Case study: Unite Scottish organisers and technology
9 Feb 2011
In organising we need to be a wee bit off the wall because it works. – Finance sector seconded rep, Female, 31-40
There are a number of different organising models within the trade union movement. The Unite model sees organising as a specialist function that is ‘strategic,sectoral and global’, and was inspired by the ‘Justice for Janitors’ campaign of the SEIU.
Unite’s organising department in Scotland consists of eight full time staff, and a number of reps who are seconded for a period to work on specific campaigns. At the time this research was conducted in mid-2010, the organising department was engaged in three major organising campaigns: in the finance sector, the food sector and the community care sector.
The finance sector campaign focused on organising the newly-formed Lloyds Banking Group (formedout of the merger of Lloyds TSB, Halifax Bank of Scotland and Scottish Widows in the wake of the banking crisis). The food sector campaign focused on organising in foodpreparation and agriculture in Scotland, and had a major focus on the migrant workers who make up a lot of this sector.
The community care campaign focused onorganising workers in small organisations and charities, including housing associations and care organisations. The campaigns aim to
…rebuild the shop stewards movement within the sector, then combine this so shop stewards come together… we run a campaign across the sector to push up pay and conditions. – Senior Organiser, female, 31-40
I provided the organisers with training in using online surveys in summer 2009, and training in social media in early 2010. In my view, the intervention was a very fruitful one: the organisers grasped the potential early on and were quickly making creative use of new technologies. A particularly interesting intervention was the use of electronic surveys in campaigns, especially in the finance sector. The organisers used electronic surveys to identify workplace issues that were “widely felt, deeply felt and winnable.”
The survey was distributed in innovative ways, for instance by asking building security guards to email the link to the entire building. The surveys also asked if respondents were interested in getting involved, and a number of new activists were recruited in this way. In trying to organise greenfield sites, a recurring problem was the difficulty in getting access to workers and presenting the union’s case. The organisers overcame this problem by creating Facebook groups dedicated to organising in particular workplaces. They used Facebook’s search function to find employees of that company and invited them to join the group and to invite their colleagues:
We used it as a tool to map the workplaces, so we could find out who was pally with who, and also we could get a secret group set up where people are friendly, using that interface, if they were comfortable using Facebook, instead of setting up a union domain they were unfamiliar with. Their friends were on it, it was friendly, and it was an in to talking to people. We could pass messages on Facebook, set up discussion groups and create events. – Organising team leader, male 31-40
Facebook has attracted a tremendous amount of criticism due to its privacy settings, which by default publicly expose large amounts of information about users. This created the danger that the employer would able to access the group, identify the trade union activists and discipline them, possibly for breach of corporate IT policy, or for bringing the company into disrepute. To prevent this, the organisers very carefully created secret groups that did not mention the company:
The group is anonymous, private and secret. One of the reps is a bit techy. We created a private Facebook group, and put the survey links on there… Maybe we made it too private, which limits its effectiveness. We also used event invitations… It’s all quite young staff. They’ve all got Facebook pages, Twitter and so on… We ask if anyone wants to be involved on the campaign then we contact them direct. – Finance sector seconded rep, Female, 31-40
The senior organiser expressed no fear at the democratising potential of new technologies:
That’s the sort of problem we’d like to have… if the workers start challengingthe union… we’ve built a force to be reckoned with…
We’re all committed to an ideology that’s about a trade union that’s run on an organising model, where workers are the people in control… We’re willing to beless cautious or traditional in our methods… there should be no rules or barriers to how we go about achieving that. – Senior Organiser, female, 31-40
She also commented that there were benefits to horizontal networks, and more fluid structures:
We’re saying to workers, ‘there’s a template, here’s logos, make your ownnewsletter, put what you like out’… We can’t control that, people can copy a Unite logo from just about anywhere… In some ways it’s got us off the hook because the technology is so freely available we can literally say we didn’t give permission… There is a benefit to unions in horizontal structures. The reps are doing things that we would never get away with as full time officers. - Senior Organiser, female, 31-40
She added that training in using new technology for campaigns should be a vital part of the trade union curriculum.