Reclaiming the promise of membership

Connecticut A&R blitz brings members unity and strength

At 3,000 members strong, the Administrative and Residual Employees Union in Connecticut is the largest AFT local in the state. Unfortunately, internal challenges were preventing the local from rising to the full measure of its strength—and many members and leaders knew it. A&R President John DiSette was one of them.

DiSette says that internal political battles had divided members. Many had become disconnected from their union, and the local’s relationships with the AFT state federation and other unions were not as close as they could have been. All of this was happening at a time when A&R members needed every ounce of strength they could muster. They’re entering contract negotiations facing very tough demands for concessions from leaders of a state government rocked by major budget deficits.

Addressing internal challenges

The challenges were plain to see. The solutions were harder to bring into focus. Enter AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel, who told DiSette about her experiences during a member blitz in another state. “It sounded like it pretty much changed her life,” DiSette says. So, he decided to give it a whirl.

Hochadel reached out to AFT national leaders to request their help in developing a pilot program aimed at strengthening members’ connections within their union. AFT leaders responded by sending staff and providing resources. Together with AFT Connecticut, they also helped coordinate volunteers from other unions who wanted to help A&R achieve its goals and to return home with new ideas and abilities to strengthen their own unions. The turnout was impressive, with volunteers from four AFT locals in Connecticut, six other AFT locals throughout the nation, the state AFL-CIO, and a Connecticut-based SEIU local.

Reclaiming the promise of membership

Chuck Morrell, an experienced organizer and union leader who has participated in many member mobilizations, agreed to help develop and lead the A&R blitz that was conducted over six days in mid-October. The theme: Reclaiming the Promise of Membership.

The blitz began with two days of interactive, hands-on workshops that helped participants develop the skills and confidence to conduct effective one-on-one conversations with members during home or work-site visits. They learned the importance of ensuring every conversation included “asks” that provide specific invitations to participate in union events and actions so that members who are interested have an opportunity to become more connected and engaged.

One of the 34 people who volunteered to work on the A&R blitz was Francesca Ford, a member of the State Vocational Federation of Teachers in Connecticut. Ford, an English teacher, has been an AFT member for 12 years, but this was her first member blitz. “Most of the members we met were very happy to see the union reaching out to them,” Ford says, noting that the experience afforded her a great opportunity to see all the different parts of the union. “I enjoyed it. I would do it again. I think a lot of people should do it so they can see the union is more than the guy sitting in the office.”

It was also Karen Romero’s first time working on a member blitz. She is an associate insurance examiner for the Connecticut Department of Insurance and has been an A&R member for 22 years. Romero chairs the local’s Committee on Political Education (COPE). She volunteered for the mobilization because she desired to learn techniques to “help bring the union to a better place.” However, A&R activists, staff and leaders had not gone to members’ homes before, Romero says, and she worried that members might not want them knocking on their doors.

She soon learned her concern was unnecessary. “We had a lot of good feedback. People in my own agency were pleasantly surprised to have union members come to their door,” Romero says. One of her most memorable moments came when “one gentleman answered the door, looked right at me, saw my button and said, ‘You’re from my union! You’re welcome to come to my house. Come right in.’ ” Her partner that day was from another union, and both were ushered into the man’s kitchen, where he offered them food and expressed how “genuinely happy he was to talk to us over his kitchen table.”

The outcomes

The other participants in the blitz reported similarly warm receptions from members, who were very willing to talk—in their homes or at their work sites—about their union and the issues they were facing. The results:

  • 405 one-on-one conversations (181 via house visits and 224 via work-site visits);
  • 355 completed surveys (to gather contract priorities, contact information, communications preferences and other useful information); and
  • 179 members signed up to join the STAR (Stand Together A&R) Team; these new activists will continue the work begun by the membership blitz to strengthen member connections and to unite members in actions that will help them win a good contract.

Participants concluded the blitz with a high-energy solidarity action at the Connecticut Department of Labor to support eight A&R members who had received layoff notices. A&R helped ensure that all were placed in other jobs with the state.

Perhaps the most important outcome of the A&R blitz is the shared belief on the part of the AFT leaders and members that this was not the conclusion of their work to engage members but, rather, a big step forward in ongoing member engagement work—in their union and others—that will continue well into the future.

Summing up her experience, Romero says, “My union has become more unified and stronger.” Her advice to other members who are considering participating in a member blitz: “Members are waiting for you to knock on their doors. Don’t be afraid to do it.”

Public Employee Advocate, Fall 2015 Download PDF (592.49 KB)
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