Yes, the experiment was a failure. The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in 1997 drastically cut dues for processor members in an attempt to boost membership. On May 17 the association reversed course, putting processors on the same rate schedule as SPI's equipment and material supplier members.
That was a good decision given SPI's budget crunch. It hardly would have been fair to cut meat from SPI's budget, or to put a greater financial burden on supplier members, without first asking processors to pay a bigger share.
But SPI still faces some very difficult questions. First and foremost: how to attract and retain processors now that the dues cap on processors will rise from $10,000 annually to $25,000.
When SPI slashed processors' dues in 1997, then-President Larry Thomas figured the Washington-based association needed to attract 100 new processor member firms paying the maximum $10,000 annually to make up for an expected $1 million revenue shortfall that was the result of the discount.
But the so-called ``no-excuses level'' of dues did not work: Today SPI has about 400 processor members - less than half of the 800-1,000 it claimed in 1997.
We don't intend to give anyone the impression that SPI is in serious trouble. The association still has two strong trade shows - NPE and Plastics USA - that generate about half of its revenue. It also has plenty of very active units and hundreds of dedicated members that form the backbone of the U.S. plastics industry.
But while SPI is not in danger of melting away, it is not as healthy as it once was, and that could pose long-term problems for the industry. Plastics likes to brag about how it is the fourth-largest manufacturing industry in the country. That's true, but its trade groups, including SPI, don't have anywhere near the clout or resources of the lobbying groups for the others in the top five: autos, petroleum, electronic components and computers. It's an imbalance that could hurt the industry.
For the past few years SPI has been fighting a slow economy that has potential member companies scrutinizing every penny, sometimes in an effort to save jobs and keep plants open. We hope that will change soon. But a serious problem will remain. That's the trend for the baby-boom generation to be more involved with their families and with personal issues than with the traditional institutions that their parents created and supported. When faced with a problem, boomers will look to these institutions for action - as a case in point, see how toolmakers have rallied to seek government help to battle overseas competition. But, absent a crisis, many of today's leaders are preoccupied with other matters.
SPI already has a decent plan in place to address this problem: The reorganization that SPI adopted in 1999, which created three ``mission-oriented'' groups and put significant power in the hands of councils representing key industry segments. The plan allows member companies to put most of their effort into the issues that they find most critical, while gaining the benefits of the larger, umbrella organization.
Maybe SPI's best hope for building an organization that can truly claim to represent the entire U.S. plastics industry is to stay the course and wait for an economic recovery, and wish for a challenge that will bring the industry closer together.