Organising in the digital age: TUC Digital Lab workshop report

On Wednesday 26th July at UCL we held our fourth TUC Digital Lab session, looking at the challenges and opportunities for unions in making greater use of digital in organising.

The session began with an introduction from Carl Roper, TUC National Organiser, who laid out the strategic challenge for unions in the UK. It’s one we’re all familiar with – the lack of growth in membership – and, coupled to a coming demographic crunch for unions as members over 50 (nearly 40% of the movement) retire over the next decade and aren’t replaced by new, younger members, will lead to a precipitous decrease in our resources, meaning we can do less and less for our members.

On the flipside of this challenge though is an opportunity – and it’s vast. There are over 17.5 million unorganised workers in the private sector where unions can and should look to recruit. Alongside this, there’s a huge range and maturity of digital tools available to us all to help us as we seek to do it. That space in the market, allied to new ways of reaching workers, points to a new strategy for organising Britain’s workers. It seems therefore that the question is less what we need to do as a movement, but how we might do it.

We’re not alone in trying to solve this challenge. Other organisations are looking at the world of work as an opportunity to grow. Whether that’s campaigning organisations, new organising startups and tools, even things as simple as workers chatting in a WhatsApp group – alternatives are out there and people are often choosing them over joining a union. We know unions are the best route to building sustainable worker power, but if we can’t meet those workers’ expectations in how they want to work with us, everyone stands to lose.

Carl’s rallying cry was that unions are still the best placed organisations to so this. We have the track record and resources to take on the challenges ahead. There are many examples of good practice within the movement, but our problem is that they’re not common practice. We have to do more to get consistently better across the movement at using technology to organise workers we’ve not reached before.

Learning from Australia – United Voice

An example of a union investing in online to offline organising is United Voice Australia. Sara Smylie of United Voice spoke to the group about their work in developing an ‘online to field’ programme.

Sara doesn’t believe digital organising is rocket science, or some kind of technological silver bullet that changes everything on its own. Rather, it’s just using existing organising skills in a new environment:

“Online-to-field organising uses new tools to do what we’ve always done as unions – develop leaders, identify activists, recruit new members, mobilise with our members so together we can win progressive change”

With some strong echoes to our work in developing design principles for union digital transformation, United Voice recognise they’re on a journey, and that the opportunities will change as they go. They keep their digital organising progress on track by underpinning it with 7 guiding principles:

  • Online-to-field is just organising. It’s about bringing workers together to collectively make change.
  • Solid processes trump even the best tech tools.
  • Examine everything new through the lens of how it builds power with and for members.
  • Start small and scale up. Don’t over-invest before you have proven an idea.
  • Learn by doing. Get started somewhere, monitor and iterate.
  • Commit resources (people, money, time) realistically.
  • Hand over responsibility to members wherever possible. Trust and support leaders to take control.

One key point she made is that conversation (whatever medium you’re having it in – face to face or WhatsApp, video chat, email) is still the best way we have to understand the problems faced by workers and bring them into collective action.

Face to face is great, but online conversations should not be underestimated. When you’re using the right channel for the right audience, they can be hugely effective in building rapport with members and prospective members. Removing location constraints and allowing asynchronous communication means that these conversations can be done at greater scale and efficiency too, and the work can be more easily shared around between activists.

Activist training to have these conversations effectively is key. It’s great to do offline where possible, but can be done online where that’s not possible, or supplemented by online training and resources.

Question: How might we use digital tools to increase the number of quality conversations we can have with workers?

What are the challenges to organising?

We then spent a few minutes workshopping the challenges faced by union organisers in the digital age. To do this, we broke the traditional organising process down into five stages and brainstormed the primary challenges we faced in each stage. We then ran a simple voting and prioritisation exercise to decide which challenges we’d start to think about.

The priority challenges we agreed for each stage were:

1. Identifying and mapping organising opportunities

  • Challenging the perception that millennials don’t care

2. Collectivising issues

  • Poor quality membership data holding us back
  • Creating a quality narrative

3. Running targeted mobilisation campaigns

  • Overcoming our desire for control, to facilitate devolved activity
  • Getting buy-in within unions for new trials and for scaling what works

4. Building leadership

  • Helping activists self-identify as leaders
  • Supporting them in their journey

5. Staying in the game and winning

  • Uniting the organising with communications functions of a union
  • Maintaining solidarity between workers

What do we already know about good practice in these areas?

Having established some of the challenges, we looked at examples of what good practice was already out there, in UK unions and from other countries.

Learning from the US: National Nurses United

The fourth topic, building leadership, provided inspiration for how to take a challenge and turn it into an opportunity. Emma Rees, one of the co-founders of Momentum, now working with digital organising consultancy The Social Practice, gave a case study from US union National Nurses United and their Medicare for All campaign. 

The campaign wanted to find a way to grow the number of their existing members and supporters who were taking more active roles in the campaign, and to use their increased activism to recruit more entry-level supporters via neighbourhood canvassing. To do this, they organised a mass conference call with Bernie Sanders and other campaign leaders.

Over 7,000 members and supporters were recruited to take part, through the union’s existing email and social channels, registering their email and phone number in advance. On the day, they heard a live broadcast, with dedicated conference call technology from Maestro offering them a way to pick actions they agreed to commit to (eg “Press 1 now to host a canvassing event in your area. Press 2 to attend an event already organised near you”).

These options gave people the chance to opt-in to a more active role within the campaign. Over 4,000 did. NNU then ran email journeys with the groups, offering them online training via smaller conference calls on Zoom, and pre-written email guides, to help them co-ordinate the activities they had agreed to.

The call was a major action for the NNU – something they had to plan and prepare for extensively, but it paid off for them in increasing levels of activity around the campaign. A key part of the campaign was the work they did in developing an overarching narrative that could appeal to existing and new supporters’ values, but be large enough to tie together dispersed local events.

Questions: How might we use technology to bring our people together? How might technology reduce the friction to getting involved more deeply? How might we give people the best, most interesting and exciting experience of being part of our movement?

We then ran a skill-share session to help surface some of the experience already in the movement around good practice in online organising. One of the great things about the TUC Digital Lab is the diversity of unions and roles represented. Add in the diversity of challenges, opportunities, methods and tools available to organisers, this made the session a real chance to have participants share their campaigns, techniques and experiments.

We ran two ‘cycles’ of a skill-share activity, giving small groups an opportunity to hear a case study from another union and ask questions. Examples included UNISON’s work in building digital networks for their care workers’ campaign in the North West, and MiP’s use of webinars to involve local leaders more effectively in national activity.

Question: How might we share experiences with colleagues from around the movement?

Where could the opportunities in digital organising come from?

The final activity of the afternoon was working together to turn the challenges we’d identified earlier into opportunities for further exploration. To do this, we ran an exercise called 1-2-4-All, where each person gets a minute to think of solutions of their own, then two minutes in pairs to choose their favourites, four minutes in fours refining the ideas, before presenting one proposed solution that everyone agrees on back to the group.

Opportunities that the groups suggested were:

  • Finding new ways to get messages in front of millenials – The ways our unions work don’t always fit the ways younger workers are more likely to be working (eg late night working for Uber Eats drivers, or more dispersed working rather than central worksites). Question: How do we find the workers that our current systems aren’t reaching?
  • Getting a more authentic member voice into our messaging – Personalising our organising messages with real members’ stories that will resonate with their fellow workers can make them so much more powerful. How can we find more (and better) stories of members’ experience at work? How can we more effectively match up people’s stories to campaign opportunities like emails and petitions? How can we better support those members to tell their stories online and in the media where needed? Member surveys and case-study databases could prove useful, as well as online training techniques to brief members. Action: We agreed a working group of interested participants to look into how work around this could improve. 
  • Finding routes to activism that make sense to new members – People who are new to union activism will often have expectations that more can be done online, on terms that fit better around their own lives and preferences. Our own rules have served us well for a long time but are often out of date when matched against current mainstream expectations. For example, a branch may require quoracy in the room for decisions to be made. Could telepresence or online voting tools help lower those hurdle? Question: How do we find the rules that are causing tensions, and change them where needed?
  • How to organise with WhatsApp – We all agreed on the potential for using WhatsApp in facilitating conversations between unions and workers, and within groups of workers. It offers unions a way to spot potential leaders and a tool to bring them into leadership roles. But we also agreed that the potential pitfalls meant we needed to devote time collectively to being clearer about processes involved and their implications. What are the best resources most relevant to unions, and if they don’t exist, can we create them? Action: We are starting a WhatsApp group to discuss this, with a view to publishing a best practice guide for unions. To join the group, get in touch.
  • Setting up an informal equalities network for organisers – Our groups believed there was an opportunity to bring organisers together around issues of diversity in the workplace and the fight for equal treatment at work. Building equalities into our organising work better could help to build solidarity between groups of workers. Action: A group of participants agreed to continue the conversation.
  • Finding ways to give better feedback in campaigns – We often don’t spend enough time communicating wins back to members, focusing instead on the next campaign at hand. This risks losing their engagement with our organising campaigns. Can we incorporate updates into our planning, and find ways to communicate these in a more authentic tone of voice (such as coming directly from an affected worker)? Where we are broadening communications voices we may need to improve the speed of sign-off processes. Question: How would members want to hear about what happened?

We’ll follow up on these initiatives and report more through this website. Subscribe to get notifications by email as they happen.

Is there an organising project you’re running that would benefit from some time spent with colleagues working out a great digital strategy? Is there a tool you wish you knew how to use? Is there a tool you wish existed? 

Get in touch with us at the Digital Lab.

You can download slides from the event here. And check our events page for upcoming workshops on different themes.

Blog post by Sam Jeffers of The Shop, with John Wood