Meeting Members’ Needs

I suspect I was being baited, as a LabourStart emailer when, out for dinner with some union friends recently, I was treated to an "email is dead" screed. The argument was that email has become so ubiquitous and routine that it gets no real attention. And because so much of what we receive is junk, unless the message is coming from someone we trust, we delete it without even opening it.

There's some truth to that, particularly regarding trusting the sender. To which my response is: get trusted. To become trusted, you have to be known. To be known, you have to get out there regularly. Or do you? There is evidence that trust may increase with need, something I suspect most organizers know instinctively, and something a number of the academics studying internet use, and our reaction to it, have concluded. It works like this: even moderate ideological or other predispositions against something can be overwhelmed by need. Put another way, in a scenario we're more likely to be familiar with: Someone may be fairly anti-union, but their resistance to a union message is reduced as their employment or income insecurity rises.

The best recent example of this phenomenon comes from the U.S. There, the summer of 2012 was a real scorcher in large parts of the country. An email went out into the void to the effect that the U.S. government, in recognition of the strain that electricity costs were placing on low- and middle-income budgets, and as compensation for the corporate bailouts of the past few years, was making available one-time grants. To apply, all you had to do was visit a website and, you guessed it, provide personal ID and credit card or bank information.

In New Jersey alone, 10,000 people got caught up in this scam, despite a desperate effort by the utilities and the state government to warn people off. On Facebook and Twitter, it became the definition of "scam." Interestingly, for our purposes, it also became the definition of "viral."

It was nasty all around, but if you take a step back and look at it as a campaign, there's something to be learned. Perhaps lots. The 100,000+ who got scammed aren't stupid. They were in need, for sure, and someone purported to offer a way of meeting that need.

I can't recall the last time I saw a campaign mailing from a union, aimed at either the public or its own members, that offered to meet a need. In comparison with the "look at us" triumphalist variety of union messages, they have been few in number.

If I gave out prizes for simple-looking but big steps forward, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) would get one. The Alliance's national leaders are blogging, with comments enabled! So, not only can they use the blog to push info out, they can have a conversation with members, and that conversation can be observed and contributed to by other members. Other unions would get another kind of award. The number of labour federations and national union websites with remarkably stale (going back, in some cases, to 2012) websites is depressingly high. We're being judged by these things, people. Put some effort into them. If a local union like Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 2544 can manage a site that can be visited five times a week and have new info every time, surely a fed can, too.

While I have a huge amount of respect for the work of Alex White (an Australian new media maven), I can only hope he's wrong on this one. In a recent blog post, Alex argues that, while email is by far the most effective online tool campaigners have, changes to the way Gmail (used by about 10 per cent of the folks on the lists he knows of) handles mass mailings are going to make life difficult for us. Especially since the other webmail services have a history of following Google's lead.

By the time you read this, Gmail will be separating your inbox messages into piles: one for the emails sent from institutions or to large groups, and another for emails sent from individuals to just you or a small group. Levels of trust and commitment will have to inch up among our email recipients, so they'll make the effort to open and scan the "mass mail folder." In LabourStart's case, this could reduce the participation rate in our online solidarity actions. Luckily for us, Alex's blog has some easy-to-implement solutions. I'm trying to follow them. You should, too.

CUPE/International Labour Organization (ILO) retiree Marc Belanger appears to be deeply committed to avoiding the golf course. He has remade the RadioLabour website and it is well worth a visit not just for the content, which you can also access on iTunes, but also for the design cues.

The Cyberunions podcast is back with its politics and tech, in pretty equal proportions.

LabourStart recently ran a campaign sponsored by KESK (Turkey's Confederation of Public Sector Unions) and ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation) in solidarity with the Turkish unions that participated in the spring protests this year. It was our biggest ever, but, in some ways, also pretty interesting in a depressing fashion, at least for Canadians. Canadian levels of participation continued a pattern: when a campaign involves a Muslim-majority country, participation rates drop noticeably. Is this because of Islamophobia? Perhaps it's a bit of resistance to "political" strikes? Maybe some paranoia remains about getting on a CSIS/CIA/Bogeyman list? Is there a lack of knowledge about the issue and the country or region? Or is there a lack of reflexive trust in somebody else's union (in this case KESK) and in international trade union institutions like the ITUC?

I suspect the answer includes a bit of all those things. If your union is campaigning online, there are likely similar patterns obvious to anyone looking for them. But is anyone looking? A thoughtful post-mortem after a mailing, or any other online action, is time well spent. There are things you can do. In LabourStart's case, we're looking to do what we can to publicize the struggles of trade unionists in Muslim-majority countries, hopefully making the point that they do pretty much what we do here. And we hope to see the day when an endorsement by the ITUC is the equivalent of an endorsement by a major Canadian union -- trusted and acted on.

Another, more quantifiable pattern was confirmed in the Turkish campaign: Twitter is definitely outpacing Facebook as a campaign tool. For an equal number of followers or friends, Twitter generates many more actions. It still generates nowhere near the response that email does, but it's climbing in effectiveness. This may be partly a question of format, and smartphone-friendliness, and partly because the Twitterati are who they are: more engaged, and using the platform for a purpose as opposed to a diffuse set of interests. LabourStart's annual survey of unions and their use of the internet is where we first noticed Twitter's utility.

Server settings for unions became an issue for me this year, but not in any technical sense: how many of us can't receive messages with the term "sex worker" in them? Even if the word "organizing" appears in front of it. How many can't participate in online campaigns because mass mailings are deleted by your union's mail server? I know of at least one labour body in Canada where the anti-spam settings mean both. So, one staffer sends out a campaign appeal, but the people down the hall will never receive it and can only participate in the action if they get an email with a limited number of recipients (and no reference to sex workers in the subject line). Goofy, but potentially damaging, too. Those staffers and officers not receiving the appeal are the people in the organization best-placed to pass it on to large numbers of contacts, multiplying the effect of the original list. Ask your IT people to review your union's settings. Chances are they're using some industry standard not suited to a union.

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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