The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast

UnionTrack's Engage: The Union-Friendly App with Ken Green

September 23, 2021 Traci Dority-Shanklin Season 3 Episode 15
The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast
UnionTrack's Engage: The Union-Friendly App with Ken Green
Show Notes Transcript

Uniontrack’s Engage app combines union dues payment software, union membership communication software, and grievance tracking software into a web-based system. Uniontrack created the union-friendly app, and their CEO, Ken Green, explains how the Engage app solves workflow issues for unions and empowers the next generation of union members through technology.

Some highlights from Uniontrack’s Engage: The Union-Friendly App include:

03:35 – Solving Union Workflow Issues
09:17 – Unifying Union Operations
13:54 – Leverage Technology for Organizing
19:06 – Connecting & Communicating with Engage
21:07 – Dispelling Myths About Labor
25:32 – Building a Movement with Technology

https://www.uniontrack.com

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/multiemployerfunds)

Narrator  0:03  

This is The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast with Traci Dority-Shanklin. If you're interested in labor and union benefit funds, well, you've landed in the right place. We are a go-to source for all things union benefit fund-related, and we are going to bring you interviews with key decision-makers and fund professionals that guide these plans. They'll share their insights, experience, unique perspectives, all of the latest developments, and tips to unlock the mysteries of multiemployer benefit funds. Time is short, so let's get started. 

 

Traci Shanklin  0:35  

My guest on the podcast today is Ken Green. He is the founder and CEO of Uniontrack, a first to market software app designed to help labor unions reduce day-to-day operating expenses. Uniontrack's Engage combines the best union dues payment software, union membership communication software, and grievance tracking software in a web-based system. Ken also authors a Uniontrack blog, where he writes about positive contributions of unions. I am excited to talk to Ken as we share this goal of promoting unions' positive work, which inevitably benefits all workers. Hi, Ken, thank you for joining me on the podcast today.

 

Ken Green  1:20  

Hi, Traci. Thanks for having me here.

 

Traci Shanklin  1:22  

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of your Engage app and Uniontrack, could you please share a little bit about your background with our listeners?

 

Ken Green  1:32  

I grew up in a union household. My father was a brakeman/switchman for the Illinois Central Railroad. And if you looked in any direction, from where I grew up, we had electrical workers, steelworkers, locomotive engineers, and a variety of other crafts and specialties, so sort of been around unions my whole life. I decided to join the Marines straight out of high school. And I joined them just about the time that the role was moving away from mainframe computings and moving down to more personal computings, and the Marines, I say this sort of jokingly, provided me an opportunity to start working with technology at a very young age; started writing software. They allowed me to move to the headquarters of Washington, DC, and help them with some pretty significant technology challenges that the headquarters was having in and around communications. And that just sort of continued to evolve. With sort of that experience, I left the service and went to work for government contracting, doing IT software engineering support solutions, and I was re-introduced through a friend to a national union. They were trying to move off of mainframes down to personal computers, so that's sort of how I got reintroduced, so to speak labor.

 

Traci Shanklin  2:56  

Can you tell our listeners what is Uniontrack and its purpose?

 

Ken Green  3:01  

Uniontrack was formed in January of 2014 after having supporting organized labor through my original technology company, Prestige Technologies. Because of just the sheer fact that I felt that labor's needs were growing, and it needed sort of a specialized focus to say that if we set out to really help unions, and in particular help unions, not just maintain their information, but actually to help them engage with their members, that was sort of the nucleus of the origins of Uniontrack.

 

Traci Shanklin  3:35  

I asked you on the podcast because I wanted you to tell the unions and our audience about Uniontrack's Engage and how it solves important workflow issues for labor unions. Can you give us some of the features and capabilities of Uniontrack's Engage product?

 

Ken Green  3:53  

After having supported labor for about 15 years, what we found in common, regardless of the craft, or the skill, or the trade that the union was representing, is the sort of this concept that there was a system for everything. There were system for dues. There were a system for membership management. There was a different system for communications. And as you started to look at sort of the ecosystem of an international union, you have the internationals' database. Maybe you had a state or a district database; you had a local affiliate database. There was a separate one for pension and separate for health. And sort of the question became, what version of the truth is the real truth, which member which data point is the most up-to-date, the most accurate. So, we set out to say, "What if we built the platform to bring the whole of the union back together?" No matter where the optic; no matter where you are connecting based on your role/your responsibility with the union, you can gain access to the most updated information in real-time from wherever you were. 

 

Ken Green  5:02  

One of the other goals of the Engage platform is to really kind of cut that tie to, "Well, I'm out in the field," or "I'm in a location where my members are, but all the resources that I have are back of my office." So, we designed the Engage platform to be truly mobile to travel with you, which is what on a desktop as it does on a laptop this does on a phone. And what we try to do is to say, certainly, when you're face-to-face with a member, and you can get that member to engage with you, not just through verbal communications, but you could connect them to this platform. Then, we really looked and said that we could not only provide sort of that 360-degree view, but if the member came to a union rep, and they had more than one question or more than one concern that they literally could find all the information they needed right there to improve the interaction and the engagement, and conversely be service to that member or that member's request.

 

Traci Shanklin  6:03  

Can you share some examples of how Uniontrack's Engage could support or function for an organizing director or an officer like a president or secretary-treasurer, or you mentioned the business representative?

 

Ken Green  6:20  

So, if we looked at sort of the first opportunity that a member may learn about a union or the benefits of joining a union might be on an organizing drive. With the Engage platform, literally that very first impression, we can turn it into a positive one, an engaging one. So, it may be something simple, the member's interested in learning more about it. So, as that information is captured, we can actually capture them as a prospect. Now, if we looked at potentially their lifetime, they may go from a prospect to part of an organizing drive to a successful drive that will lead to a contract. They become an active member. They may get more involved within the union movement. They could seek to run for office, either as an office, or a staff, or a volunteer. They could all take on additional responsibilities through Engage. If we looked at that individual, maybe going through a lifetime of learning, that could be in a pre-apprentice, apprentice, journey worker, safety-related training. They could become a certified instructor within the organization and continue to evolve. Ultimately, they could end up running from one of the principal offices with either, again, a state, a district, a territory, a national, even international officer. 

 

Ken Green  7:42  

If we looked sort of more tactically at the role of a union president, in the communication to the members, what we tried to do is to streamline it to say, if we were going to produce some form of communication, then we wanted to basically build consistency in the brand. So, it could be updating the website, pushing to Facebook pushing to Twitter, sending a really polished, professional newsletter out. It could be a poll of the member -- end up with two-way communications. "Are you interested? Are you in support of?" If they're not in support of, perhaps the conversation goes a little deeper as to why. On the representational side, so if we look at either the progression of a grievance or disciplinary manner, we designed it so that from the moment -- in a case of a grievance that the individual files the grievance all the way through even if it has to go up through arbitration -- the Engage platform takes the legal contract within the contract the step progressions, and it helps enforce them. So, number one, it could provide that business rep, sort of a heads up that they're approaching a timeline. It could also let them know that the company is approaching or has exceeded a timeline. The interactions and the communications with the respective member, whether it's a simple text message; it's an official letter of certified document; the results of arbitration, you know, whatever sort of the confines they all come together in the Engage platform.

 

Traci Shanklin  9:17  

Is it used by the end-user, the member, as well?

 

Ken Green  9:23  

It is. We build a set of tools really sort of microfocus towards the member. Some of the things that a member could do, if they have lost payroll deduction, they can actually set up and automatically pay their dues. If they would like to make a voluntary contribution to the union's PAC fund, they could do so they could sign up for events. They could sign up for training. They could leverage that what we call a "Digital Document Library." So, they can either upload documents sort of to the union or they could see documents that the union has prepared on their behalf. They are other tools that we have wrapped in for engaging a member from either a civic issue, legislative or political, the calls to action where we want the member to actually take some action, all the way up to if they have been invited to participate in a survey. They don't get to see the whole survey results, but they get to see how their voice, you know, sort of how their perspective in relationship to their brothers and sisters.

 

Traci Shanklin  10:29  

You have a member, who I assume has to download the app or go to the website on their computer, how does the union and your experience typically push out the information that this is a tool available to labor union members?

 

Ken Green  10:47  

So, one of the design goals of the Engage platform was that we didn't want either a member, or a staff, or an officer, or an elected official to have to download or plugin anything. We took the approach of invitation. As we go through, we basically train the union officials or their representative staff, how to use the platform. You mentioned sort of the learning curve. Most of our introductory classes are about 30 minutes long that includes not only demonstration but a little bit of Q&A. We go through and we break different pieces of the platform out into targeted specific courses. Some unions are interested maybe just in one facet; some unions take everything that we have to offer, but many times they'll have individual error of responsibilities. Whereas an example you may not have the person with fiduciary responsibility going to the communications class because primarily they may not be communicating to the member. From an end-user perspective, the member would receive an invitation. 

 

Ken Green  11:52  

Those invitations can come across a couple of ways. We use push technology, so we could push an invitation to them if we know an email address. We could push an SMS message if we know a text message. In a larger setting, certainly an in-person setting, we leveraged QR codes, so literally, all the member would have to do is hold up their smartphone, point it towards a QR. It would take them directly to application where they would create their own account and then get connected to the Engage platform. 

 

Traci Shanklin  12:24  

Is there an alignment with the union's website? 

 

Ken Green  12:29  

Couple of design goals that we had is we wanted to look at the incredible investment that the union has already made. Some unions within our country are over 130 years old. So, not only do they have their logo that they're very proud of and their name, but many of them have their own colors, types, fonts, so we can basically compliment that so that it looks and feels like every other type of interaction that a member would have with their respective union.

 

Traci Shanklin  12:59  

Does Uniontrack Engage have a social media component like Facebook, a place where workers can engage with one another or create like-minded groups, or I guess workplace groups?

 

Ken Green  13:14  

It's really one-directional at this moment. From the Engage platform, we could post to Facebook. We could post to Twitter. One of the pieces that we're working on within our current R&D efforts is giving the individual union the ability on the Engage platform to basically take that to the next level to say, "How many likes have this post? How many times has it gotten shared?" There are privacy issues that we're working through with Facebook and Twitter to protect some of those pieces, so it's a little tricky, but that's how we see this evolving.

 

Traci Shanklin  13:54  

Gotcha. It is an ever-evolving thing right now. I know Facebook has got its own issues around privacy as you mentioned, so it's - it's tricky right now for everyone. Does Engage allow or help users organize in a labor union?

 

Ken Green  14:14  

It does. One of the things that we built into the Engage platform is the ability for the union to assign either values or very simply stated sort of points. And it could be starting again from when they're a prospect to say this individual is wanting to learn more information. This individual has learned information and they would like to do more meaning they'd like to help the organizing effort. This individual prospect seems to be either a bit reluctant or perhaps has - has some negative things to say. As that evolves, so the Engage platform then can measure sort of the individual prospect's involvement. We can see that they showed up for an event. They responded to a poll. They attended an in-person meeting, so those types of things we could assign point values. And that literally helps the union organizer sort of look at things to say, "Are we trending up? Sort of are we flat? Where are we in the process?" Now, our goal would be to assist in that decision-making process of "Do we have enough support to keep moving forward?"

 

Traci Shanklin  15:30  

Are any labor unions currently using the Engage now I mean, as of today?

 

Ken Green  15:36  

Yes, holistically from supporting very, very small locals. We're helping about four different unions organize right now, literally, from their infancy of their three principal officers. We work with what I would consider to be medium size unions that have between five and maybe 15,000 members, and then all the way up through international unions. The largest union we work with is the International Association of Machinists. The smallest local affiliate that we work with is a small but growing local affiliate in the International Association of Firefighters, where they are literally saying, "We're going to start -- we're going to organize this new local," and they're leveraging the Engage platform, as they continue to grow in membership.

 

Traci Shanklin  16:25  

It's smart for locals, both new and old to leverage technology for organizing. And I guess I'm curious, based on the unions you're currently working with, and I'm sure that - I'm not sure how long those - those relationships have been for you, but have you found the adoption of this as a tool has grown, particularly during COVID when everybody's gone more virtual?

 

Ken Green  16:55  

It really has. The Engage platform was already on sort of a growth trajectory from adoption. Word of mouth has certainly served us very well. When we have opportunities, some of the speaking engagement we've done, you know, we're in front of 100, or 200, or 500, leaders. And then from there, it sort of grows and snowballs. But in particular, what has helped, certainly, since March of 2020, is sort of the connectedness, meaning we couldn't get into the offices. We couldn't sort of do things that we were traditionally doing. But, we all had smartphones. We all had tablets. We all had internet access, so literally, what we found is that we sort of had this explosion of growth of opportunities that quite frankly continues today. Because unions are -- everything to include meeting with members, ratifying contracts, certainly the representational process got incredibly challenging. 

 

Ken Green  17:56  

Employers in states, unfortunately, sort of took advantage of some of this. And I think in 28 states, now they've gone after payroll dues deduction in some capacity. And that has drawn union leaders to our platform as well. We can go from having never heard of the union before per se the specific union to having them live on our platform in about two business days. So, in today's world, where not just corporations, but sometimes municipalities or - or county or state governments are just literally saying we're done collecting union dues. The worst scenario we faced so far in 2021 is they notified the union on a Thursday evening at about 7 pm that they were not - they were done with payroll dues. They weren't taken out of payroll and payroll literally was the next day. So, the union's getting caught flat-footed, sort of a combination of the anti-labor movement, as well as sort of the ramifications of what the COVID pandemic have really drawn a lot to the strength of the Engage platform.

 

Traci Shanklin  19:06  

In terms of adoption, just furthering that, are you finding that the members and I guess the executive staff are using it to actually engage to actually have conversations?

 

Ken Green  19:21  

Yes. And I would say that it's - it's kind of remarkable. Unions, of course, for years have had websites. They have social media with an example with Facebook. Many have gone to build their own mobile apps. And really, the single most challenging thing they faced sort of uniformly or universally is just getting the member to actually connect, to go to Facebook, to go to the website, to download the app. One of the strengths again of Engage is even if the member has chosen, which is their choice not to sign up to the platform, we can still communicate bi-directionally with them. We have many local unions in particular that have had 100% adoption. And that's a first for them for anything that they tried to do.

 

Traci Shanklin  20:11  

That's amazing. I think it's - it's interesting. I work in the investment side of the business, as you and I have talked about previously. And I started my career working with a lot of building trade unions on their defined contribution plans that were self-directed. And we really struggled as a company, educating informing, and getting the action of the members to actually self-direct their investment portfolios. So, obviously, there's sort of a default portfolio. And the numbers were staggering how many people remained in that portfolio and did not self-direct at their wills. So, and we did many, many educational campaigns to get action, and it was very hard to get people to move. 

 

Traci Shanklin  21:07  

So, one of the many reasons I created this podcast was to dispel the myths about the labor movement, and you and I share this mission. One of the myths that drives me crazy is that the labor movement is perceived as from a long, long time ago. For example, if you research or search in Google, "the labor movement," it usually the story that pops up is from like the Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters, or Eugene Debs, or even Martin Luther King and his AFL-CIO speech. So, I'm always surprised by how far back that these searches go and the information that comes up. So, of course, this can't be farther from the truth. And you have started a blog to help perpetuate and spread the good news, if you will, about labor unions. And I just like to hear how you think the app, your blog, Engage empowers the next generation of labor leaders?

 

Ken Green  22:18  

For about 20 years, I sort of and maybe like many of my friends that are in the labor movement sort of watched, and really look to say, "Where can we go to find out information about the amazing things that labor leaders are doing?" The bad news monopolizes, you know, certainly all the major circuits. You know, I complained to my friends for a couple of years about it. And then now, a little over two years ago, I said, "I'm just going to do it myself. I'm going to write about things that I'm passionate about." I'm going to try to draw attention to not just the incredible things from an individual perspective. And I do highlight on numerous blog posts, the specific labor leaders or the unions that I think that are really trying to embrace things like the gig economy and some of the challenges we're facing in the workplace today. But for me, the blog was an opportunity that I could sort of, without handcuffs, say, these are the things that I see that I would like to share. 

 

Ken Green  23:22  

You mentioned about sort of all the negative things that are out there. The myths that sort of exists and in different settings, with groups of other business leaders having an opportunity to talk to either founders or CEOs of other companies, and I talk about the many benefits of what organized labor potentially could bring to them. They're almost always blown away, like their perception of it is just fundamentally flawed. And, you know, sort of, in our own way, looking at the strength of the labor movement itself, removing some of those myths by putting facts in front of them, and then giving the tools that help sort of with this sort of, I guess, for lack of better words, vision of how we could reengage members in some of the work that we've done, especially in the last two years. 

 

Ken Green  24:15  

You know, working with groups like the Independent Drivers Guild, truly, they're organizing Uber and Lyft drivers, who technically are not employees. But, we've met with some tremendous success from both the Uber and the Lyft corporations because we're trying to bring benefits that are beneficial to their drivers, and doing so with no cost to the companies themselves. And so, they see it as a, you know, sort of a win-win. And I knew that's very non-traditional for the labor movement. But, we're also looking to say that if we could bring sort of the collective voice of labor towards the challenges that we face today, then the Engage platform could help not just deliver that, but then to look to say, how effective was this particular drive? How effective was when we got behind this specific legislative issue? The collective bargaining agreement, did we do well on this particular contract negotiation? And those are all things that we could then learn from, continue to build on, and continue to strengthen labor.

 

Traci Shanklin  25:32  

There's research out there that shows that millennials and Gen Z's feel very favorably towards unions. And we know that they embrace technology and are very comfortable with it. So, I think as they enter the labor market, I really believe that unions need to update themselves and their technology, especially if they want to capture this next generation of labor leaders and union workers. And I also think that the technology piece contributes to the organizing campaigns. We know that polls can be flawed, but we also know that polls are a really good marker. And why set yourself up for failure if you can set yourself up for success. These organizing campaigns can really benefit from having the kind of data that it sounds like you can collect and deliver back to them. In your opinion, why should labor unions adapt to this changing face of labor and update their technology?

 

Ken Green  26:34  

It really comes down to the impression. If a prospective member already has read something someone has told them something about unions that's not favorable, they're kind of walking through the door with this is not going to be good for me. What we're trying to do is leverage technology to say, "If we could showcase professionalism; if we could leverage technology, we're trying to help unions." We've been very successful in many instances, truly eliminating paper, moving towards, you know, digital applications, digital signatures, online payment methods. But, if you look at it and say, "Well, I'm joining this professional organization, but then when I went to join the union, I was given, you know, this stack of papers, and three by five cards and other types of things. And I had to write my name 15 different times." So, we're really trying to help that paradigm shift to say, "What if the first impression that they get and the follow-on impressions, they get sort of follow the rich tradition of unions and the professionalism that they bring." And I believe that leveraging technology, especially today is critical to reaching Gen X, the millennials.

 

Traci Shanklin  27:53  

I agree. Change is hard. And unions are, as you mentioned, 150-year-old institutions, and they have a certain way that they are comfortable doing things, and they have had to evolve with growing technology through the last few decades for sure. And as we mentioned earlier, I think COVID has really set a new standard of leaning on technology to come together, when we couldn't come together in any other way. What do you think you could say to the unions about changing to using this very important technology that everybody is adopted in terms of their handheld devices, to maximize the benefit and the positive stories that unions have to tell?

 

Ken Green  28:51  

Over the course of more than two decades, what certainly what I encountered and what our company has encountered is sort of this common theme of, "We've been around for over 100 years. We have rules and requirements that are different that set us apart from other nonprofits, and even other unions," and they sort of have built this mindset that we're so unique. We're so complicated, no one could possibly understand us. And so, we took a different approach to that. And we said, "Okay, at the heart of this, if we look at your constitution," one of our client's constitution predates when Abraham Lincoln was the president of the United States. So, if you will look at that and try to leverage technology against what would have happened in the 1800s. 

 

Ken Green  29:45  

I think most membership management and other companies that have tried in this space before has sort of failed to realize that. We looked at that as sort of a core piece of it to say, based on their unique content. institution and their rules and potentially their bylaws, then the Engage system has to basically support them. And to be able to do that and to build that level of flexibility into a platform, we really designed it to say, these are the things that are common to all unions. And then from there, if the union can tailor the specifics around their own unique set of rules within the Engage platform, we certainly find, number one, their willingness to even consider the platform, as well as when they learn about and they speak to other unions that have moved on to the Engage platform, and the tremendous cost savings and time savings and increase in the ability for them to engage their members. I think that's probably the most important piece of this.

 

Traci Shanklin  30:53  

We just talked about them about unions feeling marred in this concept that they are different. They have more nuances that disallow them to change quickly. And it's a catchphrase that I'm sure you've heard that Dr. Dweck's research into the growth mindset. And the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. And I think it's applicable here. When you believe that you can't learn something new, then you really stifle your brain's ability to move forward. So, in this case, what needs to happen is that the unions need to reframe the conversation and say, "How can we understand better, and what effort and time and resources can we put into changing the way we do what we do so that we are leaving the union with all of the resources that they need to grow and to be a sustainable part of our history?" And, you know, I personally feel that the world needs unions. Many of the benefits that you get at your company are because of the hard work and the fights that union leaders and union members have withstood to get you the higher hourly wage, or the healthcare benefit, or paid time off, family leave all of those things, you can trace them back to the labor movement. 

 

Ken Green  32:35  

At the heart of the Engage platform, we also have the benefit of sort of the collective thoughts and direction from 1000s of labor leaders throughout North America. I feel very blessed to say that I have been in front of now 10s of 1000s of them. Many of them are providing, you know, individual contributions to say the platform needs to do X. We look at that, and we say, "Well, we've more or less heard that from 100 different labor leaders." And we put it into sort of our R&D queue and work towards building that particular feature out. And if you start to think about the fact that we now have other unions helping other unions, and even to your point, Traci, if this continues to grow and evolve and it bleeds out, even to the non-union members of the working class in particular, then, you know, we've really accomplished something.

 

Traci Shanklin  33:31  

Do you have a personal union story? I know you mentioned that your father and your grandfather and you have a deep family roots in the union labor movement. Do you have any personal stories you'd like to share?

 

Ken Green  33:47  

As a teenager, and I think I've mentioned earlier that my father worked for the Illinois Central Railroad, and at the time was a member of UTU, was pretty seriously injured on the job. I distinctly remember going to the hospital with my mom and my two brothers. And we walked in and there were a half dozen or so men that were there. And quite frankly, I mistakenly assumed they were from the Illinois Central Railroad and my mom said, "No, these are all reps from dad's union." And, of course, as a teenager, it didn't really hit me and it wasn't as impactful now as when I look back and think, "Wow, by contrast, there was no one there from the company." That piece, even again, as a teenager wasn't lost on me. Going back to really the choice to unionize my own company. You know, I literally probably was the most outspoken about why I believed you should do this. And the union leader said, "Well, this is, you know, backward," and I just kind of laughed and I said, "I know but this is what I would really like to do." And we're all proud members of IUOE Local 99 in Washington, DC. Certainly, have a lot of respect for not just the local, but the international as well.

 

Traci Shanklin  35:03  

That's amazing. Congratulations. Not many people do that, but he's right. So, I applaud that. I want to thank you for joining me on the podcast today and being a part of the conversation.

 

Ken Green  35:16  

It's a really an honor to be here. I appreciate the opportunity.

 

Traci Shanklin  35:20  

Of course, of course. If you want to find out more about the Engage app from Uniontrack, visit our website where you can read more information about it along with a link. If you've enjoyed today's podcast, please subscribe to us and give us a five-star review. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcast, and many of your favorite podcast platforms. You may also subscribe to our web -- our newsletter, or listen to one of your favorite episodes on our website at www.multiemployerfunds.com. Thanks again for joining the conversation where listeners connect with leading experts throughout the multiemployer world. Be part of the change. 

 

Traci Shanklin  36:07  

And that's it for this week's episode of The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast. We love to hear from you. And if you have any comments, questions or suggestions, head over to www.multiemployerfunds.com and let us know. Thank you for joining us and we look forward to next time.

 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai