provide members with the minutes of meetings via email or confidentially through internal mail at work.
  2. Consider communicating with your members online using social media, or using webinars and telephone town halls to engage and inform them.
  3. Review your local bylaws with your national representative. Discuss new or different options for member participation, including voting conducted at multiple locations, or voting online through a secure system.

These recommendations provide more opportunity for members to participate in local union activities. They help locals to be more inclusive and meet members’ diverse needs, such as members with disabilities; members who are shift workers; precariously employed members who work more than one job; members with child care, elder care and household responsibilities (where the majority are women); and members who lack access to transportation and/or cannot easily access public transportation.

The findings also reveal that equity-seeking groups, young workers and precariously employed workers don’t see themselves reflected in union structures, activities and events.

Here are ways we can dismantle barriers to participation for these workers:

  • Ensure the diversity of the membership is reflected in the composition of local union structures, activities and events, for example have designated seats in union structures.
  • Open union delegations to workshops, conferences and convention to rank and file members including equity-seekers, precariously employed workers and youth.
  • Create committees for equity-seeking groups, precariously employed workers and youth.

CUPE leaders are on the path to building strong local unions when we meet members’ diverse needs and when we are inclusive of all members, including members of equity-seeking groups, precariously employed workers and young workers.

For more information about the CUPE National Leadership Survey project visit