(last updated March 2010)
This page looks at some of the free tools you can use to start networking with your co-workers and other unionists. Many of these tools have competitors. Generally we’ve named our favourite, along with a ranking (in descending order), along with an example of how it might be used, and some alternatives. Please use the form at right to tell us what we’ve missed, why we’re wrong, and/or what your own experience has been with these tools. And if you want to keep up with all this, keep an eye on Mashable.
iGoogle allows you to create a passworded web space which you can then share with others as the perfect environment for small collectives (such as fellow union members). For my money, this is the killer app of unions wanting to get the best out of Web 2.0. It’s easier to set up and much more user-friendly than GoogleSites. There are hundreds of gadgetsyou can add to your site, and all of it is free. You can also add stuff of your own simply by calling it within an iFrame gadget. This allows you to incorporate just about anything you can develop. Extra security can thus be added through cookies. Users can also apply themed banners which give the page real character. Bizarrely, not many people are using this tool in a collaborative manner. Perhaps this is because of the way it is promoted. Shouldn’t someone be pushing the brand ‘weGoogle’?! By the way, Google has also been voted the best place to work in the USA.
Example of use: Union reps in a multinational could set up a passworded iGoogle page to coordinate negotiations. They could have a shared calendar plotting national or global meetings, and link to a library of key documents. These could be jointly edited (per Google docs). The chat facility would allow discussions of strategy across borders without using work email. The page could also have a to-do list, memo section, translation facility, world clocks and a currency converter. It could even be used to broadcast SMS messages to members around the world.
Sure, it’s been around for a while, but Skype is still one of the coolest networking tools for unionists. It allows you to make phone calls at almost no cost, as well as video calls and free conference calls. It offers SMS, chat, and fax sending (but not receiving). Contrary to popular belief, the person at the other end does NOT need to be on Skype. In fact they don’t even need a computer. Calls to an everyday landline cost almost nothing, while calls to other Skype accounts are free. Even if its video. Unfortunately calls to mobiles cost a bit more. All in all, phone conferencing is now within budget reach of almost any union. There are loads of free “extras” as well, allowing you to host very fancy interactive meetings. The chat function is a dead simple way to keep a line of communications open with reps and colleagues. Skype runs easily on the average PC, but you probably need broadband.
Example of use: Union officials/organizers in different cities or countries could use Skype as a free call centre, taking messages, providing auto-responses, and delivering regular updates. They could also run a monthly phone conference and invite reps to join in (at little or no cost) for a summary presentation. The whole thing could be recorded online (as an alternative to minutes), and made available as part of an archive.
• Google Talk
OMG – you can now add comments to the homepage of third party websites! I’ve done this on the WalMart, New Unionism and BBC sites. Then anybody with the Google toolbar installed (like, tens of millions) can read them. This is part of a new move towards real transparency and accountability in supply chains. You can read our review of this game-changing toolhere. The page also contains a download link for the toolbar and some important info on security.
Example of use: An employer is operating in bad faith during negotiations. Create a SideWiki so that his/her actions can be discussed and investigated openly. Sidewiki will allow both sides of the story to come out. Evidence can be added (via hyperlinks etc) so that the public (along with your fellow union members, work colleagues and shareholders) can make up their own minds. You could even link from a Sidewiki on the company’s homepage to a petition and/or draft shareholders’ resolution.
Forget the geek tag; virtual reality is a lot more practical than it sounds! This technology is going to be big, once people get over the sheer psychological nerdcore of it all. If you’re confident with computers, and your machine/connection are both fairly modern, then don’t miss this experience. You can sign up here, grab a readymade “avatar” off the shelf, and start exploring. Sadly Union Island is no more… as they say in the world of social entrepreneurialism, “you can be wrong by being right too soon”. We just couldn’t get the support to maintain it. You can find out more about this pioneering venture, which was behind the world’s first virtual strike (at IBM) here:www.slunionisland.org. Oh, and Linden Labs – who run Second Life – are known to be a strong proponent of workplace democracy.
Example of use: Union officials/organizers could use Union Island as the venue for a training course. Someone could also be there to sign up new members. Given a cheap set of headphones, the session could include just about everything we’d expect in the real world, minus all the travel and accomodation costs.
• Google Lively
FaceBook is a social networking tool which blurs that whole work/life distinction in the nicest possible way. Sign up for free here, set up your profile and you’re off: one of 350 million+ members. Of these, one half sign in daily! You can join fan pages, groups and causes, set up new ones yourself, create and promote events (online or off), seek and share resources, and generally build a contacts base for whatever networking purposes you have.You’ll find the New Unionism FaceBook group here. This is a tool with almost limitless potential for unions, which leads to it’s one basic flaw – you need to know how to keep all this interaction in balance. We recommend entering FaceBook at a measured pace, otherwise you’ll just find yourself swamped or even irritated by all the relational white noise. Look at the security settings… you can fine tune your account and block LOTS of unwanted stuff. However, if you want more security and a tighter union-friendly environment, see the entry on UnionBook below.
Example of use: Your union could set up a fan page or cause to build support around a particular campaign. It could feature video and posters, as well as key documents and ongoing discussion. A chat line could be kept open to deal with enquiries, and supporters could be contacted via broadcast messages. This makes campaigns international by default, and offers great visibility to a younger demographic.
WordPress / blogging
The best thing about blogs, from a union perspective, is that they’re easy to build and allow people to work collaboratively. The reason we’re recommending WordPress above others is that it seems the most flexible and reliable. That said,Ning (see below) is even more user-friendly. In the last 4 years blogs really have become the most practical way for small to medium unions to build and maintain a website. With minimal effort they can also be very attractive, and you can add organizing tools (such as a collective scheduler, news subscription service, image library, translation buttons etc) which would cost a fortune to develop independently. You can also have a password-protected section, which makes them a quick’n’dirty way to build a pseudo “extranet“. A great example of union blogging is ToUChstone (here) which facilitates direct discussion between union policy folk and union members. Or take a look at this – a global blog for Goodyear workers. The best known union blog is probably the AFL-CIO’s (here). And last but not least, there’s the New Unionism blog here. Members use this to add stories which can then be linked to from our website. Tigmoo recently produced a handy guide to union blogging (here).
Example of use: Most unions have less than 2000 members. This makes financial and staff resources extremely tight. WordPress enables a non-specialist employee or a committed member to run a very presentable website with news updates and links to forums, polls, chat facilities and many of the other tools discussed on this page. Because of the simple set up, if the volunteer moves on it will be no big deal for the next person to take over.
• Joomla (more powerful, for larger projects)
Delicious / social bookmarking
“Social bookmarking” is a way of storing, recommending and sharing information you find on the Internet. It’s also a great way to build a collaborative resource base. We use Delicious for this. Take a look at the page here, and then click on the “tags” to the right. These keywords allow you to file material away by subject(s). This creates a kind of socially-driven catalogue, with each item categorised, searchable and effectively “voted on”. Saved items appear in a newsfeed which people can then subscribe to. Imagine the potential for flagging stories around the world based on tags such as company name, industry or sector. Incidentally, the more bookmarked a piece of information becomes, the higher it is likely to appear in Internet searches.
Example of use: Unions could use this to tag online information by sector, industry and employer name, thus building up a powerful archive for members and organizers.
• Other sites
Lots and lots of very short messages, many of them unspeakably inane. Beware: Twitter is the fast lane to information overload. The trick for unions, IMO, is to use it for a very specific purpose, and for a very specific audience. Don’t just set up a Twitter feed then start working out what to say. Set it up to cover an event or campaign or something you are negotiating round. Offre people something they will want to follow. You’ll need to write in 140-character chunks, but that’s a discipline many of us could benefit from! You can send or receive ‘tweets’ as SMS. There is also a powerful new tool calledact.ly which adds a layer of activism tools (including petitions). For the record, there are simple, free tools for piping a news feed straight from your social bookmarking site (see above) to Twitter. Or from Twitter to FaceBook to MySpace to Google Reader to your blog and back. (Hello? Are you still there?)
Example of use: Members at a certain enterprise could use Twitter to follow the twists and turns of their collective negotiations. As part of this, rather than taking formal minutes, negotiators could broadcast details live from around the bargaining table. Their account can go out via mobile phones as well, and this can be piped onto the website or blog. There’s transparency for ya!
Also worth looking at, and better in some ways:
Newsgroups / Web forums
The idea of online discussion groups (rather misleadingly called newsgroups) is older than the Internet itself, dating back to the bulletin boards of the 1970s-80s. However since the mid-90s they have been in decline, despite the best efforts of the Internet community to keep the traditon alive. There are currently around 20,000 active discussion groups in the Usenet system. One of these is alt.society.labor-unions. Take a look and decide for yourself whether this might help with your union networking. Arguably, the most healthy offspring of the newsgroup was theweb forum. There are countless organisations who can provide you with these, most notably Yahoo, GoogleGroups andICQgroups. However, our own experience with web forums was a bit of a fizzer, and other networks have also reported a fall off of interest in the last few years. Significantly, MSN stopped providing web forums in February 09. The ILO’s labour network Solicommhas also dropped them. Seems like it’s time to move on.
If you’re not familiar with that term it’s probably because we think we just made it up. We’re looking for a new kind of social networking experience, one which is based on collective interactions rather than the one-to-many model of FaceBook and MySpace. We’ve seen some very cool tools in this area, but until UnionBook came along none of them were an obvious choice for the labor movement. Here are some initial comments which we will extend as practical results come to hand.
Ok, it doesn’t exist. But, as we discussed above, with a bit of initiative and some simple IT jiggery-pokery, any mid-range developer can turn iGoogle into an unbeatable facility for collective use. Your union can become your homepage (ie select ‘stay logged in’) and after that the cloud is the limit. Any union wishing to discuss how iGoogle can be used in this manner is most welcome to contact us firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Union Book
Offers a union-centred equivalent of FaceBook, without the hype and huge development budget. A good place to stop for those who want to do networking in an environment which is more secure and more focussed on labour. As member-controlled organisations, unions must have both a public and a private face. Our advice would be to use UnionBook mainly for the latter functions. UnionBook is fairly new, and it’s not yet clear where it is headed. Go and see for yourself (ie click on the logo). We’ll update this post as the construction dust settles.
identifies itself as a social action network. As such, it’s about much more than just joining dots. It lists 15 causes here, though for some reason labor has been excluded. Animal rights yes, labor rights no. Our best guess is that this is because change.org is dominated by North American social entrepreneurs. Great folks, brilliant allies, but the natural links eroded during the era of ‘business unionism’. We asked Change.org to reconsider and add labor as a cause; we even offered to do it for them, but they weren’t up for it. Nevertheless, theyhost about 1,000,000 non-profits, and have a high standard of original content, generated by paid bloggers no less! They also provide recruitment and fundraising facilities by default, and are doing their damnedest to encourage involvement in real-world change processes. So hey, no sour grapes – this is an outstanding networking facility.
must be the easiest to use of all the social networking sites we’ve seen. You can set up a group page in minutes, adding from a good selection of optional features, and members have the option of a personal page within this. I’d say this looks ideal for workplace or enterprise-level reps. There are good security options (ie access can be restricted to members, or by invitation only etc). Ning also has a “broadcast” facility and offers forums by default. It allows for the easy addition of photos and video etc. In choosing a host for your interactive content, make sure you check out Ning.
is another social action network. It claims 11,000,000+ members (July 09). They are still developing their list of causes, but again, labor rights has not made the list! Nor is there any mention of workers or unions in the 40 categories provided on the site. Where are we, in the North American conception of social justice networking? One nice feature is a well-developed facility to run petitions.
is a cool project development system. Unfortunately, it was launched too soon. It looks promising until you start trying to use it. Their support for the Charter for Compassion shows their hearts are in the right place, but unionists who want to plan and/or work collaboratively will find the navigation systems confusing, with lots of features just not working. Wish them all the best though; kluster is cleverly configured to help make teams make decisions, as well as building teamwork. And in a natty twist, they’ve given uses the ability to weight contributions. This means you could canvas all staff in an organisation, but give then see how the results change if you give more value to the contributions of union members, and/or elected reps. We’ll update this assessment if we see any real progress, but in the meantime we’d suggest you check it out for yourself. Once kluster is working well this will be a very cool facility indeed.
Similar in many ways: Shareflow
offers much the same stuff as above, but seems to be targeting entrepreneurs rather than social activists. At the time of writing they are hosting 250,00 sites, but only 6 are political or non-profit. Of these, one is John McCain’s campaign site. ‘Nuff said?
reeks of exclusivity. It’s probably useful for business people and professionals who want to network, and for the clubs and associations who want to target them, but the presentation and the options make it seem an unlikely place to find most working people, social activists and/or unions networking. If you set up your union’s facility here, members would soon be muttering that elsewhere would have been a more logical. On the bright side, it’s probably the best place to put a profile of yourself, if you’re looking for work.
Also in a similar vein: www.xing.com
As well as general platforms listed above, there are loads of online tools which perform specific functions which unionists will find useful for organizing. Here’s a few, in roughly descending order:
is a great tool for collecting membership views by way of simple surveys and “straw polls”. It’s quick, friendly and professional-looking, and polls can be added to your web pages in a minutes. There’s an example in the column to the right. Beware though – it is NOT possible to use the free version to verify who your voters were. For this reason any serious polling/voting (ie where you need to restrict voting to members only) would need to be set up within a passworded space.
Example of use: Use WordPress to set up a secure website then, whenever member input is wanted, ask them to go to the poll page and cast a vote. If questions arise about verification, or if the numbers are large enough, one of the “pro” accounts might be worth considering (details). This might even work for union elections, as long as allowance is made for those without computers.
• Google calendar
is brilliant for anyone wanting to share dates and times, schedule meetings AND add reminders. Where’d we be without Google? They’re also a good employer. Access to the calendar can be limited, and calendars can be easily integrated into iGoogle and other social networking systems. ‘zall good.
is a great, simple tool for producing wikis- collaboratively written documents. The grandest such project is Wikipedia, but the same principle can be used to produce draft workplace agreements before going into negotiations, or a shared record of workplace harrassment (access can be limited for about $US5 per month). Setting up a wiki would be ideal for taking the worst aspects of collective wordsmithing out of meetings.
is a free service helping punters run free petitions in 75+ countries. As well as providing the platform, there are well written guides on how to present and promote the petition. It is non-partisan, and has no known affiliations.
recently won a Blogger’s Choice Open Web Award. It allows you to build quick online polls, but more importantly (perhaps): the same interface can be used to schedule meetings and/or arrange any other kind of group event. Can be added to iGoogle and FaceBook. The problem is that everything is treated as if it were a poll, which makes things puzzling for the end user. Take a look. They’re almost there; not quite.
is an extremely simple way of adding a comments section to your web pages. We’re using one at the top right of this page. It also provides ratings, reviews and polls.That said, the system is damnably unpredictable – comments can disappear from your page, or from some pages but not others, and access needs to be restored far too often. These annoying bugs aside, it’s great for unions without big budgets who want continuous feedback from members.
is brilliant, but probably more useful for community orgs than unions. It’s a tool to helps in campaign/project fundraising. You provide the information on your website and then add their widget, and they then collect and process the donations for you (to be transferred to your account via PayPal). The whole thing is presented to your users by way of a nifty barometer-type graphic. Example of use: What about using this on your website or blog to build a solidarity fund? This would allow people all over the world to show practical support for your campaign.
is a useful tool for those who love chat but are tired of all the interfaces (ie for people on MSN, Google Chat, Yahoo, AIM etc). Obviously this could be useful for those working with a broad group such as union members. Because it is not tied to any installed software on your computer, it allows the chat network to be accessed from anywhere. There is also support for chat rooms, and a widget for adding to your own site, allowing visitors to use it to chat with you.
Example of use: A union could use meebo to set up a chat service within their call centre. This means members aren’t using the work phone or email systems to communicate with the union. Also saves you installing all the other client programmes.
is a social networking site targeting those who want to share video and audio. It doesn’t offer much that is new, and seems ludicrously open to people who want to send spam. Despite all the hype around bebo, I can’t see much here for unions. And no HottySpawn666, I do not want to be your friend.
So what’s missing? What tools have you had success with, as a unionist? Please let us know by way of the comments facility top right.