How unions can keep from eating e-dust

Those of us who were pitching web sites to our respective union higher-ups three or four years ago probably stare sleeplessly at the ceiling with alarming regularity, wondering what we’ve gotten ourselves into now that many of us have actually got what we wanted.

It’s not that I’m complaining. I’m more convinced now than ever that it was the right thing to do. And there are some good union things — and some good progressive things — going on on the web, but by and large, we have a lot of work and a lot of learning to do.

Unions have improved their thinking about the web. It’s been a while since someone told me that the internet was a communications fad, like 1-800 numbers or videos in the early 1990s. Still, misconceptions remain.

A lot of problems with union web sites stem from their origins amid the irresistible internet hype of the late 90s. A lot of unions didn’t understand the web or the internet, or what it could do for them, but they knew they had to have a web site. Only they didn’t want to think about it. They contracted out the design, maintenance and hosting or they just slapped it on to the end of someone’s task list.

We’re living in the wake of that massive binge of e-Jonesing. Several years into the e-rage, I’m guessing a number of unions are taking an e-breath. Or if they’re not, perhaps they should.

Web work as busy work

Most web communicators still find themselves pushing in from the margins of their union’s existence. For most unions’ leadership, web sites are, at best, busy work (something else to do just when you think a project or publication is done). At worst they’re a menace: a window of public vulnerability or embarrassment.

There are exceptions to this: the provincial govement workers union in Ontario, (, the secondary school teachers in BC ( and in Ontario (, are a few examples of unions that have done a lot of thinking about the web and done a lot of work to make their sites a useful and integrated part of the union’s communications, organizing and servicing efforts.

With a lot of unions however, you know a document (be it a leaflet, a research paper or whatever) is past its prime because that’s when it appears on the web site.

Putting content on the web once it has been edited, designed, printed and distributed in hard copy is a relatively acceptable state of affairs for an organization that delivers content every day — like a newspaper — but for a union? Hardly.

To add insult to injury, union web content can even lag behind its print doppleganger because print content has to be reformatted for the web.

A typical membership complaint about union material is its timeliness. Activists and rank and file members are forever getting too little from their union and it’s forever arriving late.

With a web site, however, unions have the ability to deliver our message instantly. Or a union can allow members to view the same dated information they have in their mailbox, only on a glowing screen with terrible typography, spotty layout, and long waits to look at the pictures.

That so many unions still choose to do the latter baffles me.

People read paper faster than computer screens. In fact, I would go further and say most don’t read computer screens. They scan them for the answer to a question they have. If we’re going to get members to use our web sites as an information source, they need an incentive. And if it can’t be aesthetics and legibility, it better be timeliness.

Bite the e-bullet

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “Get yourself a web site. It’s easy. Use our program and you’re just two clicks away from being your own dot com. And all for only $99.95.”

Hah. Famous last words. Union decision makers heard two pitches about why they should have a web site. There was the soft sell “It’s a breeze and it won’t cost hardly anything.” And there was the hard sell: “If you don’t have one you’ll be dead.”

Of course neither of these assertions turned out to be accurate, though there are elements of truth in each. It takes a lot more than a few hours of someone’s time every week to maintain a web site. Staff time is neither cheap nor easy for a union to arrange. And while unions can continue to exist without web pages, not having one is a little bit like walking around with your zipper undone.

But once a union has the web skilled bodies, and a site, they also have to change the way they do things. Otherwise they can spend all the money they want producing their web site and they’ll still be dead.

Print communication is still essential for unions, and it will be for a while. It’s probably how most members prefer to get information from their union. But unions have to learn to play to each medium’s strengths.

The web is best suited to briefs, bullet points and instant information. Print is best for continuous reading, analysis and argument. Where print costs rise with every page and every colour, the cost curve for creating web content is a lot less steep.

Unions should take a page from the web manuals of some of the commercial media and public broadcasting sites: don’t be stingy about content. CBC radio and TV news are squeezed for broadcast time, but they can always use the material on-line. And they do. CBC has started producing content specifically for the web. Items that don’t make it onto the news get posted on their web site.

The Globe and Mail recently transformed its site from a mirror of the printed paper to a rolling headline news service, refreshing its content as news comes in.

No doubt for the Globe, that transformation was challenging. And unions will be challenged too, to fit web content production into a different part of the overall scheme of things. But they have to, because if it’s an afterthought, or an extra step, chances are it won’t get done. Or if it gets done, no one will read it.

Write stuff for the web first. Post it. Then print it. If having your site done by an outside contractor gets in the way, don’t do it. Hire someone or retrain someone to do it in house.

Most union web sites are the exclusive domain of their communications department. That’s not a bad thing (says the communications officer turned web worker) but there’s a whole lot more the union can do with their site that won’t happen unless other people beyond communications are involved.

Offering correspondence courses and ordering union paraphenalia are two applications that scream out. There are many others.

Find out what else you can do with your web site that will make all that time and expense worthwhile. Hang out around the fax machine for a day and watch what comes and goes. Chances are some of it could be transmitted via the web.

Wait a minute. This isn’t easy, instant or cheap, you’re saying. What happened to cheap, easy, instant democratic communication?

Who raised the bar?

If you’re feeling cheated, the only solace I can offer is you’re not alone.

Unfortunately, the web is no longer about freedom of and access to information, or democratization of media. Like every other medium, it’s now about time and money.

Commercial web sites have spent millions of dollars developing their sites and hiring people to provide content., a major Canadian news site, updates its content every ten seconds. They have a direct connection to all major Canadian wire service news and it’s instantly on their site.

Professional web site developers charge hundreds of dollars per hour, and strategic consultants charge even more.

Progressive internet providers have sold out to commercial providers to keep pace with changing technology and user expectations. The Freenet movement has stalled and is stuck in a perpetual fight to find sustaining funding from increasingly stingy donors.

The commercialization of the internet has hoisted the bar pretty high: slick sites updated every minute with professionally-written, bite sized news nuggets. Oh — and little moving pictures and video clips.

This is our competition in the battle for the attention of our members.

Computers will not set us free

The real struggle to get unionists to use the internet to do their work and as a news source really has nothing to do with computers. Unions — in North America anyway — have lots of computers.

We have to work on giving those who use them a greater degree of comfort and familiarity with them. And we have to get them to come visit us.

An anecdote: at work, as part of redeveloping our web site, I was testing some of the new bells and whistles. A group of national staff volunteered to test a message board (where web users can have conversations with each other by posting messages on a web page).

One of the test participants couldn’t read replies to messages. I couldn’t figure out why. I blamed the computers. But when we finally talked on the phone, I learned that she didn’t realize that there was more to the page than appeared on her screen and that she had to click on the down arrow with her mouse to see more.

Another anecdote: last fall CUPE set up a dozen or so internet-connected computers so convention delegates could look at CUPE’s web site, offer feedback and try out this spiffy new “Fax your MP” web page.

The cyber café, as it was called, was a runaway hit with delegates. But though there were more than 2000 delegates and staff at convention, only about 100 faxes got sent. The most popular site seemed to be CUPE’s site was rarely seen, except in the morning, just after the computers were turned on.

Doing technical support was also a bit of a shock. I was expecting questions like ‘I can’t print’ or ‘where did my screen go?’. Instead I got questions like “Do you mind if I install my own telnet client?” And “Do I need to use a proxy for IRC? My channel seems to be down.”

Lessons learned: First, some of our members are way ahead of us on this stuff. Second, they may be using the internet, but they’re not using it to visit our web sites. Union representatives have to be comfortable with the technology so they can say confidently “Sisters and Brothers, check our web site for details on how to file a grievance.” They know what they’re talking about and members have a reason to visit.

Will the web replace print?

The web has the potential to replace print as a union’s primary means of reaching its members. A union communicator’s holy grail is to be able to get a message to every member on a regular basis. We normally do this by mailing a piece of paper to members’ homes.

But some unions are questioning the practice. It’s expensive. And postage and printing aren’t getting any cheaper. Managing the mailing list can be a nightmare. Some unions lack the ability to reach their members by mail. Others have cut back on mass membership publications, still others have stopped them altogether. However there’s some hope that if a union can’t or won’t pay to get a message to all its members in the mail, they can do it via the internet.

Statistics Canada first started collecting data on household internet use in 1997. In 1998 the number of Canadian households where one family member regularly used computer communications rose to 4.3 million from 3.5 million a year earlier.

Internet use is still much higher among university educated and upper income families. But internet use is growing as fast among families with incomes in the second quartile as it is among those in the fourth (richest) quartile.

While internet use at home is growing faster than it is at work, large numbers of union members only have access to the internet at work. This puts some limits on our ability to communicate with our members because they will be reluctant to catch hell for surfing union on company time. It does suggest another service we could offer members: free web-based e-mail, like, but for union members — guaranteed not to get you in trouble with the boss.

Another notable statistic is that younger households – even though they earn less money – are almost as likely to use the internet at home as middle aged (35 to 54 years old).

Even if — as happened between 1997 and 1998 — 800,000 more homes get ‘hooked up’ to the internet each year, we’re still five years away from ‘the internet’ being a mass medium. Extend that time if, as many people suspect, the rate of growth in home computer use slows down.

This is good news, really, because it means we still have a few years before we’re officially left eating e-dust. Unions move and change at a very measured pace. So if we’re to be on stage when the crowd shows up, we have to start rehearsing now.

References/further browsing:

Chris Lawson works in the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ national office where he is responsible for
This article first appeared in Briarpatch Magazine in October 2000.