…but what you can do for the ABA.  For those of you who have not been paying attention to the ins and outs of the American birding scene of late, the ABA is, of course, the American Birding Association, an organization that I recently joined after the board named a new president, Jeff Gordon.  With declining membership, near financial collapse, and who knows what other minefields because the board has never publicly said why the last president left, I think I might be a bit crazy to join the organization, even under new leadership.  In fact, some seem to think that the organization isn’t serving the interests of the average birder at all.  But I like nothing so much as I like an underdog so I ponied up my 45 hard-earned American dollars and am now a member.

Forgive me for being a bit self-centered here, but, contrary to what the title of this post says, I want to know – What do I get?  I ask this as someone who has spent the last ten years of his life, until very recently, working as an organizer for and representative of perhaps the most member-driven organizations that exist, labor unions.  In the United States, members of labor unions pay monthly dues and in return they get representation, a contract with their employer, legal backing, paid staff to represent them and assist them, political clout, and a host of other benefits.  They come out ahead or they tend to decertify the union.  Of course, it is a two-way street.  For a union to work well and get good contracts members need to be active both on the job and in the union hall.  The best unions are those led by the rank-and-file with an active membership that holds leadership accountable so that the dues money and the power of the union are directed at making life better for the members of the union.

So, again, as a member of the ABA, what do I get?  And now a second question needs to be asked, and that is, what does the ABA want from me?  This brings me back, again, to my experience in the labor movement.  Too often members of the union refer to the union as an entity separate from themselves to the point where we had vocabulary to explain the phenomenon: we called it “third-partying.”  A union, like the ABA, is no more than its members.  Its members, therefore, shouldn’t speak of the union as something that will swoop in and fix their problems as in “The union is going to get us a good contract.”

No, members are going to get a good contract because members are the union, that is, they have internalized their membership and are willing to stand up together and fight for it.  This is why one of the ubiquitous chants at union rallies is “We are the union, the mighty mighty union.”  It is when the boss manages to convince a union’s members that their interests and the interests of the union do not coincide that problems occur.

The ABA must operate the same way as a successful union does if it has any hope of success.  Members, like the always eloquent Nate, must internalize their membership and be willing to take on tasks on behalf of the organization beyond paying the 45 USD per year.  This requires organizing, which only makes sense when one is talking about an organization.  But how does one organize?  And who does one organize?

First, the ABA needs some internal organizing.  Those who are already paying their yearly membership fees need to be visited, preferably in person, but, failing that, over the phone or via email or snail mail.  They need to be asked to give to the organization.  No, not money, but time.  Time to do external organizing.  Membership-based organizations grow fastest and get more committed members when it is current members doing outreach to others in their peer-group that are not yet members of their organization.  There are millions of birders out there waiting to be contacted that just don’t know it yet. They need to have the membership-question called on them.

That I have been birding since for five years, seriously listing since 2007, at least at the state and county level, and writing for the biggest birding blog for three years, but have never been asked to join the ABA nor heard a coherent argument for joining is testament to how much work needs to be done.  I’m not trying to say that I am some big-shot birder but I think that when an organization is sincere about trying to grow that reaching out to those who have a platform is a wise move (and some of the recent outreach to the bird-blogging world is a definite step in the right direction).  When organizing an unorganized workplace the first thing a union organizer does is try to identify workplace leadership, that is, folks who other workers respect and listen to.  Getting those folks organized often means that the workplace organizes itself with little or no further expenditure of time or money.  Similarly, the ABA should be working to find and organize birding leaders and getting them to recruit new members.

Another way to organize externally is in relation to other groups.  There are hundreds of birding clubs out there that are dying.  Why not convince them to become ABA-affiliates?  Offer technical support, newsletter items, speakers, field-trip insurance, deals on optics and travel, and, above all, connections to the wider world of birding.  These clubs are literally dying as their members become older and grayer and young birders don’t join.  The ABA should be working with the organizations that have successfully recruited young birders and make sure that the tactics and strategies used by them are replicated everywhere.

To get members activated and get new members interested in joining there needs to be reasons to join beyond good publications.  To go back one more time to my experience as a union representative the way we found out what members wanted was by asking them what they wanted and making sure that they could then get what they wanted.  In other words, if employees at a cafeteria that had its contract up for negotiation answered their workplace surveys with a desire for better health insurance, well, we made sure that was the goal of negotiations.  The member-led bargaining committee would have all the statistics and information that they needed to convince the boss that better health insurance was in the company’s interests as well as the members, and the rank-and-file membership would be agitated and activated to be prepared for action should they not get they want at the bargaining table.  When was the last time any national birding organization tried to rile up its membership for a fight over anything?

Of course, I am just a brand new member of an organization that has a history of which I am largely ignorant.  Perhaps the ABA does do great outreach to its members and organizes them into crack birding squads that preserve habitat and chase rarities and I just haven’t been a member long enough to appreciate that.  But, if the truth is that the ABA essentially exists to take my money and give me an expensive magazine subscription in return, well, I think my one year of membership will be my last.  I think Jeff Gordon will do better than that, however, and I hope that I am right.  After all, its not just my $45 at stake, but the future of birding in the United States as something as more than just a hobby for an eccentric few.

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.