Webwork: New Model Website

In the last edition of WebWork I mentioned how employers were using workers, often union members, to project a positive corporate image on platforms like Facebook - a process that could be described as organizing an army of online supporters. The theme for this column came to me as I was listening in on preparations for the rally in London, Ontario, on January 21, in support of the locked-out workers at Electro-Motive Diesel, owned by Caterpillar. Like it or not, we do fall into using terms like "a war" to describe our struggles. But, having named what we're engaged in using military terms, we tend not to examine how we're organized in the same way. If you're going to fight a war, and many of us see the Caterpillar struggle in exactly that way, then let's take a gander at the way we've organized and structured our army, shall we? In our organizing (which describes pretty much everything we do, no?), we need more troops out front. Our online communications efforts are no exception.

The New Model Army is often (was often? It's been a while since I was an undergrad) held up as a neat way to explain how the Parliamentarian forces in the English Civil War wanted to remake English society in the mid-1600s. The New Model Army was a democratization of the more strictly hierarchical military structures that preceded it. It reflected the changes to all of English society during and after the English Revolution. A capitalist, more egalitarian army to replace the old, feudal one. Masses of landowning men and merchants, armed and armoured, instead of a mounted knight with supporters; capable of moving and fighting outside local boundaries, and motivated by a shared ideology.

Is it time for a New Model Website and a lot more dynamism in union website content? Is it time for an end to trade union feudalism?

I've said it before: you've got to keep your website fresh. A stale website looks like a stale union. And what better way is there to keep content current than to use your rank-and-file soldiers?

Yet, here's how most, if not all, union websites work, at the local, regional, national, and global levels. A relatively small number of members or staff are trained and trusted to post material to the site. Those folks are subject either to an approvals process for each item of news, or photo, or whatever they would like to post on the site, or they have a policy to guide them. Either way, everything goes somewhere else for approval, or routine items are posted and anything unusual waits.

The more people with the authority to post, the more material gets posted and the more timely that material tends to be. There is maybe one union in Canada (okay, maybe two) generating more than a couple of stories per day in either official languages, and a great many with websites that sit stagnant for days, or even weeks, at a time. Even national union websites. As I keep saying, this leaves a bad impression on members, and potential members.

Our adherence to a hierarchical communications model is having an impact on our ability to organize current members for action, and to organize non-members.

That's not how LabourStart works. Yes, yes, I know: here I am flogging LS again. But, so you know, it isn't the only site built this way; it's just the one I am most familiar with. There are different structures that can generate broadly similar results. Perhaps the best example of the latter would be rabble.ca.

At LabourStart, just under 1,000 volunteers, of which perhaps 600 could be described as active in any given month, have posting privileges. These folks aren't LabourStart staff, they're volunteers. There's no real vetting process when someone volunteers. Their posts may be monitored for a bit if there's some question as to why they have joined our merry band. We look, for example, for people using LS in a sectarian battle between unions, for government propagandists, and for people from "unions" not generally considered legit, like the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC).

There's no approval process for posts. We'll deal with complaints as they come up. But you will only get an answer about whether a post is appropriate if you ask in advance of posting it. And sometimes you'll get five or more contradictory answers, all of them right.

You can go from visiting LabourStart for the first time to posting stories in a matter of hours. Hours. And, if there's something exciting happening in your neck of the woods, you can post as many stories per day as you want.

The rationale for the more hierarchical model for website management is that we need to be disciplined. Unions are, and here's a term you don't hear much of late, Leninist - structurally, if not ideologically. This means we don't air our laundry, dirty or otherwise, in public. We make broad policy decisions and elect leaders in a democratic fashion, and then we close ranks and follow those policies and leaders in a disciplined fashion. Why? Because, if we don't, there are employers and governments out there looking for cracks and splits in our solidarity.

Trouble is, if there ever was a time when we could impose organizational discipline on union members, that day is long past. It ended the day that small groups within a union, and later, even individual workers, could muster almost the same communications horsepower that their union, as an organization, could. By trying to stuff the new media into the old structure, unions have driven members to self-organizing efforts using tools like Facebook and Twitter and blogs, all of which they have easy access to, unlike their own union's communication facilities.

Not only do we have union websites with comments turned off, we have unions that, even now, are so unable to break the mould that you can almost feel the reluctance to train members in the use of social media. Not that, at this late date, the members need that training. But it would have been very fine if members had got the feeling that their union was confident that they would be fundamentally supportive, and that the members could be trusted not to play into employer hands. It would have been very fine if they had been considered good enough spokespeople for their union and so been given a few new media tips and tricks by their union and then sent out to be its public face online. You know, that could still happen. Or, even better, the members could bring what they've learned about effective new media use back to their unions.

I know of more union efforts at paying people to use social media to get the union's message out than I do of efforts made to organize members to do the same. In fact, at the moment, the ratio is about 15-0. My apologies to the Australian unions I made fun of a while back for hiring a company to recruit new members for them. Apparently we're catching up.

By the way, did I mention that the New Model Army did a fine job of whacking any old-style forces that got in its way?

A website to help us choose union-made products and services was launched from B.C. on January 1 (see shopunion.ca). On this site, you can identify places to go to buy union-made goods and services. It's mostly B.C. information, at least for the moment. But even if you don't live in, or are just visiting, B.C., take a peek. And tweet and FB your desire to have something similar for goods and services in your region.

LabourStart recently started tracking where our campaign participants come from - not which country, but the source of the link they followed to join one of our campaigns. During our campaign to get an education union leader released from jail in Bahrain, Facebook and Twitter generated some participants, and we got more take-up from people who just surfed in to visit our site and catch up on the news. We also got some response through Linked-In. But what did the trick and made the campaign a success? Email. Plain old email remains the killer app for online organizing. What are you doing sitting there reading this? Get out there and start collecting members' email addresses!

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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