Webwork: Top Ten Tips For Unions Online

Top Ten lists are a cheap and easy out for an amateur journalist facing a deadline. On the flip side (is that an expression my grandkids would understand, or will it generate the same blank-faced reaction that making a dialling motion with an index finger does?), this is less a Top Ten list than a Bottom Ten list.

In the current issue of Our Times, now in bookstores, you'll read about some marvellous and exciting stuff that's happening out there as unions and members grab hold of the new media, especially social media, and run with it. But, somewhere, we need to be reminded not just of the great things we're doing, but the ways in which we're falling behind, if not down. So why not here.

Here's my take on our most common errors and omissions, and what to do about them.

1) KEEP YOUR WEBSITE FRESH: A stale website means a stale union. At least, that's the perception. When bulletin board notices and (at best) monthly magazines and newsletters were how we communicated, then it was fine and expected that the same newsletter would sit in the lunchroom for a month or more. No more.

Last summer I wrote about how, after returning from two weeks of vacation, I noticed that one major union's national website was unchanged from the time I left. A reader contacted me to add to the list: Not so long ago in the era of paper, a bunch of workers looking to organize would read Organizing Unions and then, at some point, interview union organizers on their shortlist. Now, if there is a face-to-face interview at all (email is just as likely), those unions on the shortlist will be there because of their web presence.

2) TRUST YOUR MEMBERS: We don't trust the membership to put out a positive message, so we don't train them in how to use the new media. And we don't give them access to the union's online facilities. Too many unions, for too long, have avoided touching the new media, especially social media, since it means encouraging our members to go out and do their own thing. Trust them. You have no choice. They're doing it anyway. Get used to it, get over it. Better yet, make it possible for them to contribute content.

3) ENCOURAGE NETWORKING: Is your union like a Cray Supercomputer, highly centralized but working on only one task at a time? Or is it a distributed network with a thousand nodes talking to each other, working on related but distinct projects and sharing info as they go? Start simple. Ask yourself questions like these: How many people have the authority to post to our union's website or Facebook page/group? How long does it take for them to get approval? Is approval really needed?

4) USE MOBILE PHONES AND MP3 PLAYERS: Nobody is using the obvious - mobile phones and MP3 players. Who doesn't have one or the other? They're a great way to reach members, and potential members. Even better, they're a great way for members to directly generate online content for your union.

5) MAKE PLANS FOR A POST-PAPER WORLD: Got a date for phasing out your paper media? If not, it's been nice knowing you; you're likely to be phased out yourself. If you do, is your plan based on a detailed demographic survey of your members, or are you just hoping no one will be left behind? Everyone seems to know it is going to happen; few are talking about a concrete plan for getting there. [Editor note: Derek, do you think your Tip No.5 might get you phased out of your job as a columnist for Our Times, a print magazine folks still love to get in their mailbox, delivered by their friendly letter carriers? Just saying. Carry on.]

6) UPDATE SOCIAL MEDIA REGULARLY: Social media is also personal. Do your union's leaders or staff who are involved in an active campaign blog or tweet, or otherwise, provide regular updates about what they're doing? They are the public face of the union. If they don't, then the conclusion is obvious: nothing is happening. The least accessible politician in the small town where I live tweets a few times a week.

7) DON'T BE AFRAID OF PUBLIC INTERACTION: Are you worried that by allowing for views to be aired online, publicly, that you'd just be providing a forum for the loons and the anti-union bunch? Get over it. They have all that space already. Some commonsense moderation policies will have them quickly losing interest in your space, if they do show up. And meanwhile, if you keep the conversation closed, all you'll be doing is forcing your own members to go somewhere else to talk about their union. Pre-internet, would we have refused to allow questions at membership meetings? Of course not.

8) BUILD AND USE YOUR EMAIL LISTS: Size matters when we're talking about email lists. How substantial is your membership mailing list? Email has been, remains, and for the foreseeable future will be, the killer app for online organizing. Sending members an email makes it easy for them. The union is coming to them. Reaching them doesn't depend on them having to remember to visit the union's website, Facebook page or Twitter.

Think not just about how you can reach members with your messages, but how you can organize them to send messages in return. Think interactive.

9) RECOGNIZE EXPECTATIONS OF DEMOCRACY: We're not meeting the growing expectations for internal union democracy that the new media, and how others are using it, is creating. Where I live, you can vote online in municipal elections. You can vote online in curling club elections. You can express opinions about school trips and sign up for dance lessons. In comparison, just how democratic do most unions appear?

This isn't to say there aren't good reasons for sticking to the representation model most of us have now in the labour movement. But have we thought this through, or are we just waiting for the demand to explode so we can hastily react?

10) STAY ON TOP OF NEW MEDIA: Remember Myspace? No? You're not alone. If we're barely able to make use of the current crop of communications platforms, how prepared are we for the next Facebook. For the post-tweets reality? For Google+ and Diaspora and whatever else is in the works.

The time when online communications just might become as trusted as face-to-face may be just around the corner. Traditional workplaces with conventional industrial workforces can still be organized using conventional and traditional media. But do you want to organize Starbucks? Even now, you'd pretty much have to go to Facebook.

Five years from now what will you use? Ten years from now, will we still be having face-to-face membership meetings? Twenty years from now, what will a strike look like? Better yet, five, 10 or 20 years from now, how many workers, especially young workers and people working anywhere except in large workplaces outside the home, will be union members?

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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