Rutgers’ CIWO Hosts Gathering On Innovation In Membership Building
Monday, May 16, 2016

On May 12, 2016, Rutgers' Center for Innovation in Worker Organization (CIWO) at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR) convened local and national labor unions, worker centers, community organizing groups, and civic tech innovators for a day-long meeting at the National Education Association in Washington, DC, focused on innovation in membership building.

Photo of a speaker at the National Education Association meeting.

The meeting drew over 65 representatives from a highly diverse set of organizations including: Service Employees International Union (SEIU), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), United Food and Commercial Workers, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), National Domestic Workers Alliance, Restaurant Opportunities Center United, National Taxi Workers Alliance, National Guest Workers Alliance, Center for Popular Democracy, Industrial Areas Foundation, Center for Community Change,, Chinese Progressive Association of San Francisco, Korean Immigrant Worker Alliance of Los Angeles, Arise Chicago, Freelancers Union, Workers Defense Project of Austin, Centro Trabajadoras Unidas en la Lucha (CTUL) of Minneapolis, Workers Center for Racial Justice of Chicago, Los Angeles Black Worker Center, Pilipino Worker Center of Los Angeles, Accelerate Change, Membership Drive, Billhighway, Vantiv, Hustle,, Frontline SMS, Timshel, and many others.

Attendees shared ideas, strategies, challenges, and lessons from their organizations’ experiments with membership recruitment, engagement, and retention. The day kicked off with Phil Radford of Membership Drive presenting an overall framework for thinking about membership recruitment and a series of individual talks from veteran organizers Keith Kelleher of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Aquilina Soriano from the Pilipino Worker Center, and Jonathan Lange from the Industrial Areas Foundation on how each has developed their cultures of membership dues and participation.

A second session focused on organizational membership recruitment campaigns and strategies. Gretchen Dziadosz, Executive Director of Michigan Education Association, presented an in-depth look at how her union shifted their entire membership from a payroll deduction system reliant on employers to an e-membership platform. During this session, Veronica Mendez from CTUL, Lanita Morris from the LA Black Worker Center, and Steve Kest from the Center for Popular Democracy also shared their organizational recruitment strategies, and participants in the Q&A discussed approaches to challenges of high-turnover rates and retaining members.

Afternoon sessions focused on a variety of topics including experimenting with services and benefits as membership draws, strategies for using electronic dues payment systems, locating and recruiting members through social media, and experimenting with other potential breakthrough methods for membership building. Peter Murray of Accelerate Change presented his ideas about functional membership and shared lessons learned from his rapid experimentation model working with several organizational clients. Christyne Neff of UFCW shared what is being learned in evaluating the AFL-CIO Union Plus program, Larry Doyle from the American Federation of Teachers presented on the union’s new membership platform, and Neidi Dominguez of the AFL-CIO and Alberto Fernandez of Working America presented We Rise, a new national immigrant membership organization. Jess Kutch, co-director of, presented the organization’s platform for worker to worker community building and collective action.

An evening session chaired by Micah Sifry, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and Civichall, brought together social entrepreneurs Sean MacDonald of Frontline SMS, Perry Rosenstein of Hustle, Susan Mulvaney of Vantiv and organizers for a group discussion on leveraging text messaging for organizing purposes, moving from a transactional to transformational approach to members, and the potential of SMS texting to be used for peer to peer organizing. A special thank you to Charles for helping set up that session.

Photo of a speaker at the National Education Association meeting.

This gathering was the second convening of CIWO’s membership-building community of learning and practice. Rutgers’ CIWO launched the community in February 2016 after organizations expressed a strong interest in participating in a community that would share resources, ideas, lessons and strategies around membership building. In addition to regularly convening this community, CIWO is conducting broad literature reviews and research on membership trends in voluntary and nonprofit associations. A first research brief on general trends in membership was shared with the group last week.

Janice Fine, SMLR labor studies and employment relations professor; Marjorie Wood, senior program and communications advisor at the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization; and Marilyn Sneiderman, director of the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization, organized the event which was hosted by the National Education Association. Lunch and dinner were funded by SEIU and the Century Fund, and travel for worker center participants was provided by the Ford Foundation. 

Rutgers’ CIWO was launched by the School of Management and Labor Relations in 2014 to generate and disseminate new ideas, strategies, and programs that address our nation’s extreme economic and racial inequality, growing precarious workforce, and decline of strong, publicly funded institutions. CIWO believes that a power deficit lies at the root of these problems and aims to strengthen the role of civic institutions including labor unions, worker centers, and community organizing groups.