THE BLOG
07/31/2015 10:54 am ET Updated Jul 31, 2016

An Open Letter to Union Leadership: It's Time to Evolve

I had the opportunity to bump into a high-ranking representative of a national union in Detroit, Michigan. We were both heading in opposite directions, but because he was walking with a mutual friend we stopped, greeted, and talked. I told him about the work I did teaching financial literacy. He was immediately impressed his members would be able to receive FREE financial workshops and 1-on-1 coaching to help them budget their money, build their credit, purchase homes, and start their own businesses. He was too excited to ask for my card and of course I gave him one...I was also excited to be able to offer his members assistance. When he looked at my card he immediately gave it back and said, "I can't take this." My card was not made by a union printer and didn't have the union stamp on it. He wouldn't allow himself to accept any business card unless a union printing shop made it.

I wasn't mad...I wasn't offended, but this simple gesture gave me cause for concern and was indicative of a larger issue. In my hometown of Detroit, Michigan I know many union workers who are living check to Tuesday...the payday loan helps them make it through the rest of the week to the cost of 200-300% interest. I know many union members who contribute as much as an entire check annually after you calculate the fees they donate to the check-cashing businesses because they don't have a bank account. I know many union members who were taken for a ride by purchasing a subprime mortgage without knowing the terms and later had to walk away from the property due to an inability to afford the rapidly evolving mortgage terms. What I was offering was a FREE solution to these problems but this "leader" decided to not accept the help because it was more important for me to have a union stamp on my business card than it was for his people to receive help. He chose his pride over the progress of his members and that is a very dangerous and detrimental attitude for a leader to possess.

Let me be clear. I love the unions and feel they are a vital component to America. Whether you are talking about taking a lunch break, weekends, sick leave, overtime pay, holiday pay, the right to strike, public education for children, the ending of sweatshops in the US...none of these and much more wouldn't have been possible without the union movement. The right for the American worker to organize and express their voice is an essential component within the fabric of America. The unions are a vital part of America's past, and should continue to be a vital part of America's future. However, I want to take a moment to challenge union leadership to expand your focus because your people are suffering and your model is outdated.

It is relatively easy to work with local union members because they are so hungry for the knowledge, but when you try to address the leadership to implement a national, across the board program there is slow/no response to do anything different but what has been done for the past decade upon decade. Union leadership...your people have a strong desire to be delivered more services that can help them learn how to fish for themselves. They are tired of always being on the end of ONLY making demands of corporations and not ALSO focusing on how they can create pathways to wealth for themselves. I AM NOT asking you to stop your fight for a living wage, but I am asking you to ALSO help educate your people on how to manage the wages they are currently earning more effectively...no matter how small (the less they are earning the more money management skills are impactful). I AM NOT asking you to stop your fight for the retention of health care benefits, but I am asking you to expand your focus to help educate your membership on healthy lifestyle habits (diet and exercise) which can mitigate ones health bills. I AM NOT asking you to stop the fight to create more equitable trade agreements, but I am asking you to increase focus on educational initiatives and training to help improve the ability, skills, and marketability of your people. I AM NOT asking you to stop striking against employers who implement unfair/unjust business practices, but I am asking you create opportunities to support the entrepreneurial spirit many of your members possess to be business owners themselves.

Computers are replacing cashiers, robots are replacing assembly line workers, and technology is shrinking the size of our planet by allowing global business transactions to be easier and more seamless than ever before (and less costly). As technology evolves many jobs are becoming outdated and obsolete, but your members can be learning the technical skills to be the ones paid/employed to implement this new technology. Real leaders are secure enough within themselves to not create more followers, but to create more leaders. Trust me...as much work as there is to do, your job as a leader is secure and you can never completely work yourself out of a job. By truly empowering your people to empower themselves you will make the impact of the your union stronger and consequently empower all of America through higher productivity levels. Making collective demands of employers and making a collective demand of ourselves should no longer be a mutually exclusive fight...we must fight them concurrently. I don't speak alone in saying there are many who want to assist you in this process of evolving. So lets choose progress over pride; being proactive over reactive; innovation over stagnation; and an empowered/highly educated labor market over an undertrained, less competitive, cheap labor market. The world is evolving and if the union doesn't want to become obsolete it must evolve with it.

P.S. I found a union printer and the next cards I make will have a union stamp on them!