Why And How Unions Need To Use Film And Videos

An Interview with Teresa Marshall

Teresa Marshall specializes in using creative arts and media to connect grassroots issues with international movements for change. A former Canadian television journalist turned labour organizer, she currently serves as communications coordinator for the global union federation Public Services International, based in France.

I recently spoke to her for an article for Our Times magazine on unions making and using films and videos, called "Lights, Camera, Activism!." The following are some highlights from the conversation.

To see the article "Lights, Camera, Activism!," which includes, as well, interviews with Lorene Oikawa from the BCGEU; Derek Johnstone from UFCW Canada; and Ian Clysdale from CUPE, get yourself a copy of Our Times Vol.31 No.2. It's available in bookstores until July 20. - RACHEL E. BEATTIE

OT: How did you get involved in unions, and in film?

TM: I started out as a broadcast journalist and worked in television news in British Columbia. I became involved in labour unions through organizing the newsroom I was working with. It was a very radicalizing experience at a very young age. I ended up being blacklisted for my union involvement, but my union stuck by me. I went on to work for myself for the next dozen years as an independent filmmaker and as a social justice campaigner and communications strategist.

Then, in the early 2000s, I connected with people at the Vancouver Mayworks festival who were with the British Columbia Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU), and I went to work there. I also spent one wonderful year working with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

So, I have a view about making film and video from both sides of media production: as a mainstream news journalist and as an independent and artistic filmmaker, and independent producer. I've also worked as a publicist, launching dozens of Canadian documentaries, for the National Film Board (NFB), specifically.

OT: Can you comment on the difference between mainstream journalism and independent filmmaking?

TM: Well, for sure you have much more control over your own voice and your own representation when you're making your own films and videos, there's no doubt about that. And, certainly, I was disenchanted, working in mainstream news, with the continued stereotyping of unions, and the fall-back that "it's not a story about a union if they're not on a strike line or some sort of conflict going on." Making film and video with union members is about trying to put forward a positive image of what we do in our work every day and how we perceive ourselves as workers, providing value to our communities.

Let me back up just a little bit and talk about the work that I have done as an independent producer and how that informs the work I do with unions. Some of the pieces I've done as an independent producer include a series called Fresh Talk, and a related program to that called Educate Your Attitude. I was working with young people in the 1990s and finding a process that would empower them to be able to speak about their emotions around issues of sexuality. That video series, at the time, ended up being used in more than half of the high schools in Canada as a peer education resource.

The way it was designed was to involve the young people from the beginning: in how they were portrayed, down to them choosing their own words; deciding, after they'd been recorded on video, what they did or didn't feel comfortable having included in the final video; and being involved in taking the video around and leading youth discussions themselves in all sorts of community settings.

The process of actually engaging the young people started long before we turned on a video camera. We worked with them for 10 days with an empowerment theatre company in B.C. called Headlines Theatre. That was simply about creating a sense of safety, a sense of community, where people could then find new ways to talk about their experiences. And that's not what happens when a news camera is stuck in your face. You have to answer on the spot, and you don't have a say in the context of how your words are used afterwards.

I've always been very interested in finding ways that are empowering and involving people in the production process so that they feel complete ownership and comfort in how they are being portrayed in the video medium. That series was co-produced with my partner, Craig Berggold.

I've continued to teach video production to union members through labour schools and that sort of thing. One of the reasons I have worked with some of the unions that I have, such as the BCGEU, is that they agreed, in hiring me, to invest in video production resources so that I could teach people in-house and we could produce videos in-house, for a much lower cost. And that's what I've done at PSI as well. We've invested in a video camera, and a Final Cut Pro edit suite. That way, we have the option of creating things in-house and training staff and members to use the equipment. And, if we need to, we can also bring in a contract union videographer or editor to help us put out a strong, well-produced piece at the same time. It really makes a great deal of difference having those tools at hand at a moment's notice, but also in being able to address cost issues: it's a huge savings to be able to do this in-house. Then we can post the videos up to the web immediately and we can use it for all kinds of purposes: for example, we can use it to do media training of executives and elected union reps - people who are dealing with the media as well. So, it's about using the technology in many ways: not just to represent ourselves, but also to train union members on how to be more confident in a media situations.

OT: How have things changed recently now that video technology has become so much cheaper and accessible?

TM: What has changed is that more people are now able to produce video or video clips, using low-cost video cameras or cell phones. Probably a good example of that is the PSI Communicators Action Network. I just came back from spending a week in Wisconsin where I pulled together a senior team of PSI affiliate union communicators from Europe, the United States, and Canada. They all came together on basically three weeks' notice to do a fact-finding mission, but also to document some of the events and activities and issues that our members are facing in Wisconsin. So, we came at the invitation of PSI affiliates and worked with the Wisconsin AFL-CIO and local PSI affiliates on the ground and covered, in a variety of ways, the events that happened in the week that we were there. The events were all timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the occupation of the capitol building and the passage of Governor Scott Walker's union-busting legislation that stripped collective bargaining from all public service workers in Wisconsin. So, one of our team members, Ian Clysdale from CUPE, and I worked to put together a "Storify blog." (Storify.com is a website that creates and preserves stories or timelines using social media.) We promoted it with the hashtag #ReclaimWI, and the Wisconsin AFL-CIO printed thousands of little red cards with that hashtag and circulated it at all the rallies and events that we were part of. Then we asked people to send in their photos and videos to that hashtag and to upload them to Flickr and YouTube and so forth.

Using that hashtag, we were able to gather video clips and photos that people had posted as citizens and union members, and feature them on the blog that we were assembling on the fly around these events. So, definitely, we are finding new ways to use video and to use it to share the message, because so many more people are engaged in video documentation today.

Maybe I should clarify that the blog was curated so that in fact, yes, you must be somewhat selective. We were able to go through all of the returns on that hashtag and choose some of the highlights that we thought were worth putting up.

OT: Can you talk about the challenge of combining making the online navigating entertaining enough to attract views with having a good, important message?

TM: Well, actually, it always comes back to distribution and that depends on how strong a union's network and outreach is to its members or community. The deeper that outreach is in the electronic world today either through Facebook, or Twitter, or email databases the more chance you'll have of up-take within that community of interest. And it can also depend on how skilled a union may be in doing other outreach to a wider community of allies who are wired in, whether it's NGO communities, environmental communities, women's communities, or others that have strong electronic communities.

That requires work, investment, and commitment on the part of unions, to be effective. It's not enough to make a fabulous video and post it to YouTube, because, if you aren't able to attract people to it in some way, or hook into stronger networks, it's just going to sit there. So, that's the key: content is first. If you have strong content, a strong message, and are able to push it out to
your members and to a wider community in a timely way, you will have more success.

Otherwise, you can waste a lot of money on public relations agencies and production houses that give you something beautiful but there's no plan to back it up.

OT: Can you tell me about the recent project you were a part of in Tunisia?

TM: Last fall, I organized the pilot model for the PSI Communicators' Action Network, which has the nice acronym of PSI CAN. This was actually inspired by an experience I had working with the International Labor Communicators Association (ILCA) several years ago. They had decided they'd had enough of decades of people talking at them during week-long conferences and wanted to do something different and shake things up. Under the direction of Steve Stallone, who's still the president of the ILCA right now, they got in touch with unions in New Orleans, and this was just after Hurricane Katrina. They asked if the unions would be willing to host us and take teams of communicators around to their workplaces to meet their members, and to visit their neighbourhoods to see and hear and record stories of union members and how they've been affected by Hurricane Katrina. There were quite a few labour communicators from around the United States I was the only Canadian attending. On the list, you could request unions that you wanted to be matched up with and I saw one of them was the New Orleans musicians' union. I said, "I want to go visit them!"

I ended up doing a different story, although it did feature one of the retired musicians. I knew that I was going to New Orleans, and Naomi Klein was in Vancouver giving a fundraising speech at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), so I recorded her speech and got permission to use the part where she talked about how the Shock Doctrine had been applied in New Orleans, in terms of a neo-liberal agenda pushing for the immediate privatization and displacement of the local community for real estate speculation; bringing in migrant workers; taking away union rights of the public teachers immediately, and then introducing charter private schools.

I used that clip and included interviews with local human rights activists, local community members, and a woman I just met on the street. It's not in the film, but she told me she'd actually been in jail during Hurricane Katrina and it wasn't until the water was up to the prisoners' necks in the jail cells that they actually came to let them out. She was poor and essentially homeless.

And so, ILCA pioneered this model of bringing in teams of journalists to document a situation and the stories of union members in that place. And we produced photo essays and blog articles and, in my case, a video. These were posted to a stand-alone website, and then the union journalists also took their stories and shared them with their own members back in their home locations.

So, I had thought that was an amazing experience and a really great idea and was looking to try and do something like that again, and I was able to in Tunisia in November 2011. We brought together 50 trade union journalists and communicators from 16 countries, all of whom belong to union affiliates of Public Services International. We were operating in English, French, and Arabic, so that was a challenge.

There was a real range of experience: some people had been sent because they might have been the only person in their union who had a Facebook account; others were professionally trained journalists who had decades of experience under their belt. For the first two days of the five-day event, I organized a series of training workshops to give training on how to take good photos, how to do basic social media, how to write news stories. But also, considering that we were dealing with the situation of our union members in the Middle East and North Africa, some tips on security training: how to conduct yourself safely in a crisis situation such as a riot; how to try to secure your electronic communications if you're dealing with a repressive state. And we intermixed those training workshops with presentations from activists and journalists from the region who talked about media democracy, human rights issues, the situation of women and their rights in Tunisia, and so forth.

And then, the next several days, I organized the communicators into teams that included experienced people and less experienced people, so that there was mentoring support was provided, and sent them out to locations that we had already arranged with our eight PSI union affiliates in Tunis. I ran it like a newsroom, a union newsroom, and I sent them out in teams to strike lines; to government ministries where members were occupying offices so that papers that they said would prove corruption of former managers weren't disappeared; to talk to women's groups, human rights groups. I sent them to demos for women's right in Tunisia and into the union offices to talk to the union leaders; and into the work places, the hospitals, the justice ministry, and so forth. Then they had to come back, that same day, and decide among themselves who was going to do what: who was going to take photos and produce a photo essay, who was going to work together to write articles, who was going to work together to create video clips, who was going to do radio production for podcasts, and that sort of thing. They had to complete those assignments and post the end results to the PSI CAN website at the end of each day. On the final day, we had a final round of debriefing and showing the work that had been

There's an imperfect but necessary Google translate tool on the website so that people can translate in and out of whatever language they are working in. There are articles in Norwegian, Arabic, French, and English. And so, that was an amazing experience. If you look at the photos on the Flickr galleries you'll see people working together on their computers, helping each other set up email accounts and so forth. We have had some amazing results already come out of that.

For example, one of the trade unionists returned to her home country of Algeria and immediately co-founded a citizens' journalism network to produce independent media around workers' issues and social justice issues in Algeria.

OT: What has the response been like?

TM: Within their own unions, the union communicators have been able to take what was produced and use it and show it at their conferences and organizing meetings at their women's committee meetings and so forth.

OT: Can you talk about the power of moving image?

TM: Using video means that you can tell a dramatic story quickly, and it's also a way to address issues of literacy, or where access to the internet is hard to come by. A video gets a message across very quickly, very simply. We're wired to respond emotionally to pictures and stories that people tell us. That's when video is powerful. But it always has to be, in the union context, connected to a meaningful campaign that is working effectively on the ground at the same time. Otherwise, it's just a spectacle.

OT: Sometimes it's hard to balance creating an entertaining work that people will watch with a complicated topic. How do you navigate this?

TM: Let me give you an example of a case study of a successful use of video. At the BCGEU I was the lead communicator on the Child Care: Let's Make It Happen campaign that was, and is, to this day, pushing for public and universal affordable accessible child care. So the Child Care: Let's Make It Happen campaign was built to integrate and work with community coalitions such as the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC, as well as a variety of parent groups, home childcare providers and other resource centres across B.C. It was very much about connecting, on the ground, our union members who are early childhood educators with the larger community who care or are concerned or affected in some way about child care. We reached out to business people, chambers of commerce, to politicians, municipal councils, elected representatives on the provincial and national levels, and people in the health community including, doctors, child psychologists all sorts of people. It was a very broadly-based movement and I asked the BCGEU if they would support producing a half-hour television program about child care in B.C. and the history of child care in Canada. They agreed, and we purchased prime-time airtime on the major television station in B.C.

We went out and produced this video using our own equipment and producing it for a fraction of the cost of what it would normally cost to produce a television quality program, but it was beautifully produced. I worked with some recent graduates of the art university in Vancouver and a local political cartoonist to do a series of one-minute animated cartoons that we used throughout the program. We tried to use creative forms and humour at the same time within the program itself. That program is called Kids Can't Wait.

We broadcast it and the viewership for that program that night was around 110,000, very respectable for an evening news audience in B.C. We ended up producing close to 10,000 DVDs, and we sent those out free with a letter
asking for action on the Child Care: Let's Make It Happen campaign. These went to all elected leaders, across British Columbia, and to: municipal councils, chambers of commerce, school boards, provincial legislatures, and national members of parliament. We also sent them to every childcare centre in B.C. We offered them to parents; we distributed them to union members; we distributed them to every public library in B.C. You can't buy a full-page add in a daily newspaper today in most centres in Canada for under $30,000 for a one-day newspaper ad. Our production cost less than a third of that, and went a lot farther.

We provided the resources for people to have local screening parties in their childcare centre, or their community centre, or their homes, or their union offices, and we still get requests from people looking for copies of the DVD to share.

So, this was a great example of connecting video to a union campaign that has strong ties to a wider community audience and promoting it on a variety of levels, including distributing it publicly through the broadcast airwaves. You're distributing it strategically through the leading decision-makers, and you're distributing it to your community and your union members at the same time. It requires some strategic thinking but it didn't, in the end, require a huge investment for the return that we got on it.

Another example is a new feature documentary film that has just been independently produced called We Are Wisconsin. I highly recommend it. I was able to see the hometown premiere in March in Madison, Wisconsin, along with the PSI union activists who are featured in the film. PSI co-sponsored the premiere festival screening at Hot Docs, along with the Toronto & York
Region Labour Council
, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), and the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). PSI will also be working with our affiliates to co-sponsor grassroots film tours of this amazing documentary in North America and abroad.

OT: Do you have any advice for unions embarking on a video campaign?

TM: You can have a video camera that's cheap or expensive and you can have an editing program that's cheap or expensive, but if you have somebody who you support to have the training to tell a good story, ultimately the technology is the least concern. It's the story and it's how well the story is told that will count in the end.

If I might just say something generally: I really think that unions have lagged in uptake of technology and social media on many fronts and part of that is generational and the demographic of many unions today, and it's something that people in our unions need to embrace and support immediately. Part of the battle that we have been up against as trade unionists over the last 30 years or longer is a battle of image; the interests who put money into Hollywood, put money into primetime television sitcom and tabloid news, know that how people are represented is highly influential on people's decisions to associate themselves with a particular group or a political party.

Until unions produce more content that effectively showcases the contributions of our members to our communities - the vital contributions that we make every day in our work - and are able to find ways, through sharing those kind of images, for more people to be proud of the work that they do, to be proud of themselves as union members, to inspire pride in their children and their grandchildren to want to be union members, then we are going to continue facing an uphill battle against the stereotypes of Hollywood that distract us from the value of what we do and replaces it with glorifications of guns violence drugs and so forth. We spend our life working and we've got to find better ways to reflect that in positive ways.

Yes, story counts first and that's where unions should start, by making sure their voices are genuine, that their members' stories are credible and powerful. Then, if you try to use more creative formats, such as animation, or good, original music, you can really add production value to your video. And that will often stand a longer test of time. If people can hear the audio well and peoples' faces don't look blue from incorrect lighting, that will help your production. People are very sophisticated in the high-quality levels of media production they're exposed to every day from the commercial world. It's just super important for unions to be investing in multimedia production and finding more ways to partner on this. And if they want to do a PSI Communicators' Action Network event in their area, they just need to contact me! [Laughs.]

I'd like to make one final point: it is urgent that unions get informed about the importance of an open internet and open access to the internet; further, that unions put more money into supporting progressive, independent, union or labour-friendly media such as rabble.ca, TheTyee.ca, Radio Labour, and, of course, Our Times, all of which operate on a shoestring and deserve so much more support. I think that unions have ignored, to our collective peril, the issue of media monopoly. People complain about it, many people know about it, know that there's something wrong in the media monopoly system in Canada today - but we are not doing enough to address this issue. I think access to independent media is going to be key to any future successes for our labour movement and for social justice movements as a whole.

Rachel E. Beattie is a member of United Steelworkers Local 1998 who works in an audio-visual archive. She is Our Times' regular film reviewer.