As MPs stood on their doorsteps and clapped, offered platitudes and had their pictures taken – there was a glimmer of hope for the millions of overworked and low-paid key workers who are keeping the country going during the pandemic. Many of us could be forgiven for assuming that these public displays of support might translate into meaningful improvements in pay and conditions for our hero key workers.
So when the chancellor decided to freeze the pay of public sector workers, to keep the minimum wage at a measly £8.72 and to continue letting companies use exploitative zero-hours contracts, it was clear that this government’s words and Tweets would not equal any significant action.
Our instinct, as trade unionists, is to come together at moments like these. We take to the streets with placards and chants, to show our outrage and feel the power of a mass movement. But in the long list of upheavals in the last 14 months, we also needed new campaign tactics to fight back.
To build pressure with the government, we needed to force MPs to meaningfully and publicly act in support of key workers.
A new approach
For organisers and campaigners, change means opportunity. As rallies, in-person meetings and door knocking all became unsafe, Zoom meetings became the norm and email open rates (a key measure of supporter engagement) shot up 42%.
These changes gave an opportunity to choose tactics that best fit the strategy, to step out of our comfort zone and to innovate with new approaches.
Online MP pressure meetings
What is an online pressure meeting?
A structured and public Zoom meeting that prioritises hearing from those most affected, before putting a clear ask on a decision maker.
Having successfully trialled online pressure meetings as a part of the Better Buses for Yorkshire campaign, we had learnt that this approach was persuasive and powerful.
Unlike traditional MP meetings, where MPs will set the agenda and frame the discussion, it was activists who led. They introduced the issues, invited key workers to give testimony of their work during the pandemic and only then invited the MP to respond.
MPs were invited by meeting leaders, and then pressured to respond via email by other constituents.
MPs were then given a clear ask and pushed to answer with a yes or no: Will you sign our open letter to the Chancellor, demanding he give a pay rise to all key workers?
And we had a back up plan: if MPs refused to attend, we held the meetings anyway. Key workers told their stories and attendees wrote and called their MPs office to demand action. We further publicly called MPs out for refusing to find 30 minutes to meet with constituents.
Events were mapped on the Megaphone site, so supporters could search for events in their constituency, close-by or with an MP of interest.
A distributed organising approach
What is distributed organising?
From Blueprints for Change: Distributed organizing activates a network of self-starting supporters in multiple locations, which can spread across geographical boundaries, interests and cultural groups. It draws on the initiative and energy of volunteer organizers to start groups and lead teams with varying degrees of autonomy.
Using a distributed organising approach was the only way to achieve the ambitious campaign objectives.
We decided our strategy centrally, explained it to supporters and asked them to lead. The response was tremendous. From one email to the Megaphone list, 800 supporters signed up to lead actions and tell their story.
We created resources so that anyone anywhere could step up. Guides, activist briefing calls and videos all supported people to organise and run great meetings, and to maximise our impact.
By asking union members to step up and take the lead in their constituency, we were able to run twice as many meetings we could have done with staff.
And activist led meetings were effective and authentic. They showed MPs that this wasn’t just an issue for union officials or professional campaigners, but for ordinary people in their constituency.
For many of the meeting leaders, this was their first taste of activism. We were open with activists about the theory of change and plan to win. They could clearly see how giving their time and energy could win a pay rise for key workers. This model gave them the pathway and support to take a big action, a challenge they took on with passion and determination.
And new technology allows us to scale, in a way we haven’t been able to before. All the tools we used for activist tracking and resource sharing were cheap or free, but did require solid processes, patience and attention.
What is an organising call, campaign call or online barnstorm?
A structured, interactive online call, focused on moving attendees to action. They mix personal stories and political analysis, structured in a way that makes clear the issue and how we collectively overcome it.
What it is not:
An online rally, an online picket line, a branch meeting, a policy briefing or training
Convincing people they should take the brave step of organising a meeting with their MP is not easy. And giving key workers the confidence to talk about their experiences with their MP with a crowd watching is a similar challenge.
While it’s hard to beat 1:1 conversations for persuading people to join a movement, organising calls have proved effective at inspiring hundreds of leaders to step up.
Our call was hosted by campaign organiser Gareth and key worker Miriam. They were joined by speakers: key worker Julie, Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the NEU, Nadia Whittome MP and Paul Novak, Deputy General Secretary of the TUC.
The call was short and heavily scripted, with a clear focus on the organising ask. It was live streamed to Facebook, and promoted to those who missed the call afterwards.
More than 300 people joined the call, with 85 signing up to lead an action or tell their story in a local meeting.
What is peer-to-peer texting:
Peer-to-peer texting is a method for contacting members or supporters via text messages to deliver calls to actions and build relationships. Because texts are 1:1 conversations, response and action rates are very high. This method works best when you have more people you could possibly reach out to via phone calls or face-to-face conversations. It requires a staff team or volunteers to manage effectively, but no previous experience or skills are necessary.
What it is not:
Blast text messages, which are one-way messages with lower response rates and a different campaigning application.
Peer-to-peer messaging played an important role in following up activists who joined the campaign. More than 800 people pledged to be involved, many more than it would be possible to reach with phone calls.
Peer-to-peer texting allowed a small team to speak to all 800 sign ups in a couple of days. These conversations helped lock activists into taking action, built relationships, and for activists, provided a point of contact in the campaign.
Crowdsourcing video content
Central to the campaign plan was amplifying the voices of key workers. In the many constituencies without a meeting leader, there were plenty of key workers wanting to have their voice heard.
Using VideoAsk, a tool that makes it easy to collect stories from members and supporters, we were able to collect the stories of key workers anywhere. Using their own device, supporters were guided through recording their own testimony, which was used on social media.
Once the video was live on Twitter, people were asked to retweet and tag their own MP, ensuring hundreds of MPs could not ignore the voices of key workers.
Tried and tested digital campaign basics
None of the new and creative tactics described would have been possible without the bread and butter of digital campaigns: an online petition with 60,000+ supporters, engaging emails and social media and appropriate calls to action.
The Megaphone set of tools and supporter base were essential, providing effective technology to run a campaign of this size, and a list of supporters just waiting to be asked to do something big.
You can start your own Megaphone petition here. Built by unions, for unions. Totally free and a supporter base ready to support union campaigns.
- Tactics must fit strategy – It’s essential to decide on strategy and a theory of change, before choosing tactics. And all tactics must contribute to that theory of change. These tactics were effective in this instance, but may not work elsewhere.
- People will do something big, to win something big – In Rules for Revolutionaries, Becky Bond identifies how the Bernie Sanders presidential primary campaign was driven by volunteers stepping up to do something big. While on a much smaller scale, our experience was the same. We were constantly in awe of the commitment and determination of activists, once we shared the plan to win and offered support.
- The revolution will not be staffed – Our political campaigns can learn from the tremendous amount of work done in workplaces by reps and stewards. We found calling on our base to lead not only helped to scale our actions, but also unlocked the passion, commitment and talent of activists. This campaign did need a lot of staff time of course, but that time was focused in support of our local activists.
- Strong digital fundamentals are essential – Distributed organising relies on having a big email list of people aligned with your cause. The Megaphone email list, built through years of slow and grinding list building, was essential in helping identify leaders.
- (Most) MPs are happy to engage with local constituents – While it seems obvious, MPs were very keen to hear from local constituents and responded much better than to invitations from an organisation. In the meetings, they mostly engaged well, listened and offered a thoughtful response.
We’re in this campaign for the long haul, but we’re proud of what we have been able to achieve together in this first phase. Congratulations are due to the incredible group who came forward to lead meetings in their constituency for the first time. Credit to Ethne, Peter, Dominic, Sheila, Phildiane, Janice, Barry, James, Kenneth, Jennie, Barry, Alen, John, Kevin, John, Eyitayo, Abdul, Jo, Andrew, Sadia, Ed, Helen, Sinéad, Ian, Richard, Glenn, Jason, Ulrich, Joseph, Adam, Catherine, Steve, Sacha, Thom and Joe. And to agencies Small Axe and The Social Practice whose support was vital.