TUC Digital Lab case study with BFAWU
Coronavirus is changing how people work and how unions organise. Face to face contact in every sector is being reduced due to social distancing measures, more employees working from home, workplaces opening and closing due to government lockdowns and significant portions of workers on furlough.
The pandemic has also accelerated trends we have been seeing for years, including the growth in casualised work and just-in-time production. Many workers are less likely to meet each other regularly during the day now, or to stay in a workplace as long as they once did. Workers can be on short term agency contracts, in multiple jobs, or be migrants who speak different languages. These factors all present unions with challenges in making initial contact and supporting workers as easily as traditional mass workplaces.
After the pandemic these trends are set to continue. Employers will be eager to future proof workplaces against future pandemics, and this will mean more social distancing, fewer communal spaces and mixed working patterns where employees spend more time working from home.
Physical distance presents a fundamental challenge to trade union organising practices. Historically, in person meetings between workers and trade union reps have formed the basis of our organising. As the workplace moves online and workers don’t share an office or factory five days a week, we must experiment with new models of digital organising to bring them together.
The trade union movement has already experimented with digital organising techniques during the pandemic. Spurred on by Covid-19, nurses unions in the US have successfully used digital organising to unionise greenfield workplaces and recruit at existing sites. In the UK, the NEU have developed an engagement programme for their Covid-19 campaign work which used mass conference calls to create tens of thousands of interactions and persuaded hundreds of members to take their first steps into activism.
A key component of this digital organising approach has been the successful recreation of a traditional campaign meeting online, with the aim of moving people to action without face to face contact.
In this pilot, we worked with the BFAWU Greencore Northampton Branch to hold an online campaign meeting targeting workers at a sandwich manufacturer hit by Covid. The aim of the call was to strengthen the union’s hand in negotiations with management by recruiting members to the union and for the union to make contact with more workers as a route to membership at a later point.
Greencore are a convenience food manufacturer who make sandwiches and ready meals for brands such as M&S. BFAWU has recognition at Greencore’s Northampton plant which has around 2100 workers. Membership levels are strong but changes in the composition of the workforce mean infill recruitment is increasingly an issue. The workforce at Northampton are very diverse, with many national groups of migrant workers, and many languages spoken.
Over the summer Greencore suffered a severe outbreak amongst staff with more than 300 workers testing positive. Staff who were off sick or self-isolating were only offered statutory sick pay. This came after months of 80% furlough pay for many workers, which was not topped up by Greencore. Many workers were receiving less than the minimum wage for their regular hours, putting a strain on household finances.
Taken together, many workers felt forced to choose between feeding their family and isolating to stop the spread of the virus. Greencore’s employment practices and a desire from management to keep operation levels up also meant that staff were coerced back to work when they were supposed to be isolating.
While the branch won a u-turn from the employer and an increase in pay for those sick or self isolating, this only lasted until October 1st. The union’s key demands are for permanent full pay for staff that are sick and self isolating as well as full pay for furloughed staff.
Over three weeks we worked with BFAWU and online organising consultancy The Social Practice to promote and deliver a digital meeting open to all Greencore workers. Drawing on the technique of ‘barnstorming’ – a form of high energy, goal oriented meeting that is deliberately structured to move people to action – we attempted to recruit workers via a digital union meeting that would clearly explain to them how being part of the union would help win better pay and conditions.
We also tested two other approaches that deserve exploration in the era of Covid: trying to recruit workers for the call via targeted social media advertisements and raising money for the workers’ hardship fund from the TUC’s Megaphone list.
The Greencore Northampton site was a robust, difficult to organise test case for applying online barnstorms to industrial organising. While there were a series of opportunities, the challenges were substantial and numerous.
- Clear mobilising date to work towards. With the pay cut coming into force on October 1st – this gave us a very clear and natural date to build to.
- Multi-lingual rep structure. A key strength of BFAWU Northampton branch is that they have built a multilingual rep structure that can speak directly to the vast majority of the workforce. This will have definitely helped with the promotion of the barnstorm and with running the call itself – as we wanted to reflect to attendees that the branch had people who could support them in their own language.
- Multiple Greencore workers living together. Many families have multiple family members working at the site. This increases the possibility of relational publicity and people joining in together.
- Majority of workers under 40 and tech literate. According to the reps a majority of the workers are 25 to 40 and had good levels of tech literacy and access to mobile phones.
- Campaign has existing infrastructure. This includes a 38 Degrees petition with more than 800 signatures, a branch Facebook page with 500 followers and a Justgiving hardship fund that had raised more than £880.
- No common language. Greencore Northampton’s workforce is mostly made up of Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Moldovan and Romanian workers. While the most common languages are Romanian, Russian and English there is no common language across the workplace. This had implications for every aspect of the barnstorm – from the work required to produce promotional material to the impact of the call itself.
- 1-1 contact with workers is difficult. As many workers, including reps, weren’t present in the workplace because they’re either furloughed or self isolating, face to face recruitment for the event was far more difficult than usual.
- High staff turnover. Many workers only stay at Greencore for around 6 months. It can be more difficult to persuade them to engage in union activity if they see their position as temporary.
- Lack of capacity for reps. With the increased caseload due to Covid-19 and the extra work required to support workers from a distance, reps were already over capacity, and we needed to be careful not to add to the pressure.
- 24 hour shift patterns. Greencore Northampton is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on three overlapping shift patterns. While furloughed and isolating workers have more availability, this presented challenges in finding suitable times for the meeting.
- Short lead in time. The campaign hook that we identified only gave us a short lead in time. This meant most of the preparation and promotional work was squeezed into 9 days.
- Union digital campaign capacity. BFAWU have demonstrated great flexibility in recent campaigns and made use of free and cheap online services, run directly by activists. But they don’t yet have access to some of the marketing infrastructure of larger unions.
Results and evaluation:
- 215 workers registered for the campaign meeting.
- 70 workers attended the meeting.
- 35 workers joined the union after the meeting
- £4,300 raised for union hardship fund.
We tried several routes on Facebook to find workers to engage with. We ran the same advert, with 3 language variants to four audiences.
- Geographical targeting. People recently in the postcode area of the Northampton site or nearby sites where BFAWU have membership.
- People tagged as working for Greencore.
- Existing page followers for the branch.
- Friends of page followers. We thought targeting friends of existing followers could be effective, particularly if this would introduce the social proof to workers that one or more of their friends already liked the union.
Given we were trying to target a maximum audience of around 2,000 people, this meant our Facebook audiences were necessarily small. As Facebook showed ads to the easiest to reach in this group, the cost started to rise as it became harder to find new people in the audience. Had we stopped our advertising sooner, we would have been limited only to a small number of users, but clicks would have been much cheaper.
For example with the geographical audience, around 40% of users were reached within one day, at a cost of just 13p per click. Over the week of the campaign, the number of new users being reached fell steadily, and the cost per new user rose to more than a pound.
This suggests that paying to find and engage new workers is possible to do in a cost-effective way, on short campaigns to a large audience, suspending advertising if the cost starts to rise above the value you consider each interaction to have. As such it might only provide a limited boost to more traditional recruitment methods for a call, not replace them.
We also ran an email action on the TUC’s Megaphone campaign platform, to prepare an audience in advance of the call. When writing an email to Greencore, users were prompted to tick if they worked there. Our theory was that workers would be invested in ensuring the success of the campaign and would share it with their colleagues, potentially introducing us to more of them.
Overall the action saw 2,750 people write emails to Greencore over the course of a week. 99 of these people self-identified as Greencore workers and gave us permission to contact them. We sent two emails about the calls to this list.
This action was less successful than it has proven in other situations. We believe it was because it was too high a bar to ask of workers with little English. A petition would have been slightly easier for users, but we chose an email action instead a local activist had already started a 38 Degrees petition for the branch, and we thought this might confuse people asked to sign the same thing twice.
We used a Typeform to register attendees, with a multi-lingual approach, as well as single-language forms (which allowed us to add more context) where we were only promoting in Romanian or Russian. 55% of those signing up registered as English speaking, 16% Russian and 30% Romanian. We suspect this distribution is due to the existing branch being stronger with English speaking workers and our communications being written originally in English and then translated into Russian and Romanian.
We concentrated on collecting phone numbers over email addresses as organisers and industry standards suggest phone and text is far more effective than email. 70% gave SMS contact permission and 42% gave email contact permission. The overwhelming majority of sign-ups (85%) registered via mobile channels.
We also made use of the supporter list generated by the Megaphone online action to direct more people to the branch’s hardship fund crowdfunder.
Early into the lockdown, the branch established a hardship fund for workers, and this had already been spent on providing assistance by the time of the campaign. A new crowdfunder had been launched with a £5,000 target, though only £900 had been raised against it.
We segmented our campaign list and emailed those signatories who had not said they were workers at Greencore, asking them to donate £3 or more – the cost of an M&S sandwich. This action raised around £4,000 over the space of two days.
A follow up email to thank supporters mentioned the fund had nearly hit its target and this second email raised another £300, taking the fund over the target.
Solidarity donations are another useful tactic in a campaign like this. The funds raised are important for workers who need support. But donations also offer other supporters another action to take to support the workers, and they demonstrate to the workers the power of solidarity, as well as the material value of the union. It was helpful to be able to mention the existence of this hardship fund and the wider solidarity behind it in the call.
We suggested a low donation value, to get the largest possible number of donors contributing. The average donation value given in the end was about £17. The ask was popular for a fundraiser, with 72% of engaged supporters (those who had already taken the email action) opening, and 6.7% clicking through. We estimate that the average amount donated per emailed supporter who was already engaged in the campaign was around 50p. This suggests that for larger campaign actions, fundraising asks could contribute useful amounts of money to directly help workers in need.
The branch had already selected Justgiving, so we went with this rather than duplicate systems and confuse accounting processes. However another system would have worked better. Justgiving has fixed suggested donation amounts, with £40 the suggested starting ask. Several people wrote in to tell us that was too much, where they had not realised they could delete the suggestion and enter their own. We could explain this easily but the confusion probably affected more people and suppressed the overall result.
Awareness after the call
The second call was also broadcast live on Facebook, via the branch’s own page. This was seen by 692 different people over the following days – though only 224 watched for more than a minute of the video (most scrolled by quickly in their Facebook feeds).
However it does suggest that Facebook may be a more natural platform for calls to this audience, who are already using it in greater numbers. There is a trade off against the collaborative feel of a video conference meeting. But there could be more appetite for briefing style communications this way – echoing the good work developed by CWU in particular in recent years, using Facebook live events for activist engagement.
Workers joined after the call – but not on the call itself. The branch saw a noticeable effect in workers signing up over the next few days. The effect of the call did help recruit members to the union – but they didn’t step up during the call itself.
We think there are plausible technological and cultural explanations for this. We had tried asking people to declare that they would join the union in the chat box. The chat box is well integrated into the desktop version of Zoom. On a mobile device it is harder to find and involves temporarily losing the video stream and interpretation. Indeed the chat box saw far less traffic than we would normally expect (for example when we asked people to introduce themselves).
There may be cultural differences that help explain the difference in sign up levels between this call and others in an electoral or campaign context. The target audience of mass campaign calls are usually already engaged with the issue. They are mobilisation events rather than persuasion events. When translating this approach to the context of organising workplaces more work may be needed to persuade the audience of the importance of the ‘moment’, of the efficacy of joining a union, etc.
In addition, consideration must be made that workers have more to lose than campaign supporters. It may be that people are nervous about publicly stating their intention to join the union in a public setting for fear of reprisals.
The sign ups reported after the call suggest that awareness of the call as a union activity in the workplace could be greater than the direct participation. This would suggest that visible recruitment activity should be planned to follow on from any call like this, rather than viewing the project as ending at the call. The buzz of conversation after a call may be helpful in setting an atmosphere of social proof in which workers feel they should join.
Whilst we believe that the indirect impact of the call on membership numbers was material, we also believe there is room for improvement in the direct impact. This could be either in refinement of the process to overcome the barriers stopping action, or in changing the nature of the ask to be a more campaign-focused action, albeit one which puts the worker in touch with reps and ready to be asked to join as a follow up.
The involvement of reps is crucial. This approach relies on having union organisers and reps who ‘get it’ and who are willing to put in the work to make it a success. New members were signed up in the week following the call at workplace surgeries held by the shop stewards. BFAWU promoted these successes via social media to create a positive momentum which drew further attention to the union’s activities. Further, their on the ground insights were essential for helping us understand context without which the call could never have worked. BFAWU deserves real credit for having built up a robust multilingual branch at Greencore Northampton and for having identified leaders from within the workforce.
Language translation is expensive and complex. For unions looking to make this kind of activity more sustainable, another approach needs to be considered. Whilst it adds a lot of value to have all workers together in one call where they can see each other, it may be more practicable to hold language specific briefing calls run by reps, which therefore do not need simultaneous interpretation. Interpretation could then be introduced for whole-branch meetings. This could allow for a sense of the whole community, whilst making the majority of calls less stilted, as well as prohibitively expensive.
Live interpretation reduces connection and emotional impact. A key part of this approach is making a ‘hard ask’ on the call, really driving home the need for people to commit to taking an action then and there. In order to execute this part of the call effectively, we usually script it for the call ‘host’ to deliver – this allows us to craft the ‘ask’ according to best practice. Some of this impact was lost through translation as we lost control of the tone and pacing. This is another reason to reconsider our approach to translation.
Volunteer infrastructure is needed to increase turnout. Real people calling and texting registrants to check they’re going to attend the call is the best way to increase turnout and to increase actions post call. Ideally we would have used peer-to-peer approaches to make sure everyone had a personal contact. Constraints on this project meant we had to fall back to a one-to-many approach, which was not so effective.
Using crowdfunding on campaigns with a public profile is a viable way to add impact. This campaign was able to generate a useful amount of money, as well as a sense of community support. That is potentially very helpful where unions have access to fewer funds themselves, because of small memberships or necessarily low membership fees. The crowdfunder however was not working so well for the branch as an initial ask. It became much more effective in combination with a low bar entry action, which tied people into identifying with the campaign before asking them for money. As a by-product of the petition approach to gathering a segmented audience of workers, this bears further inclusion in union campaigns, though will require unions to adopt a supporter communications approach rather than just member communications. Infrastructure like the TUC’s Megaphone can be especially helpful for unions who do not already have channels for this.
Considerations for other unions/projects
Digital meetings can be a useful part of a recruitment campaign and warrant further development. The experience of this test case – especially in a difficult context – suggest that there is reason to pursue this approach further, especially considering the challenges to conventional union organising posed by Covid-19.
The original barnstorm concept was developed through rigorous testing and iteration in the field. The same approach could be used to improve the technique of online barnstorms for union organising. A core focus of developing this approach further should be to make it more effective and more sustainable.
Greater effectiveness would be measured in increasing recruitment for calls, conversion of call sign ups to attendees, and conversion of call attendees to union membership. There is scope for improvement in all three of these criteria.
Greater sustainability could be measured by reducing the ‘back end’ work needed to pull the calls together. The eventual aim should be to create a quick start resource that any union or branch can adopt and deploy as and when they need it.
Branches and unions need more volunteer support to increase turnout. The importance of peer-to-peer comms in making online barnstorms a success cannot be overstated. Confirmation phone calls and texts have a huge impact on attendance at meetings and on follow through on commitments made at a meeting. The ability to use volunteers (working from a script) for this task allows for this to happen at a far greater rate than if undertaken by union staff or reps from the affected branches alone. Finding ways to broaden participation across the union or even between unions could be helpful here.
Multiple language calls may work better than multilingual calls. In this project, real time translation on the call caused a number of significant challenges. An alternative approach would be to hold more calls in different languages. Each call could work from the same script and could be hosted by a shop steward in their mother tongue. Removing the need for real time translation has a number of knock-on benefits. It is a simpler process, the calls would be less ambitious in approach, making them more sustainable as they would not require so much ‘back end’ support. In addition, without a need for the ‘translation’ function, Zoom no longer becomes a required platform. Multiple single language calls could be hosted on Facebook – this has the benefit of removing some of the barriers posed by Zoom (needing to download the app on first use, navigating the platform in English, etc), and means the shop stewards would be meeting the workforce where they are, on a platform that they use organically.
Want to know more?
A more detailed report is available to TUC affiliate unions. Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about this project and its learning or have ideas for other projects around digital organising.