Just over 18 months ago, the leaders of Education Minnesota (an affiliate of both the AFT and the National Education Association) decided that something had to change. With the Janus v. AFSCME decision looming, and the 2018 midterm elections set to follow, the 90,000-member union knew that membership engagement had to be its top priority.
Education Minnesota President Denise Specht embarked on an ambitious internal organizing campaign, aiming to bolster members’ commitment to the union. The campaign sought to reach 100% of members, reduce the number of fee payers before the Janus decision and minimize membership losses following the ruling.
At its core, that effort would be built on value-centered, one-on-one conversations with individual members. Rather than focusing on benefits or contract language, these discussions would center on the needs of each member and the full value of belonging to a union.
By tying the core principles of unionism—having power in the workplace and joining together in a common fight—to individual members’ tangible experiences, organizers would build a foundational relationship with members that could weather both internal and external turbulence.
Specht knew that this would be no small task. With 460 locals across the state, varying priorities and internal politics threatened to derail the urgently needed program. While most local leaders embraced the opportunity, some initially resisted changes in how they communicated with their members. The program’s effectiveness, however, quickly spoke for itself.
In one region, two locals fully implemented the approach using stories and conversations about the value of belonging to a union during new employee orientation, while one carried out old habits by selling the union as insurance.
In a stunning feat of organizing, the two reformers signed up 100% of new employees. Meanwhile, the other local struggled to sign up 40%.
Specht’s vision for value-based conversations soon became a reality at union halls, worksites and orientations across the state. By the time the Janus decision was handed down, they were ready.
The union managed to recommit 95% of its members and, in the wake of the decision, limited membership losses to only 600. Far from receiving the gut punch pundits had expected, Education Minnesota came through stronger and better organized than ever.
But Specht wasn’t finished, and she wasted no time in channeling that energy toward the midterm elections. After a year of building and cementing relationships, organizers were in a newly strengthened position to mobilize members to the ballot box.
Across the state, the union recruited and trained more than 1,500 worksite leaders, who applied the successes of membership engagement to their political program. Through one-on-one conversations about the issues that mattered to them, members felt invested in the upcoming election—and turned out in droves.
Capping off a year that was supposed to mark the death of labor, Education Minnesota proved that it wasn’t going anywhere, showing its power on the campaign trail and catapulting one of its own members, Tim Walz, into the governor’s mansion, and another, Julie Blaha, into the state auditor’s office.