Social Network Unionism
New Unionism Network
(Moderators note. The article on New Unionism Network
has links to each of the websites described)
In 2010, Network member Oersan enalp coined the term
"social network unionism"* to describe the shift
towards "a peer to peer, transnational, common, and
hyperempowered labour class movement". Since then,
Oersan has worked hard to bring us "tales from the
typeface" of this new world of organizing. See: SNU
Blog, Scoop.It, UnionBook group.
The deeper implications of social network unionism are
only just starting to dawn on many of us. All of a
sudden, workers have the ability to build huge open
networks on their own, with or without the involvement
of their union. They have begun to do so already, and
we can expect a cumulative curve. Networks are cropping
up in workplaces (Google+ "circles" encourages this,
almost by default, as do FB's new "smartlists").
Networks are appearing across organizations, and within
occupations, industries and sectors. They are
developing across borders (especially within
transnationals). These chaotic groups make no
distinction between union members and non-members, or
between full-time and part-time employees. They discuss
wages and conditions along with everything else,
because that is what working people do, but Robert's
Rules do not apply. In fact, leaders come and go
without even seeing themselves as such. This may be the
deepest challenge yet to bureaucratic centralism and
"business unionism". The network is now the vanguard,
as member Dan Gallin has put it). This transformation
will make its way into every aspect of economics and
production. Unions can be part of the steamroller or
part of the road.
Top ten tools for union building
For a free website and discussion tools.
Blogs are websites; the distinction between the two has
been irrevocably blurred by free tools like WordPress.
They are now easy to build and collaborative. You can
add things like polls, forms, chat facilities,
newsfeeds, forums and many of the other tools discussed
on this page. The reason we are recommending WordPress
over others (see below) is that right now it seems the
most flexible and innovative. That might change. Ning,
for instance, is more user-friendly. With WordPress you
can also have a password-protected section, which makes
for a quick'n'dirty "extranet". A good example of a
merged website/blog is the AFL-CIO site (here). The New
Unionism blog is here. Members use this to add stories
that can then be linked to from our website. (The
difference is that they don't need IT skills to use
WordPress). Another great thing about this approach, as
opposed to other website hosting options, is that if
the person in charge moves on, there's no big drama for
the next person who takes over. Comparable tools:
Blogger, Squarespace, Ning, TypePad and more...
For a quick extranet.
iGoogle allows you to create a passworded web space
that you can then share with others. It's rather like
an intranet, but you don't need an IT department to run
it. It's a fantastic, user-friendly environment, great
for small collectives (such as organizer/ workplace rep
teams) who want to lift their game. It's also very easy
to set up. Once you have created the account, its just
a matter of adding free gadgets such as schedulers,
calendars, communications tools, to-do lists, document
sharing... You can even use it to broadcast SMS and
email messages to members. Without too much trouble you
could also integrate online material of your own by
calling it up in an "iFrame" gadget. In other words, it
can do just about anything you can come up with.
Strangely, not many people are using iGoogle in a
collaborative manner. Comparable tools: PageFlakes,
3. Zoho Creator
For a membership system.
The ability to "drag and drop" fields to create your
own online database is a fairly recent development.
Membership systems usually cost a fortune, so most
unions with no option but to "make do" with clunky,
unprofessional systems. (These can be doubly expensive,
in the long run!). Hiring developers and paying for a
webserver to host an online system (eg MySQL) is also
expensive. Zoho Creator offers a free, limited account
that allows you to set up 3 databases. A bit of
creative thinking will allow you to convert this into a
free, fully-featured and secure online membership
system for about 2,800 members. There's a sliding scale
of costs after that, offering good value for larger
unions. Importantly, data can also be imported,
exported and saved in other formats. AND linked to
"customer relationship management" tools, which allow
for sophisticated site mapping, with all the bells and
whistles. Zoho is also developing product links with
Google, so we can expect further growth and innovation
with as much cost as possible externalised. Comparable
tool: Google Spreadsheets can also be developed to
serve as a limited database.
For free real-time communication.
It has been around for a while, but Skype is still one
of the coolest networking tools for unionists. (That
said, Google Talk and FaceBook chat are rapidly
catching up). Skype allows you to make phone calls at
minimal or no cost, as well as video calls and free
conference calls. It also offers SMS, chat and fax
capacity. Contrary to popular belief, the person at the
other end does NOT need to be on Skype. In fact, they
don't even need a computer. (Calls to landlines are
cheap, but not free). There are loads of free "extras"
as well, allowing you to host very fancy interactive
meetings. The chat function is a simple way to keep a
line of communications open with reps and colleagues,
and the logs are a good alternative to minutes. Skype
runs well on the average PC, although you will need
broadband to get the best out of it. Comparable tools:
FaceBook chat, Google Talk, Messenger
5. Google & Zoho calendars
For time management and record keeping.
The ability to create free online calendars that send
out notifications and reminders has been with us for a
while, but the technology keeps getting smarter. For
instance, there are now different levels of security;
reminders can be sent to mobile phones; you can share
calendars with others and incorporate others' calendars
into your own; you can add "appointment slots" and
allow others to update your schedule (or not); you can
import and export calendar information (ideal for
tracking organizing drives) and embed them into your
blog or web page. You can also use them to record what
you have been doing, and then upload this into your
database. Both Google and Zoho offer all this for free.
Comparable tools: KeepandShare and many others
6. FaceBook & Google+
For outreach, transparency and building numbers.
* FaceBook has 750 million active users (as of 19 Sept
2011) and 50% of them sign in daily. You'll find New
Unionism's FaceBook groups here and here. * Google+ is
a much newer service but it already has about 50
million users (as of 25 Sept 2011), and is being touted
as a huge threat to FaceBook. It uses Circles and
Hangouts to achieve similar results but, at this early
stage, has more to offer to unionists than to unions.
We recommend you use both. However, don't just blunder
in. First thing -- avoid the temptation to set your
union up as a person. Rather, consider creating a fan
page, group and/or cause. With FB in particular, think
carefully about the kind of content you are going to
create. Do you need a series of related pages
(including Events), or will you just stick to one page?
How will you avoid the usual dreary bureauspeak? Make
sure your style matches your purpose(s). What will you
do if someone starts a slanging match? Our advice is to
look carefully at what others are doing, especially
large NGOs. And with FB, don't forget to check your
privacy settings... you can fine tune these to block
out LOTS of unwanted stuff. Comparable tools: MySpace,
For a free knowledge base.
"Social bookmarking" is a way of storing, recommending
and sharing information online. It's also a great way
to build a collaborative resource base. The New
Unionism Network uses Delicious -- take a look at the
page here, and then click on the "tags" to the right.
These keywords allow you to file material away by
subject(s). This creates a kind of socially-driven
catalogue, with each item categorised, searchable and
effectively "voted on". Saved items appear in a
newsfeed which people can then subscribe to. Imagine
the potential for flagging stories around the world
based on tags such as company name, industry or sector.
Incidentally, the more bookmarked a piece of
information becomes, the higher it is likely to appear
in Internet searches. Comparable tools: Digg, Reddit,
StumbleUpon, Other sites...
For throwing open the communication lines.
Twitter brings you information as it happens, from as
many angles as there are participants. The trick for
unions, IMO, is to give up on "top down"
communications. Encourage members to join Twitter (if
they haven't already), and set up "hashtags" to cover
events, negotiations and campaigns. Ask as many people
as possible to contribute. You'll need to learn how to
write in 140-character chunks, but that's a discipline
many of us could benefit from! You can also send or
receive messages as SMS. Furthermore, there are various
tools like act.ly that can add a layer of activism
(including petitions).Comparable tools: CoverItLive (in
9. Union Book
For networking with other unionists. UnionBook was set
up by the good folk at LabourStart in 2010. It was
originally conceived as a kind of labour-centred
alternative to FaceBook. However, this may prove to
have been a false comparison. IMO, it's real value lies
elsewhere. UnionBook has become a congregation point
for about 4,500 unionists and labour activists from all
over the world (as at 19 Sep 2011). Between them, there
is a huge wealth of knowledge and experience. You can
access this by joining any of the 200+ members' groups
(including our own one here). Unlike FaceBook and
Google+, users are generally happy to "friend"
strangers, knowing that they share some basic
convictions. In short, UnionBook is probably the best
place on the 'Net to go if you want to make contact
with other unionists working in the same area as
yourself. It has the potential to become the "missing
link" in the globalization of the labour movement.
For online voting and surveys.
polldaddyPolldaddy is a great tool for collecting
membership views. This can be done by way of either
surveys or polls. These are quick to create,
user-friendly and professional-looking. The tool could
also be used for voting, though it's not possible to
use the free version to verify who your voters are. One
of the "pro" accounts might be worth considering
(details) for union elections, as long as allowance is
made for those without computers. Comparable tool:
Other sites and tools, in no particular order...
Second Life union
For free meeting spaces.
Virtual reality environments haven't taken off in the
way some people thought they would. The Union Island
project was wound down in 2009 (details here). As they
say in the world of social entrepreneurialism: "You can
be wrong by being right too soon". Other platforms such
as Google's Lively have also been canned. Why? For one
thing, virtual reality environments require a fairly
high-spec computer. They also need a fairly confident
and experienced user. This "nerdcore" factor has kept
many away. My bet is that Second Life will only take
off as a union organizing tool in those sectors where
it is also used for work. At the moment, that's a
limited field. But don't be afraid to try it out.
Virtual reality is a lot more practical than it sounds.
The world's first virtual strike was in Second Life.
The workers won (in real life) and IBM sacked one of
their managers. You can sign up here, grab a readymade
"avatar" off the shelf, and start looking about for a
cool place to host your next meeting.Comparable tools:
OuterWorlds, Worlds.com, ActiveWorlds
For countering corporate spin.
SideWiki hasn't taken off yet, but it's well worth
knowing about because it's a simple tool for setting
the record straight, promoting boycotts and
subvertizing. In short, you can now add comments to the
homepage of third party websites. Anybody with the
Google toolbar installed (ie tens of millions of
people) can read them. Our initial review of this tool
is here. So, if an employer is operating in bad faith
during negotiations, you could create a SideWiki on
their website so that his/her actions can be discussed
openly. This puts activists in the same frame as
shareholders. Evidence can be added (via hyperlinks
etc) so that readers can make up their own minds. You
could even link from the Sidewiki to a petition and/or
draft of a shareholders' resolution. start
Newsgroups / Web forums
One to avoid?
The idea of online discussion groups (rather
misleadingly named newsgroups) is older than the
Internet itself, dating back to the bulletin boards of
the 1970s-80s. However, since the mid-90s they have
been in decline, despite the best efforts of Internet
traditionalists to keep them alive. There are currently
around 20,000 active discussion groups in the Usenet
system. One of these is alt.society.labor-unions. Take
a look and decide for yourself whether this might help
with your union networking. Arguably, the most healthy
offspring of the newsgroup was the web forum. There are
countless organisations who can provide you with these,
most notably Yahoo and GoogleGroups. However, our own
experience with web forums has been a fizzer, and other
networks have also reported a fall off of interest in
the last few years. MSN stopped providing web forums in
February '09, and the ILO's labour network Solicomm has
also dropped them. Seems like it's time to move on.
For networking with community groups and NGOs.
Change.org identifies itself as a social action
network. It organizes content, petitions and campaigns
around 12 causes, listed here. Great folks, brilliant
allies. They currently host pages for about 1,000,000
non-profits and have a high standard of original
content. They also provide recruitment and fundraising
facilities by default, and are doing their damnedest to
encourage involvement in real-world change processes.
google docs, Zoho writer
For collective word-smithing.
These are both great tools for producing shared
documents, and allow you to take the worst aspects of
collective wordsmithing out of meetings. Wikis are more
public, by default. You (plural) do the writing,
everyone else gets to read. You can then edit at will,
leave comments, track changes, compare versions, or
throw the document open altogether. The grandest such
project is Wikipedia, but the same principle can be
used in a restricted circle to produce draft workplace
agreements before going into negotiations, or to set up
a shared record of workplace harrassment. Access can be
open, limited, or by invite only. start or start
For a free petition.
This is a free service that help punters run free
petitions in 75+ countries. As well as providing the
platform, they also provide well-written guides on how
to present and promote the petition. Comparable tool:
For a free poll.
doodleDoodle allows you to build quick online polls,
but more importantly (perhaps): the same interface can
be used to schedule meetings and/or arrange any other
kind of group event. Can be added to iGoogle and
FaceBook. The problem is that everything is treated as
if it were a poll, which makes things puzzling for the
end user. Take a look. They're almost there; not quite.
For union dues and fund-raising.
PayPal is a tool for making and accepting payments
online. It can also be used accept and track union fees
and to send or receive solidarity donations. In doing
so, it automatically keeps impeccable financial
records. Currency conversions are handled
automatically, for a fee. Set up your account, link it
to your credit card, and then add the relevant button
to your website and/or emails. (PayPal explains the
procedure here). start In 2011 PayPal shocked
disappointed many people by withholding funds from
WikiLeaks. There are alternatives, but the choice
depends very much on where you are based and what you
will be using the service for. Comparable tools:
WorldPay, Google Checkout
For a text-based adjunct to the union support centre.
Meebo is a useful tool for those who love text-based
chat but don't want to install all the different
interfaces (MSN, Google Chat, Yahoo, AIM etc). Because
it is not tied to any installed software on your
computer, Meebo allows your chat network to be accessed
from anywhere. There is also support for chat rooms,
and a widget for adding to your own site, allowing
visitors to use it to chat with you.
For building community support and kick-starting local
If you want to build community support for a campaign,
setting up a group on Meetup might be the ideal start.
Let's be clear: this is about people meeting
face-to-face, in the real world. The website (here) is
just a tool to facilitate this. Meetup has 9.5 million
members. Taken together, they have run about 280,000
monthly meet-ups in 45,000 cities! (at 2/10/11).
So -- what have we missed? What tools have you had
success with, as a unionist? Please let us know by way
of the comments facility top right.
* It should be noted that the term "social network
unionism" was used earlier by Immanuel Ness, in his
2005 book "Immigrants, Unions and the new U.S. Labor
Market". However, rather than referring to "social
networking" in its contemporary sense, Ness appears to
be referring to an organizing approach based on the use
of existing social networks to organize immigrant/
Last updated: 2 October 2011
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