Boosting Member Participation

Longtime Our Times reader and supporter Allan Gottheil called in last summer to suggest an idea for a column: what I'll call "tech-enabled broader-based participation." Continuous democracy? Breakfast-table mobilization? Whatever it gets called, it is about the wider and deeper inclusion of members in their union's activities, on a daily basis, through a process similar to polling.

For instance, imagine a smartphone app that connects members to their union. The union wants to know if the campaign it's running for an improved Canada Pension Plan is having an impact. It polls members, through the app, with just a question or two and, no matter where the members are, they can answer.

With more member feedback, the union can even measure the impact of specific events or tactics associated with the campaign. Did a media conference make the news? Did the rally get a crowd? Did that make an impression on members who weren't there? Did the releases about the impact of inadequate retirement income on women seniors get picked up? Want to see if the members are paying attention, and what they think about the campaign? Does the union want to know if, and how, the campaign is changing its membership's retirement expectations and concerns?

What about activities that are more central to the existence of the union? A few years ago in this column I mentioned a university local in the U.S. that was using web cams to broadcast its bargaining sessions, so that members could log in and watch. I said then that this was a big leap away from what I had always been taught about the need for confidentiality at the bargaining table.

Since then, I have come across a few locals in Canada that are experimenting with more open bargaining models; mostly small locals that reserve one seat at the table for a rotation of members, so everyone who wants to can get in on at least one session just to see what it's like and how it works. So, even without the tech, a few locals are headed in this direction. The tech is there to allow for instant polling of members about their reaction to a specific proposal. It has been for a while. How long before bargaining culture catches up?

But there are potential problems with this app approach that go beyond breaking our bargaining culture of confidentiality. It would mean that techish members have more influence over their unions than others. And it might lessen activism, and undermine the idea that you have to earn the right to participate and influence your union by actually doing something, even if it is something as simple and as easy as showing up for a meeting. Also, making participation more phone-based would inevitably mean that iPhone or Google-based phone owners could better participate, leaving BlackBerry, Windows and other phone owners out in the cold. Not to mention folks who, for reasons ranging from principle to poverty, have simple cell phones or no mobile device at all.

There's also the big question this approach might raise about the traditional, politically legitimate, and constitutional means unions currently use for making decisions: Would a smartphone app trump union conventions? Would this model serve to further individualize our experience of work at a time when some argue that workers have less and less of a sense of belonging to a collective centred on their workplace?

And there might be an even bigger problem. The tendency would likely be for the conversation to be less a dialogue and more a monologue, initiated by the union. Why? Partly because a true, continuous dialogue, tech-mediated or not, would require significant resources, including people, to read, respond to, and report on members' input.

I know of two companies, one partnered with a union, that have at least thought about what such an app would look like. If it isn't here, it will be soon.

One that is already here is the UFCW Canada (United Food and Commercial Workers) "Shop UFCW" app, where you can find unionized (UFCW Canada) goods and services as you shop.

Sindicalista videos, like those prepared for rabble.ca by Humberto Da Silva, are known to most of us because we get at least some of our news from rabble.ca. And because not a few union-web stewards pick up the videos and use them to dress their websites. But they're not just useful for that. Take them down-tech a couple of notches and think about them as relevant entertainment for that time before a membership meeting starts. Back-catalogue titles cover a range of issues, the majority with a union theme. A laptop and a projector are all you need.

One nice thing about having a soap-box like WebWork is that I can mention my pet peeves every now and then. Today's is this: please make your article or media-release titles less than 140 characters. Remember: Twitter exists and it is used, so it's important to format your stuff so that the title and a link can fit into Twitter's 140-character limit. Maybe even leave room for a mention of the source and a hashtag or two.

Speaking of social media mistakes, Alex White lists six common mistakes for unions to avoid in their use of social media, including treating it like an online brochure instead of an interactive medium.

Back in October, another example surfaced of how the no-longer-new media can be as difficult, politically, for getting progressive news out as traditional media was and still is. Buzzfeed pulled a story related to climate change and won't say why, except that it "violated" their "community standards." Media Co-op has the whole story.

I don't know much yet about co-worker.org but I'll be keeping an eye on it. The U.S. website offers to help non-union workers organize campaigns in their workplaces in order to improve things. It feels less like an alternative
to unionizing than a step towards it. Either way, there's a lot here that can serve as a model for generating organizing contacts online.

I just came upon a nice and surprisingly simple guide to "live tweeting" for activists of all kinds, written by Palestinian solidarity activist Abraham Greenhouse.

In the past month I've seen two campaigns that did their organizing in cyberspace for events that occurred out here in meatspace. Ontario's Raise the Minimum Wage campaign was one. Supported by unions and community-based groups, including ACORN, and (I think) mostly managed by the good people at the Workers Action Centre (WAC) in Toronto, its goal was pretty obvious. The means to get the word out? An email-based online petition, linked to a website rich in resources for people out there who wanted to act in support of the campaign — but with no robust attempt to manage local or regional campaign actions.

In November, a Leadnow action campaign to protest the Tories' denial of climate change was as big a success as the earlier debut of this broad progressive digital coalition. One hundred and seventy federal constituency offices saw rallies, large and small.

My MP, Tory Rick Norlock, had 50 protesters outside his office in Cobourg, Ontario. Some events had over a thousand. Very few of us in Cobourg knew each other. The connection was Leadnow's mailing list (which has over 100,000 contacts, last I heard) and our shared concern about the issue. The downside? After the first action, our efforts at creating a local coalition to fight the Tories faded fairly quickly. We're trying again, but. . . .

The key to building an effective local coalition is having a higher level of trust than being on the Leadnow mailing list engenders, and having some dialogue around more than single issues. We'll see where that goes, but, in the meantime, I know of no better example of how to move from digital commitment to real-world action.

The last word goes to Alex White, again. With the title "Avoid This Catastrophic Social Media Mistake," he gives a reminder, backed up by research, that email beats all other forms of social media — even if many people don't even think of it as a social medium. How big is your mailing list?

Derek Blackadder is the co-ordinator for LabourStart in Canada and an honourary member of the Toronto Workers' History Project’s Archive Committee. Feedback and ideas for future WebWork topics welcome. 


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