Webwork: Smartphones And Workers

Last issue you were treated (?!) to a rant. This time I'm giving you a bunch of shorter items, leaving less room for my opinions. Mebbe.

At LabourStart, we recently made an effort to track the ways that work best for getting the word out about our campaigns. It's difficult for a volunteer organization of people with wildly varied tech expertise to be consistent, so our little survey was definitely not scientific. But it might be instructive, even so. The results aren't at all surprising: the vast majority of those responding to our campaign appeals do so using the links embedded in our emailings. Twitter isn't nearly as effective, even when tweets about a campaign are sent repeatedly. And Facebook lags even further behind. Way, way, way behind.

In one campaign I used Hootsuite (highly recommended) to send regular posts to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as to the LabourStart Canada Twitter accounts, both French and English. I sent identical messages to each account at the same time. All the Twitter accounts, combined, have less than 15 per cent of the followers that the Facebook account has as "friends." But the Twitter accounts generated 11 times as many campaign participants.

This just confirms what we all thought: email remains the killer app for online campaigning.

Speaking of the LabourStart Twitter accounts, look for LabourStartCanE and LabourStartCanF. And speaking of stats and LabourStart, something interesting has started to develop as we track our mailing lists' growth each month: the non-English lists have started to grow at rates that far exceed those of the largest: the English-language list. And the pattern for all our Twitter feeds in all languages has been for them to pick up followers at a rate that increases with the number of established followers. Is there some political/technical/sociological principle at work here? For the Twitter feeds, the "retweet effect" probably explains it. For the mailing lists - stay tuned, I guess. If you have an explanation, we'd love to hear it. We live for our mailing lists. You should, too.

LabourStart just completed its annual survey of unions and their use of the internet. Lots of slow movement reflected in most response areas (though our total number of responses doubled). Some notable exceptions were the huge increases in the number of trade unionists using smartphones to access their union's online communications, a small increase in the number using tablets, and an accelerating decline in the percentage who use desktops. The popularity of laptops, notebooks and ultrabooks seems stable.

Facebook use was unchanged and Twitter use is growing. But the number of union members and staff using LinkedIn to communicate informally appears to be taking off. A quick peek at the survey results and my own account suggests that its use is concentrated in a few countries (Is there a Dutch union staffer left without a LinkedIn account?). But they're there for a reason, even if I can't figure out what it is, so it might be worth your while to take a peek and figure out why. And then tell me. More importantly, if a lot of your union's members are there, you might want to start a group and link it to the union's Twitter account to give it some life without adding to anyone's workload.

Google+ is becoming popular in the Francophonie. In French-speaking Africa, France itself and Quebec, take-up is noticeable. This doesn't appear to be the case in the Anglo world, where Google+'s user base is not only not growing very quickly, but its usage pattern is cause for comment. Studies like the one done by Comscore, mentioned in the UK's Daily Mail (see http://tinyurl.com/7j692la), seem to indicate that the average user spends a lot less time on Google+ than on Facebook: as little as three minutes a month compared to seven hours a month for Facebook. Matching this news up with the results of the LabourStart survey, it seems that whatever the platform, Facebook or Google+, more and more of us are using our phones to access our accounts.

It's not just union types who are taking up smartphones in a big way. Korean Samsung workers are subject to all kinds of harassment when and if they talk union. So, when the company announced the closure of one of its facilities, the workers found innovative ways to use their phones and SMS to make their unhappiness known to their employer. Non-union folks sometimes have the best ideas. Where we would file a grievance, they got together and took direct (if digital) action. See http://tinyurl.com/d58tc3w for details.

Smartphones are the Rodney Dangerfield of the commtech world. They get no respect, despite being in everyone's purse, on everyone's belt. They give us access to email and the web anywhere. SMS can be as effective as email. They have still cams and video cams built-in. And they can even be used to make phone calls (though if my usage patterns are anything to go by, that's the least-used of a Blackberry's features).

But one of the more interesting features of your smartphone isn't a technical spec or a functional feature. It is that we take them to work. We ALL take them to work, not just the folks who have them provided by their employers. The smartphone represents one of the few times when tech change in a workplace can be said to have been introduced by workers, not bosses. And it is used, or, at least, usable, for organizing purposes by those workers.

Yet, finding a union in the Global North (the South has too many examples to list) that makes routine use of smartphones in campaigning is difficult.

Sahid Fawaz runs a not-bad little website called "Labor Think: Web Strategies for Unions" (laborthink.com). It's devoted to making design and other not-quite-technical tips on online campaigning and such available to unions. Unusually, for this kind of site, there's a lot of material on how to write for the web - as in prose, not code.

I recently pointed you in the direction of the website in B.C. that directs shoppers and service users to unionized providers (shopunion.ca). A site co-sponsored by the Alberta Federation of labour does an equally nice job. Take a peek: ethicalshoppingalberta.com.

Doorey's Workplace Law Blog is a useful blog run by David Doorey, a labour law professor at York University. One of the more practical tools it provides is a list of Ontario employers who are being, or who have been, prosecuted for violations of that province's Employment Standards Act. Kind of a "bad bosses" list, but accessible on your smartphone so you can check it before opening the door.

I have participated in inspections of garment factories in Central America. Most were producing clothes for the better-known global brands. Inevitably, only the owners of the better factories with the better working conditions would co-operate and allow inspections. And "better," take it from me, doesn't mean good.

Labour policies and working conditions all up and down the supply chain help (along with environmental impact and other good things) determine the ratings various products get at goodguide.com. Access their ratings site using your smartphone while shopping and buy only the best (for all involved). Almost as an aside, you can use their site to access webcams that will give you a view of some of the factories that produce the clothes and electronics we all use. At the right time, you can even Skype with the workers producing your stuff. I'm gonna see if I can Skype the workers at a t-shirt factory and order some XXXL shirts with M labels (for "medium") in them, just to make me feel good.

It's always fun to close on a warm and fuzzy note. In my capacity as senior Canadian correspondent for LabourStart.org, I just received a thank-you email from the Maritime Union of New Zealand as their struggle against a giant multinational that runs the port of Auckland came to a successful end. LabourStart had helped out with an email campaign. The letter included to-be-expected (no offence) references to the importance of global solidarity between unions, and a thanks for LabourStart's efforts. However, it also included a personal bit about the effects on the wharfies of solidarity messages from other rank-and-file union members around the world - in other words, worker to worker solidarity.

Way too often, we think of online campaigns as little more than an effort to clog an employer's inbox. We should give ourselves a slap.

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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