Unions have the finely laudable tradition of frequent general meetings where members are directly consulted and asked to decide on various issues. Unfortunately, union members often do not get involved in their union's activities as much as they should, except around contract time and particularly if a strike or conflict is on the horizon.
Why this is so, no doubt, interests union activists. The explanations are surely not the same from one group to the other. The opinion poll, or scientific survey, so often abused in the political process, yet a key tool in any marketing campaign, should not be disparaged.
Unions could and should design surveys to give profiles of users (active union members) and non-users (inactive union members), their motivations and their needs. For example, in my Masters thesis, Redefining Marketing: Self-Interest, Altruism and Solidarity, I suggest that altruism may be an important characteristic that explains sympathy towards unions. The data so collected could offer valuable insight and guidelines for programs to increase participation.
This is not to suggest that unions either totally ignore the problem, nor that they are doing nothing to address it, but rather that certain methods and approaches perfected by modern marketing could be adapted to the goal of increased participation.
A combination of marketing research methods, focus groups, questionnaires with semantic differentials to measure the importance of different issues, satisfactions and frustrations in the work place, as well as monitoring the evolution of the membership and its desire to fight back during the negotiating process could also be most useful.
Labour unions could more specifically pinpoint who amongst their members are satisfied, or dissatisfied, with what and why, as well as the relative weight to be assigned to various issues. Campaigns and strategies to increase participation could thus be designed.
This in no way contradicts the fact that the ultimate power in the union decision process remains the members, and the union bodies as set out in the Union's statutes and bylaws. Polls are not substitutes for union democracy, but rather complements to the establishment of efficient union strategies.
Why should the labour movement deprive itself of this source of pertinent and valuable information?