Social Network Unionism
"Social Network Unionism" is a developing approach to worker organization based on horizontal links between working people (according to employer, industry, supply chain etc), rather than elected vertical structures. It is generally promoted as a complement, rather than an alternative, to traditional forms of organizing. More»
In 2010, Network member Örsan Şenalp coined the term social network unionism* to describe the shift towards "a peer to peer, transnational, common, and hyperempowered labour class movement". Since then, Örsan 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 (see OurWalmart for instance) and we can expect a cumulative curve. Networks are cropping up in workplaces (Google+ "circles" encourages this, almost by default, as do FaceBook "smartlists"). Networks are appearing across organizations, and within occupations, industries and sectors. They are also 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 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.
Below we list some of the favourite tools used in building social network unionism. However, you shold note that any such list becomes outdated very quickly! We'd be very glad to hear from you if you have an update to suggest. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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, GoogleSites
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 about 1 billion active users (as of 5 October 2012) logging in monthly. (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). 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, LinkedIn, Others...
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 some respects)
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.
Polldaddy 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: surveymonkey.com
Other sites and tools,
in no particular order...
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
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.
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 and wikis
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.
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: iPetitions
For a free poll.
Doodle 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).
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 campaign groups
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).
Those trying to find tools for more specific tasks are advised to check out Örsan Şenalp's excellent page on free and open-source applications here.
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 was referring to an organizing approach based on the use of existing social networks to organize immigrant/ transnational workers.
Last updated: 2 October 2011