Union organizers arguably invented the category of organizing in modern society and understand the power of building relationships better than anyone. That being said union organizing is undergoing the same structural challenges that political campaigning and nonprofit organizing has been grappling with since Covid struck. The same jobs need to be done:
Recruit new members
Spread the word on union campaigns and policy
Build supporter engagement strategies so campaigns are effective
Get feedback from the wider community so you understand them
Manage databases of personal information safely and securely
A recent book by Jane McAlevey, A Collective Bargain, shines a light on some of these challenges and reiterates some of the basic requirements of union organizing. In one section she recounts the effort required to get a consensus of workers engaged with the union and understanding the positive impact it can make in their lives.
To read this compelling union organizing case study scroll below our Top 5 Trends in Union Organizing 2021 list
Digital Organizing 2021 - Trends
1. Conversational organizing
It can be easy to think of organizing for union membership or worker’s action as being a very specific type of action or only happening during dedicated meetings and such. In fact, most organizing takes place informally during the course of those normal conversations that take place in the canteen or in the community. Taking the example above, that very influential nurse brought the rest of her department along with her having had conversations on the ward and in the parking lot most likely with her colleagues. For union organizers capturing these conversations is critical. But how to do it considering organizers can’t be everywhere?
Conversational organizing means putting the union’s mobile app in the hands of official organizers so they can capture conversations they are having with workers, tag them as interested or not and get their details so the union can follow up. However, conversational organizing also means getting the mobile app in the hands of supporters or potential members so they can capture information from their colleagues, find new recruits, pass on the information and so on. In this way, union organizing efforts are being undertaken by a much wider group of people and people who are more embedded in the target community/workforce. This embeddedness in the community obviously means that there is greater credibility in terms of the message being delivered and also that information is being gathered all the time.
Action tip: Give your organizers and members a mobile app to capture conversations. Let them input a potential new member's details, do a survey, or gather petition signatures during the course of their normal working lives.
2. Virtual organizing
If we weren’t reliant enough on our phones and devices pre-Covid we certainly can’t picture a world without them now. So many union organizers became Zoom experts in March and April last year it seems hard to remember a time before hand-raises and breakout sessions. 2021 looks set to continue this trend. Post-Covid it is clear there is a clear benefit to virtual and phone organizing as culturally acceptable in all aspects of life. If we can have social gatherings, religious services and play-dates online then union organizing can certainly be done this way.
What has not received as much attention though has been the way which phone calling contacts and SMS outreach has been substituted in for face-to-face interactions. Where site visits or events had been used to gather signatures, petitions and surveys, now SMS campaigns or phone-banking efforts can be seen to do the same. An SMS broadcast to a target group followed up by a link to sign a petition has become very effective for getting actions taken quickly. A phone-banking canvass to workers affected by company policy can generate a critical mass of support much faster than site visits and it feels personal and confidential also.
Action tip: Start by running an SMS or phone outreach campaign to your existing members to run a survey or other type of campaign. This will establish the tactic and normalize this type of contact for future campaigns.
3. Supporter engagement focus
As is evidenced in the Einstein Medical Centre example, taking supporters very seriously and investing time in mapping them and building relationships with them will yield huge benefits. The trend in 2020 was in hard-coding this attitude into union organizing models. Digital organizing tools now allow for sophisticated supporter directories, mapping location, skills, and activity through the key piece of digital infrastructure, the mobile app. A good supporter engagement program yields greater engagement rates in the community but also gives better outcomes to the supporters themselves. They build their own skills and profile and they get a sense of community and purpose from their actions.
Action tip: Map your membership by inviting them to your mobile app and let them begin to fill in their profile information. It will help you to strategize where to target next for membership recruitment.
4. P2P organizing
2020 accelerated the trend to relational organizing for two reasons. Number 1, the technology to get the information down to individual supporters in real-time improved massively. And number two, having reach into a target group of workers meant piggy-backing on the supporters you already had in that group. Essentially, you needed to get access to workers via the micro-networks of their colleagues and friends. The trick with P2P organizing is making it really simple for the person using it who is probably not a union organizer and so doing this part-time or as a favour. An attractive interface and super-simple actions mean these supporters aren’t put off by the tech. Secondly, you need to be able to push notifications down to the supporter directly in the app so it reminds them to take action and they can do it with immediacy. What we are seeing with P2P organizing is it is allowing petitions, surveys, recruitment and campaigns to be done by organizers and also supporters and mimics the word-of-mouth type campaigns that are so labour-intensive without any of that leg work.
Action tip: Push a campaign down to your existing members via the mobile app asking them to recruit new members from their micro-network.
5. Data security
Capturing and holding personally identifiable data comes with more and more accountability and responsibility these days. If you are based in Europe you will be subject to GDPR legislation and elsewhere there is likely to be some legislation that will govern this for you. Holding data securely in a cloud-based system and being able to access information instantly is critical in the event of a data breach, audit or if the individual in question wants to know what information you have or wants you to delete it. You will also need to be careful that you don’t hold any more data on a citizen than is necessary for your campaign and that you have clear consent from the person that they are happy for you to have it. Happily, most union organizing CRM systems and apps are taking these obligations seriously and giving data controllers [the union itself] the tools to ensure they are on the correct side of data protection legislation.
Action tip: Use a secure cloud-based CRM for capturing consent to further contact with members. Get e-signature consent during face-to-face engagements.
Union organizing case study
The Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP) hired McAlevey as a consultant in 2016 to help workers at the Einstein Medical Center get union recognition. Her method at Einstein was simple: to get an overwhelming majority of workers to support the union first.
To build this support, McAlevey and her staff mapped out their supporters within the hospital and pinpointed natural leaders in each department—those who enjoyed the respect of management and led opinion among their peers.
The medical centre were running their counter campaigns also and in the course of this had turned was a charismatic, widely respected nurse. Interestingly when she leaned “no,” most of her peers and department followed along with her.
The union organizing team knew that this nurse was the key supporter that was needed to get to a strong collective bargaining agreement so they approached her directly. They flipped the blocking argument that the nurses would lose their sense of individuality by joining the union and repositioned it as an appeal to their sense of pride in their work. They then persuaded the nurse to meet with them and talked her “through how negotiations worked in a good union such as PASNAP and how, in a democratic union, all workers were invited and encouraged to attend their own negotiations.” A day later, the nurse came back to them with a positive and brought over thirty of her colleagues with her. For union organizing teams having a clear idea of what the tipping points are in an organizing, campaign is essential and being able to implement a plan to bring in these key supporters will inevitably yield results.
This type of on-the-ground campaigning is inspiring but also very difficult to achieve in Covid times. So, what plan do you need to work in 2021 to win? Here we look at some trends that we see shaping the work being carried out by union organizers.