The list makes us strong. Why unions need a digital strategy

Unions know how to organize. They’ve been doing it for over 100 years.

And we should all be grateful for it — paid sick days? not working down a salt mine when you’re 8 years old? Pretty good stuff.

But, let’s be honest. Unions aren’t exactly early adopters, and many still haven’t embraced digital.

Take a look at the website of a couple of unions in your city. Then check out their social media presence (if they have one), and sign up for updates and see what you think of their emails. You’ll probably see what I mean.

Unions are still great organizers (and some are great digital organizers — hat tip to my two favourite unions here, United Voice in Australia and the BCGEU in Canada). But without workplace and digital organizing, unions are fighting with one hand tied behind their back. The communities of workers that were once built around a factory are now found attached to smartphones and laptops, at work and at home.

In an era of declining membership, and waning political and industrial influence, unions need every tool at their disposal to build and wield power.

I worked in the Australian union movement for a number of years, and I ended up running political campaigns for United Voice, a union representing mostly low paid workers in the service sector. I did this at a time when digital tools were just taking off. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to work in the tech sector, really getting to know how digital platforms can supercharge a campaign.

So here’s the two main reasons your union needs a digital strategy.

A digital strategy will help you grow the union

Straight up, unions can leverage good digital to grow their membership. Digital organizing and all the advanced targeting, segmenting and message testing that can come from that can be a huge help in organizing new members.

Let’s leave aside the fact that there are huge swathes of the workforce for which digital is not only the preferred mode of contact, but probably the only feasible mode (you aren’t getting onto the shop floor at any tech company or a new media startup, even the hospitality sector is hard enough). Even workers in the most traditional industries are fully engaged in the digital world.

Unions know: a bedrock principle of organizing is meet people where they are. Well, they are online (mostly on their phones). The growth of political movements like Leadnow.ca in Canada and the Sanders campaign in the US show that people want to engage in politics through the gateway of the internet.

The BCGEU has got this figured out. By using the best digital tools (NGPVAN, NationBuilder, Organizer) on top of an in house built data warehouse the union has recruited more new members in the past year than all other unions in British Columbia combined.

More new members. Than all other unions in British Columbia. Combined.

So, identify and recruit potential union members using digital tools. Then find and escalate the next generation of leaders in your union using those tools.

A digital strategy will help you build a supporters list and win campaigns

Long gone are the days where unions can rely on power built through the worksite alone. Declining density and increasingly tight labour laws mean that strikes and other job actions are harder to pull off.

But easy access to digital tools means that unions can leverage wide public support for their members to complement campaigns in the workplace. For workers in growing government supported industries like healthcare and education, demonstrating community support is particularly useful.

Unions should focus on building an email list of supporters. They should run petitions on issues that have resonance in the community and align the demands of workers with those of the public.

This is a strategy that has been put to very effective use in Australia.

Recently United Voice launched the Save Our Weekend campaign, to fight to protect weekend penalty rates in the hospitality and retail sector. The union rolled out a petition based action website built on NationBuilder, an email program, a targeted social media strategy, and a traditional media strategy to build a supporters list outside their membership.

So far more than 30,000 new supporters have signed up online, helping propel this workplace issue into the public conversation, pushing back on the employer backed campaign.

The union makes us strong, but the list makes us stronger.

Want to start thinking about a how to develop a digital strategy for your union? Check out my recent piece on this topic.