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From the Guild




Organized Labor Meets Behavioral Science


by Jeff Burman


Building More Effective Unions

by Paul Clark

Cornell University Press

Paperbound, 207 pps., $21.95

ISBN: 0-8014-8705-6


Building More Effective Unions uses the results of years of behavioral science studies to suggest ways to increase participation in, and improve the internal workings of, unions.  The book is a veritable textbook for enhancing trade unions.  In fact, it’s a key part of the curriculum of the AFL-CIO’s National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland.  “It’s an excellent account of what unions are doing to transform themselves,” writes the Labor College’s Provost Greg Giebel in a pull-quote in the book.  Paul Clark, the author of the text, is a professor of Labor Studies and Industrial Relations at Pennsylvania State University and a consultant to dozens of local and national labor unions. 


The book discusses ten broad areas.  First and foremost, it argues for using behavioral science research on how organizations work to improve trade unions.  The author’s belief in the value of these studies is not meant to supersede the experience of union field reps and the like.  Rather, it is intended to provide new tools drawn from the study of people and their behavior in complex organizations.  One such study defines union cultures aptly: “half army, half town meeting.”


The author asserts that member participation is the most significant element in effective unions.  Better participation is driven by two distinctions: the personal characteristics of the union member and the environment created by the organizational culture inside the union.  The personal characteristics of the member are further refined.  They’re driven by attitudes and beliefs, both of which can be influenced by positive experiences. 


Clark suggests that improving the union’s organizational culture can have a significant effect on improving participation.  He also reasons that positive outcomes––successful organizing campaigns, contract negotiations and grievance proceedings––are fundamental ways to improve union commitment and participation.  But according to behavioral science studies referred to by the author, even if any of the three core activities fall short, an effective process from within the organizational culture can still have a significant positive effect on members.


Building More Effective Unions goes on to discuss ways to organize new members.  And once they’re in the union, there are also ways to better orient and socialize these new members.  Other ideas examined include increasing participation in a union’s external political activity, streamlining the grievance process, improving the public image of unions, and bettering the organizational culture from within. 


In his tome, Clark presents three models of leadership: laissez-faire, transactional and transformational.  Each is used in dealing with the circumstances at hand.  Laissez-faire is essentially a hands-off leadership style, one that fosters independence but may avoid making decisions.  The Transactional approach uses a cause and effect model; if given strategies are carefully considered, positive benefits will come.  This style of leadership is driven by clear-cut priorities, in which self-interest comes to bear. Transformational leadership sets goals that encourage members to focus on the greater good for the greatest number of members.  Under a model of transformational leadership, the immediate necessities of maintaining and negotiating a collective bargaining agreement make room for more emphasis on the less immediate benefits that come from more organizing. 


Eugene V. Debs (American Railway Union), John L. Lewis (Mine Workers, CIO President) and Walter Reuther (United Auto Workers) are considered transformational labor leaders.  They fundamentally changed the ways unions operated.  The three organized entire industries, instead of organizing classification by classification.  The next progression along these lines is already beginning.  Labor leaders like Leo Gerard of the Steel Workers and the IATSE’s own Matt Loeb are pressing ahead with organization and collaboration beyond national borders.  If capital can flow across borders, so should union organizing. 


Clark makes convincing arguments and cites great examples.  Unions benefit from the discoveries made in the behavioral sciences.  They apply to how unions are viewed from without and from within.  More importantly, these lessons can be carefully considered and applied to make our unions more effective and, by extension, help give unions a cultural prominence they rightfully deserve.


Jeff Burman represents Sound Editors on the Guild’s Board of Directors.  He can be reached at











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