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Mission Control

Over many months, discussions about systems change needed throughout the arts field have been front and center. While institutions support or deliver programs managed or led by the communities they serve, leadership structures at these organizations, as well as the decision-making, still rely on traditional models. The overarching question seems to be: How do mission-driven organizations tackle issues of inclusion when their organizational culture was derived from oppressive frameworks? One framework to explore is that of a union.

Not all unions are the same. My slice of union life is with federal employee unions. At the beginning of March this year, I began my second stint as vice president of AFGE Local 3403—a collective bargaining unit under the American Federation of Government Employees Union. As VP, I lead the National Endowment for the Arts wing of a local unit, which encompasses a president at the National Science Foundation, and vice presidents at the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the U.S. Geological Survey, respectively.

As civil servants, federal unions invest their time and resources on working conditions and workplace policies. Traditional unions may conduct strikes at an impasse of contract negotiations, where a federal union may not by statute. In either instance, resolving workplace issues with management and labor is about finding collective solutions as we conduct crucial services for a collective mission.

Leadership at the union level has therefore been a practice in observing bureaucratic structure for me. Certainly, unions have their own limitations in parliamentary procedures and by-laws that can seem draconian, especially if they haven’t been modified or updated. Additionally, there are elected leaders with titles of president, vice president, and so forth. I am interested in how the union creates a practice of shared vision, shared goals, and bringing people along when… well, we have busy lives and a job to do.

The power dynamics at play in union leadership vs management leadership are different. In fact, workers at large and mid-size companies, education districts, or government agencies organize to garner collective power to be at the table with management. That said, collective bargaining still requires a leader to administer actions on behalf of a group. So, there is still a differentiation of power within the union. As an elected representative, I am enacted with a certain level of trust and a specific mission. I am empowered to lead by collective action—like the mission control centers at NASA. I may be in the pilot seat, but I am supported by the team on the ground. To complete my objective, I need to know everyone’s positions and roles and how they feel about their workplace environment.

Self-care diagnostics: Check-ins with workers at stressful points in the year or under the duress of a pandemic and systemic racial strife are crucial. I am heartened by opening statements acknowledging how external factors influence internal ones. In addition to check-ins, I am also interested in check-ups. Just as your annual physical is measuring your heart function or blood pressure for overall health, my job as a union leader is to listen to the heart and take the blood pressure of an organization. The focus here is entirely on the conditions of employment. Personal, informal check-ins are good, but there is something to be said for diagnosing underlying conditions that could lead to organ-izational failure.

To do this, I am most effective when I receive unfiltered feedback.

Unfiltered: There is no pasteurization process in the feedback I receive. Union work is collecting raw data that is oftentimes accompanied by raw emotion. I hear not just the facts but the feelings behind it all. One of the first things you learn in union leadership is how to make a distinction between a gripe and a grievance—both are important in assessing the issue at hand. A grievance has actionable steps and can be managed by procedures already in place. A gripe is a workplace issue with layered concerns—equity, favoritism, assumptions, etc. The actionable steps here are also layered. And where hurt is a part of the equation, it may mean that a facilitated conversation is needed—a neutral third party.

Where mediation is a key tool for managing workplace concerns, facilitated discussions, used frequently in program development or strategic planning, can also be used to address many subjects such as organizational culture with employees and managers. As the arts field grapples with inclusion and equity made manifest, tools at the disposal of union leadership provide a model framework – collect unfiltered feedback to diagnose and manage underlying conditions and facilitate solutions where all parties have a stake in its success. It’s messy work that could serve the community within, as it does the communities we serve.

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