Increasing Union Membership in Minnesota

What would persuade members to stay in their union if they could get union benefits without paying dues?

750px-supreme_court_front_duskIn 2015, observers thought it very likely that the U.S. Supreme Court would use Friedrichs v. CTA to overturn “fair share” fees for public employee unions. Such a decision could have been an existential threat. Allowing individuals to opt out of membership without paying fair share fees to cover the cost of representation could start a downward spiral of shrinking membership, leaving unions without the necessary resources to represent their workers. The Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE), which represents about 14,000 state and local government employees in Minnesota, asked EWR to help it develop strategies for maintaining and growing membership if the Court acted as expected.

From a series of online and in-person focus groups and a mixed-mode survey of members, we developed an engagement strategy that included messages highlighting the importance of union membership and targets for outreach. We were able to tell MAPE:

  • what work of the union is valued most by the employees it represents; and
  • how to frame that work in a way that is most persuasive at encouraging membership.

MAPE embarked on a relational organizing campaign, using our messages, that has successfully increased membership in the union, substantially reducing the portion of members paying the fair share fee over one year’s time. Fortunately for MAPE, a divided Court left fair share fees intact, but the increase in membership as a result of the union’s outreach has put MAPE in a stronger position than it was before our research.

2000px-phone_sign_font_awesome-svgcomputer-silhouetteResearch Design Notes: Combining the benefits of telephone and online surveys in a mixed mode design

Given a limited budget, how can we get the most from our research?

MAPE has typically surveyed the employees it represents by e-mailing a link to an online survey. This approach allows the organization to affordably collect a large number of responses. However, because this relies on individuals affirmatively opting in to the survey, there is a risk that those members and fee-payers who are already more involved in the union are more likely to respond, and that their views may be different from those who are less involved – a type of error known as non-response bias.

To minimize this bias, while still capitalizing on the economies of online research, we fielded a small number of telephone interviews among those who did not respond to the e-mailed invitation. Telephone surveys are subject to non-response bias as well, but a live interviewer has a chance to encourage participation among those who may be reluctant. And indeed, our data showed that the populations responding online and on the phone differed significantly in their attention to and participation in the union. This provided an important check on the results we gathered from the online portion of the results, giving MAPE more confidence that the data we collected was an accurate measure of their entire population.

Audience research, targeted messaging, & strategic consulting.