from Vol. 33 | Issue 1 | 2014

WEBWORK: Mail Chimps & Changing Walmart

By Derek Blackadder

I've used my WebWork column before to look at the distressingly negative experiences many women have online, including being flamed or otherwise harassed. And how those experiences might negatively affect women's receptiveness to their unions' online organizing efforts. In other words, I've looked at the gendered division of the internet. Regrettably, it's still an issue.

A recent article in The Pacific Standard, Why Women Aren't Welcome on the Internet, by Amanda Hess, describes the "noxious online commentary" the journalist gets in response to her columns.

That article, along with a bunch more I was able to Google (79,400,000, give or take), did have one slightly (but not counterbalancing) positive aspect, though it's one you have to work hard to find: email is the best way to avoid what you don't want to see or read.

Unlike most social media platforms, email gives the recipient a measure of control over what she is exposed to. You may be forced to read the subject line, but that's all, giving you a lot more control over what you see in comparison to what you're forced to witness with Facebook and company. So, yet another argument in support of email as the killer app for online organizing.

MAIL CHIMP
Chances are that anyone who manages online actions for their union already knows that email is the most effective online communications tool available, and they likely use Mail Chimp or other software with similar features.

LabourStart tested one of Mail Chimp's newer features, called "A/B Testing," and we're now using it with almost every mailing. The feature allows you to test different subject lines in your messages and then compare the rates at which recipients open those messages.

In one example, we did two mailings about the same topic, each with a different subject line about Firefox OS for Activists, the latest book in LabourStart's series covering a mix of global solidarity topics and things techish.

The subject might have seemed arcane (an open-source, free operating system for smartphones) and the book has a somewhat nerdish title. Nonetheless, the email with the subject line "Firefox OS for activists: now available in Canada" had an open-rate of 6.3 per cent within 60 minutes of the mailing. The email with the heading "Smartphones, tablets and Canadian unions" was opened by only 5.0 per cent of the target group, a significant difference. On a Canadian mailing list of more than 12,000, it meant 156 more people opened the first message than opened the second.

On our worldwide mailing list, it meant almost 2,000 more people opened the first message.

Being a mildly obsessive-compulsive type, not to mention a beery Marxist, I look for qualitative results from quantitative analyses. But, so far, no rules about subject lines are appearing in my tea leaves (okay, beer bubbles).

Levels of response to subject lines are almost never predictable, which is why it's important to test them. But the difference you'll see is substantial enough to warrant using this feature, if you have it.

MAKING CHANGE AT WALMART
The good folks in the U.S. who are part of Making Change at Walmart and OUR Walmart have their work cut out for them in taking on the world's largest — well, largest everything.

Their resources, even with the backing of UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers), will never come close to what Walmart can spend on crushing organizing efforts in its stores and warehouses.

Of course, that mammoth power imbalance is what's making the campaign grow. And what's having the most impact on the corporation are the strikes — by unorganized workers, no less. (Think about that the next time you're tempted to crow about our Canadian labour laws.) And organizing those strikes, and other meatspace actions, was made a lot easier for organizers by their judicious use of social media.

They used Causes on Facebook and created Events, too. They made websites to describe actions and how to organize for them; and how to safely, and legally, conduct the strikes. Tweets were tweeted. Flickr was deployed on strike days, as was Instagram. The result? One thousand five hundred actions (think about that for just a second) at 1,500 (think about it again, a little longer this time) Walmart locations resulted. Simultaneously. On the biggest day of the year for retail in the U.S.

If you're not at least a bit slack-jawed at this point, turn in your membership card.

It gets better. The strike organizers did what too few unions would, or can, do: they created a mediated, but pretty freewheeling, online space where the workers themselves could speak about their fears and needs, and why they were or were not participating in the Black Friday actions. Even better, much of the online organizing in preparation for the strikes was done by crowd-sourced online leadership that organically defined the campaign. Typically, a number of workers would find a Making Change website, or Facebook page, or group. They'd start to talk directly, rather than through Making Change's facilities. That talking became self-organizing, and the self-organizing took control of the strike in a location. The pattern was repeated, over and over.

I'll spare you my crowing about how the Walmart campaign was able to take people from cyberspace to meatspace so they could take effective action. But what's striking is how closely their tactics parallel those of Leadnow.ca. Those tactics work.

DON'T DISS THE BOSS ON FACEBOOK
Just a reminder: Facebook ain't Vegas. What happens on Facebook doesn't stay on Facebook. Not only can it migrate out to meatspace, but it can bite you on the arse when it arrives.

A worker in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, took to Facebook after she was almost killed because of lax safety precautions at a paper mill, to object to how slowly management responded to her complaint. Clearly angered by her manager, she posted a rather heated opinion of him, and a few others.

A 13-year employee, she was fired, and her discharge was upheld at arbitration.

UNITED NURSES OF ALBERTA
Download the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) iPhone app and you'll get breaking news, collective agreements, leadership messages and a whole bunch more. UNA members can search collective agreements for keywords, make notes, and highlight important sections for future reference. Fab!

GOOGLE+
Much as I love and respect the work of Australian union guru Alex White, sometimes his boundless online energy just makes me feel like I want to take a nap. Or retire. Alex has an insider's take on the resources unions can spare for just about any activity or campaign. So, until now, he's been pushing email, Facebook and Twitter for all our campaigning needs. But, recently, he came to the conclusion that we need to add Google+ to the list.

I've had a Google+ account for a few years now, but I check it maybe only once a month, and even then just to connect with a Facebook-phobic friend. (Is it a phobia when there's good reason for the fear?) Alex's take on the change boils down to this: "Google is taking over the digital world and integrating all its platforms such that, if you're not active on its social media platform, it will wreak revenge when someone looks for you using its search engine." Sigh. Unfortunately, this, like Alex, makes sense.

FACEBOOK NO LONGER COOL?
There's a countervailing bit of good news about the Bad Book (Facebook, I mean): its user demographics are changing and there are indications Facebook is headed for a downward slide in popularity, though it might take a while for the beast to die.

A study by a British social scientist suggests that Facebook use is no longer cool, now that people like me are signed up and posting news about our boring middle-aged lives. So, the young folks are spreading themselves around a bit. They are staying on Facebook, for sure, in order to keep in touch with older family members. But they are investing more of themselves in platforms that the old folks haven't yet discovered. Might explain why the grandkids haven't been in touch with me for the last little while. I'll have to remember to wig them out by dropping some references to my non-existent Instagram account. . . .

Derek Blackadder's WebWork column about online resources for union activists appears in every issue of Our Times. It is now also archived on our website, as part of Our Times' "Talking About Organizing" series.


The author is senior Canadian correspondent for LabourStart.org and and the Canadian Union of Public Employees' regional director for the Maritimes.


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