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Fortnightly Newsletter - Issue #5: Should your union have a strategy? Probably not. It's likely no one would know what it is anyway

Thanks for subscribing to my (roughly) fortnightly newsletter. In this issue, I thought I'd touch on
Fortnightly Newsletter - Issue #5: Should your union have a strategy? Probably not. It's likely no one would know what it is anyway
By Alex White • Issue #8 • View online
Thanks for subscribing to my (roughly) fortnightly newsletter.
In this issue, I thought I’d touch on the issue of strategy.
Strategy is a much over-rated term in my view. In fact, the vast majority of “strategy” is useless jargon at worst or “tactics” at best. I’ll discuss what I see as useful strategy in a future newsletter (or you can read my blog post about it here).
This newsletter is about the disconnect between a strategy and your union’s staff/organisers’/delegates’ awareness of the strategy, and why your union probably shouldn’t have a strategy.
Even for those unions with an explicit strategy, the majority of union staff and delegates at all levels will struggle to explain what it is.
This is a problem when your union’s staff are doing their work day-to-day or week-to-week; how is what they are doing contributing to achieving union’s core objectives? How do they make decisions when facing multiple competing priorities?

Over a decade ago, I read the results one of those irregular surveys conducted by the ACTU of union leadership. One of the parts of the survey was about union strategy and the question asked something like “does your union have a strategic plan?”
Obviously the results were mixed, but what stuck with me was a comment from a union leader (paraphrasing): “we plan to think more strategically in future.”
As I noted earlier, I’m very skeptical of the benefits of strategic plans; and the term “strategy” is much abused and mostly unhelpful.
Most unions, regardless of whether they have a formal strategic plan or not, have a set of priorities. These will typically be a mix of industrial goals, membership-growth, financial aims and political/legislative/policy goals.
But here’s a question for you: if you’re part of your union’s leadership team, how many of your staff (organisers, industrial officers, office/support staff) could name all of your union’s priorities? What about your delegates and activists? Could they name most of your union’s priorities? Any of them?
My guess is there would be a big (possibly very big) section of your union (from grassroots to leadership) would not be able to name all or even most of your objectives.
I’d further guess that this would be the case even if the leadership regularly communicates the union’s strategic direction or objectives, and even if the strategic plan has been consistently the same for a few years.
This is obviously a problem, especially when unions are increasingly facing resource constraints and as a movement we need to make sure everyone is pulling in the same direction.
What can you do?
Don’t have a strategic plan
Most strategic plans are utter junk, and “strategic planning” is mostly bullshit and corporate jargon. Almost everything you hear termed “strategy” is not strategy. The 3 or 5 year strategic plans that most organisations churn out are less than useless.
Does your union need a strategic plan? Probably not.
Does your union need a clear, unambiguous “priority” (or “priorities”)? Probably yes.
Priorities, not strategies
A union-wide priority, that fits on less than half a page, written in plain-English and jargon free, and that is developed with and by the union’s leaders from bottom to top.
Why do I say priorities, not strategies? Because priorities acknowledge that for your union staff and delegates, there will always be competing priorities.
Having a primary or overriding priority helps your staff and leaders make decisions when faced with multiple competing priorities. Furthermore, it allows the decision-makers, leaders and other staff in your union weigh up their decisions and resource allocation with a simple judgement - does this help achieve the priority or not (or which of the competing multiple options would best help achieve the union’s overriding priority)?
Strategic plans rarely do this. In fact, they will often have multiple, competing objectives on equal footing that make decision-making difficult. Most strategic plans rarely assist staff in how to structure their work-week. (In fact, most strategic plans, once written, are shelved and never see the light of day.)
There’s two main ingredients to a good “priority”.
Firstly, you need to spell out the “where to play” decision. What arenas will you be active in? What geographies? What industries? Which workers?
For example, if your priority is “growth”, you’ll want to clearly articulate who your members and potential members are and are not. For some unions, this is very simple (e.g. an industry union with specialised coverage) but it is not just about who can join, but who the union is trying to sign up, and where they work. It means making a sacrifice. You can’t try to sign up everyone - hence the priority. You’ll have to decide which worksites and geographies get attention and just as importantly, which don’t.
Secondly, you’ll need to spell out your “how to win” decision. In a nut-shell, this is the compelling thing (a reason, a unique capability, a promise, whatever) that means your union can achieve what it’s going to do.
Again, with the example of growth as a priority, you need to clearly explain what is the compelling reason the workers you’re focusing on would join. This could be because of an industry campaign, bargaining, Union Shopper or whatever, but the point is, you need to be able to explain it simply, easily and in plain-English.
(Now, growth may not be the priority for every union. It could be retention. It could be building industry power. It could be a specific public policy change or industrial outcome.)
Strategic plans (and in fact, most detailed planning) should be junked. They’re basically useless and a waste of time.
But I do think it is important for unions to have a set of internally clear, easily understood, shared goals. Not “goals” in a corporate jargon sense. But priorities that are understood and shared at every level of the union, and importantly, help people inside your union make decisions.
It’s also worth stating explicitly: the two elements I describe above can’t be developed on the fly, or without consideration or research. They rely on unions making the best use of their knowledge of their industries, the business and political environments, laws, the union’s own revenues and capabilities, etc.
My own example
Sadly, at UnionsACT, we have a 3-year strategic plan (my guess is that not many people would know what it says), and an annual plan.
But we also have two overriding priorities: 1) to encourage young workers and women in the ACT to join their unions, and 2) to achieve and maintain financial stability. These have changed year-to-year. As elections approach for example, our priority changes. But everything we do on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis is measured against those two priorities.
Underneath these of course, I have specific programs: a young workers centre, dedicated women’s campaigns, investment plans for our assets, and the like. (It’s worth also noting that our planning documents are also very brief and purposely simple. You can download it here.)
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Alex White

My Fortnightly Newsletter is about unions, growth, campaigning, strategy and politics.

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