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Workers of the world unite

Workers of the world unite

Branded by bosses as dinosaurs and hamstrung by labour ‘reforms’, have trade unions had their day in the modern workplace? Darren Greenwood reports on how workers’ organisations across the globe are turning to ICT to build up their organisations, coordinate campaigns and march towards a 21st century fightback.

The Kiwi ‘can do attitude’

Jean Macalevey is one of a handful of IT managers in New Zealand’s union movement. Her Engineers Printing & Manufacturers Union claims some 50,000 members across 10 industries.

Macalevey says the union extensively uses technology by having a website (but not a blog). Email is the main form of commun-ication with members and the union has a large database of membership details.

The EPMU has 120 staff. Together they use 13 servers for their works, plus the various database, intranet and extranet needs of the union. The EPMU also has audio and videoconferencing over its network and VoIP capabilities for landline phones for its five nationwide offices.

Special websites are also set up for various campaigns, such as one against MP Wayne Mapp’s 90-Day bill, which can link users to MPs and instantly create a letter for them via the workright.co.nz website.

“It’s there for people to go in and send. It’s not spam as people have to put in their email address,” she explains, adding a similar website helped the EPMU save some engineering jobs when Air New Zealand wanted to outsource maintenance work to China.

The database helps the union keep in touch with members, and text messaging informs members of the latest campaigns. Special “members only” areas in the website also help the union keep certain information to itself.

“I am the IT department. I look after the phone system. I do the contracts and telecommunications, photocopiers, anything. I look after the database and am looking at ways to improve it. I keep all the equipment up-to-date and I do a bit of reporting,” Macalevey explains.

The former software programmer became the EPMU’s IT manager eight years ago when it created the role following a cross-country computerisation of the union.

“There were new systems for people to train in and I had to help people go from nothing. We had users that had never used computers and some had laptops on their desks to fool people into thinking they used one,” she says.

Macalevey says over the years she has been able to mould her role but she has little connection with other unions, bar the PSA, as the “different unions have different ways and needs”.

Other unions with an IT manager include the New Zealand Educational Institute which serves teachers and kindergarten staff. There, the role is focused on maintaining the network and membership system, rather than on e-communications with members.

NZEI communications director Stephanie Mills says her union has “made a conscious decision to start prioritising the electronic medium in our communications and to transition from the flood of paper we have traditionally used”.

The NZEI website has much union information but is not used for ballots or membership registration. Text messaging might be used during industrial action, she adds, but this idea has been resisted by the union’s older members.

The NZ Public Services Association (PSA) has just appointed a knowledge management advisor, one of several in the union movement, that look at how unions manage information within their organisation.

Moire Morrison says her role will help the union bridge the gap between the IT staff and campaigns team so they can better work together. Morrison plans to review the union’s IT systems and produce a strategic plan advocating for redeveloping them.

The PSA also employs Stephen Ruth as the “communications-IT” person, who looks after the intranet and emails members. The website, he adds, is used for various campaigns, but not for ballots.

Blazing a trail onto the union scene in New Zealand is Unite and its campaign called supersizeme.com for fast food workers, which reputedly led to the world’s first ever strike at a Starbucks.

Simon Oosterman, now of the National Distribution Union, says while all unions have websites, they have to do more to use databases to effectively boost member involvement in campaigns.

Supersizemypay.com featured email newsletters and an online petition, which then drew in more names into the union’s database. By the end of the campaign, the website had received 100,000 hits, one of the biggest in a political campaign, says Oosterman.

More notably, the campaign gained attention for using texting by its mainly young members, with Oosterman saying he sent out 2000 messages himself. Pickets and marchers could instantly appear when needed and it helped Unite win the campaign for some members.

Oosterman says texting is expensive, but organisations have to weigh its effectiveness. Now, he is looking at pix messaging for members to upload photos to create their own stories in workers’ newsletters.

Oosterman says he is promoting the use of open source to keep costs down, saying there are open source systems that can interact between websites, PDAs and databases and help unions develop customer relationship management.

The NDA plans a similar shelfrespect.org campaign for supermarket staff. It will include Google mapping facilities so members can see where their support lies, down to individual store level, and help create a sense of community.

Oosterman was previously IT manager at Unite and now consults for unions, advocating the need for sophisticated open source CRM and other systems.

“I would prefer unions having in-house IT managers with paid salaries. This would save on costs as IT managers would develop open source modules together and this would be passed among the entire union movement. At the moment, people are paying for 120-odd websites,” he says.

At Unite, campaign organiser Mike Treen says unions are in general lagging behind, but technology helps younger and more activist orientated people become involved.

Cost is still a factor for things like texting, but Treen and union co-founder Matt McCarten say they learnt of IT’s effectiveness from political campaigns. McCarten was Alliance Party campaign director, while Treen is involved in social protest movements.

Treen says he has contacted LabourStart about feeding its news service into Unite’s website and implementing some of their technologies. “We are also looking at taking the McDonalds campaign international. Many companies we deal with are international. We are asking for support internationally. The website is helpful in that. It opens doors and we receive invites to visit unions and also financial support,” Oosterman adds.

Australia: Battling Howard’s way

Two years ago, Mark McGrath, union sector consultant for lobby group Social Change Online, told a gathering of Australian trade unionists there was now “no excuse” for unions not to take

the web seriously.

Even poorer blue collar workers were going online and especially the young, suggesting the net would become a universal medium, he said. This meant e-commerce was now viable, McGrath told the Union Media and Communications Conference of the Australian Council of Trades Unions (ACTU).

Online payments facilities could now be had for $5000, plus $600 annual hosting fees, he told them. Thus, it would only take each big union just a handful of additional recruits to make the system pay.

Integrated web services were emerging, which transfer data between a website and back-end office systems, allowing easy updating of member details.

Web services would also facilitate online payments, requests or workplace assistance, workplace surveys and voting on agreements, he continues. Such technology was much faster and cheaper than paper-based systems and with 128-bit encryption technology, it would be safe.

A year earlier, Sandra Cockfield of Monash University presented a paper on “Union Recruitment and Organising the Worldwide Web”. Cockfield said many unions had “ignored” the potential of the web in areas of recruitment, union democracy and member mobilisation and others were only making “ad-hoc” progress.

In 2006, it seems matters have moved considerably, perhaps helped by opposition to John Howard’s industrial relations legislation.

The ACTU has received 80,000 signatures for its online petition opposing the legislation. Such campaigning is being joined by TV ads that also promote the website and the legislation helped spark a new blog called The Spark (www.etu.asn.au) launched by the Electrical Trades Union last September.

Unions are also turning to wikis, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds to push messages to users, plus blogs. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (www.alliance.org.au) launched its blog last November, saying blogs are an ideal format for quick comment on fast changing issues and developments, like the industrial legislation.

ACTU spokesman Ian Wilson confirms unions are developing online survey techniques, with the backing of the ACTU, and are being helped by the larger unions developing their own IT departments.

Unions are also developing their database systems to communicate with members by email and ensure they remained members. The ACTU also had its own online advice facility backed by its own call centre.

Union representatives are using blackberries, PDAs and mobile phones to keep in touch. In June, the Liquor and Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union requested members to send a text message to an employer’s personal mobile phone during a dispute.

Wilson declares it “heartening” the use of such technologies appears to be halting and reversing the ongoing decline in union membership, now standing at two million out of 10 million Australian workers.

The ACTU, he adds, is developing a website to help would be members discover which union was for them. His organisation “benchmarked” itself against the TUC website, some of whose features it plans to introduce.

UK: eRule Brittania

Just as the Red Rose has replaced the Red Flag, the blackberry may have replaced the cloth cap in Tony Blair’s Britain.

Trade groups like Connect, “the union for professionals in communication” uses what it calls “e-technology to organise, campaign and communicate at all levels of its democratic structure”.

Connect (www.connectuk.org) produces email newsletters, and its website was one of the first in the UK to allow online applications. Resources help organisers with campaigns and members can vote using e-ballots on matters such as whether to establish a political fund. MPs and others also engage in chatroom sessions with members.

Such debates and surveys are paper-free and save delegates the cost of travel and time. While the union accepts it still has much to learn, it recently concluded the web has done much to “improve accountability and strengthen democracy in the union”.

Just a few weeks ago, supermarket chain Asda faced what was described as the first “electronic picket”.

A strike was brewing at the Wal-Mart owned firm, which never materialised, and the GMB union threatened to place surveillance cameras outside of 20 major Asda depots to identify staff crossing picket lines.

Government legislation forbids companies bringing in extra staff to combat a strike, but the union was convinced the supermarket was using ‘scab’ labour.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is the umbrella organisation of 71 affiliate unions in the United Kingdom and claims seven million members.

Its general secretary is no longer more powerful than the Prime Minister, than was believed in pre-Thatcher days, but the TUC remains a significant force.

Its four largest unions have four million members between them and are well-financed with a variety of paid officials, call centres, and IT managers running extensive websites and membership databases.

TUC new media officer John Wood says his organisation focuses on developing the website and in supporting union representatives and activists online.

Related websites include worksmart.org.uk which helps members research companies, giving company profit figures and director’s remuneration figures.

The worksmart.org.uk website also features viral marketing ads, such as the humorous comfort breakdown ad, advocating the need for toilet breaks, which has been downloaded more than 80,000 times. “Viral games and animations are a way of extending our reach. That has proved successful in workplace issues. The internet opens up new possibilities,” says Wood.

The TUC has no blog, but its web staff plan to meet with party political bloggers to consider the issue.

However, Judy McKnight of the National Association of Probation Officers has taken a lead with her day-by-day accounts of proposed legislation affecting her members.

UK unions are not yet into podcasts and wikis, but LabourStart has its own Radio LabourStart podcast.

Text messaging use is “patchy” but during a firefighters’ dispute, union leaders coordinated messages so members knew what to tell the media.

“Unions, as members of the voluntary sector, will never use bleeding edge technologies but there is scope for providing a better service and things have been turning over the past few years,” explains Wood.

Unions are moving towards e-ballots but until the law is changed, they cannot use online voting for strike ballots or electing national leaders. But online voting is allowed at local level and they have increased turnout in such elections.

Unions are becoming smarter at using databases and the TUC is working on a project to network union reps and create an online community.

“The web means we can scale campaigns. It costs the same to support a million members as 1000,” says Wood.

Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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