The Culture of Membership

Maximizing Value for Members and Stakeholders in the MTA

We don’t often talk about business and social responsibility in the same sentence. Since the 1970s, the focus of business management has been maximizing value for shareholders. At least on the level of ideas, this focus has started to change by adding stakeholders to the mix. The World Economic Forum, which famously meets in Davos, Switzerland, issued a manifesto professing that:

A company serves society at large through its activities, supports the communities in which it works, and pays its fair share of taxes. It ensures the safe, ethical and efficient use of data. It acts as a steward of the environmental and material universe for future generations. It consciously protects our biosphere and champions a circular, shared and regenerative economy. It continuously expands the frontiers of knowledge, innovation and technology to improve people’s well-being.

It remains to be seen how these words will affect the behavior of business. There is, however, no denying that social responsibility is now an acceptable part of business discourse. As Professors R. Edward Freeman and Heather Elms write in the MIT Sloan Business Review:

The stakeholder approach aims to create a new narrative about business — a new story — that enables great companies to make our communities and our lives better through the creation of stakeholder value, rather than simply profit to shareholders. The story includes a recognition that if we want the outcome of business to be a more responsible capitalism, it requires stakeholders to value business responsibility.

The MTA is in tough shape when when business is more progressive in thought than we are in deed. Business has been making a shift from shareholder capitalism (all about the price of stock) to stakeholder capitalism. The Business Roundtable has a new statement of purpose calls for business to: “create benefits to all of its stakeholders — customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders.”

And the MTA? Not so much.

We are not creating benefits to all our stakeholders. We are not working to increase the value of membership. Value isn’t and shouldn’t be measured merely monetary. Business actively works to maximize this value.

Last month, I called Comcast for technical assistance. The customer service representative was not only solicitous, he was sympathetic at least in what he said: “I’m sorry, Mark. That must be frustrating.” What he was saying seemed scripted, but the sympathy was an attempt to add some emotional support to my experience. I don’t like Comcast much. I’m sure the guy was nice enough, but his sympathy was definitely not deeply heartfelt. But in spite of an assumed benefit for Comcast, they were adding value to my experience. When was the last time the MTA tried to add value to my membership?

The “culture of the customer,” comes from the continual improvement process (CIP) common in the business world. The premise of CIP is that a business should continually improve its processes, products, and services to increase the value the customer receives. This philosophy also recognizes that there is more to a organization than share price.

And the MTA? Not so much.

MTA Members are not customers, and the MTA is not a business, yet the same principles should apply to us. We have an ethical and fiduciary responsibility to continuously improve and increase the value we provide to members. If the World Economic Forum can agree to this principle in their 2020 Manifesto, we ought to be able to aspire to the same values. MTA decisions should be guided by the question: how do our actions increase the value of the MTA, first to our members, then to our students, communities, public education, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts?

There’s a good argument to be made that we don’t get our money’s worth from our dues. The MTA certainly isn’t doing much of anything to increase the value of our membership. Aside from legal and contract services, what do we get for our money? An Annual Meeting 98% of us don’t attend. A summer workshop that 99.5% don’t attend. A 10% discount on the entrance fee to Plimoth Plantation? A discount on magazine subscriptions?

Business management is now thinking beyond the how much money they return to shareholders and how much value they impart to stakeholders. Will business live up to the rhetoric? Who knows? The question facing the MTA now is, will we even try to live up to this rhetoric? We have always identified students and public education as stakeholders in our union work, but we’ve taken our members for granted and lost touch with them.

It’s imperative we reorient the MTA toward our members, not a single faction or a single interest. To do this, we need an overhaul of union democracy with all of our officials elected by the membership at large. But we also need a more expansive vision. For every decision we should first ask, how does this add value for the membership?