Monday, July 18, 2011

Techpresident: A Major Union Doubles Down Online

Union protesters rally against Ohio Senate Bill 5 in March. Union staffers nationwide say their members have moved increasingly online throughout this year's fights over state budgets and collective bargaining rights. Photo: Ohio AFL-CIO / Flickr
One of the most politically influential labor unions in the country has signaled a shift in emphasis towards organizing and campaigning online by hiring senior digital staff in at least a dozen major U.S. cities.

Organizers and activists are quickly learning that new media on the Internet provides additional communication channels to reach out to the community. They increasinly understand that New media can efficiently promote, support and supplement all other traditional organizing activities like social meet ups, issue oriented community town hall discussions, messaging, as alternatives to TV and radio, registration drives, voter rights and poll watcher training, block walking, community service events, and so forth, particularly for the under 35 age group, and vice versa. 

To effectively use new media to motivate people to action, one must have a 'messaging strategy' to create and push framed messages through the communication channels. Blogs, YouTube and websites used in combination with social media networking and email can be used to rapidly broadcast messaging to targeted audiences. Again, messaging is used to drive and support the full community organizing agenda.

Techpresident: In what may be a first for organized labor, Service Employees International Union is beefing up its online operations by hiring new media directors and campaign directors to work directly under the chiefs of staff of union locals in each of those cities, including Columbus, Ohio; Houston, Texas; Detroit, Mich; Portland, Ore.; St. Louis, Mo.; and Miami, Fla., among others, according to job postings that were available online. Because of the way union locals are organized, the size and territory of each organization varies. One of the largest locals in the country, for example, 1199 SEIU United Health Care Workers East, includes workers in six states.

While there are digital staffers in other unions, many union locals do not have a digital staffer with the level of seniority that the SEIU's new people will have.

It's worth noting for three reasons. First, SEIU locals are very politically active, so flag this as a decision to evaluate after this year's state and local elections and the 2012 presidential election. Secondly, if you're looking for an organization to track to see how a massive, membership-driven institution is changing what it does to leverage the power of the Internet, the SEIU's moves are probably ones to watch.

And, finally, while it's unclear if this had any affect on the decision, SEIU's staffing move comes after months of running battles over right-to-work legislation, budget cuts, or bills that curtail public-sector unions' collective bargaining abilities. During those battles, many unions, not just SEIU, turned to the Internet — and many locals have emerged with members battle-tested in online organizing as a result.

It will be the job of these new staffers to integrate digital into everything each union does, from building membership to working on activism campaigns, Tim Tagaris, SEIU's new media director, told me recently.

"I think it's a pretty big deal that they will be reporting to the chief of staff and having a seat at the table with the communications directors and the organizers," said Tagaris, whose career as an Internet strategist goes back to Chris Dodd's presidential campaign and Ned Lamont's U.S. Senate run.

Especially in the last seven months, as several states have considered or passed laws that weaken public-sector labor unions, unions have increasingly turned to the Internet for organizing. In Ohio, the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association turned to Facebook to help mobilize members against Senate Bill 5, legislation that reduces the power of public-sector labor unions in that state.

"We just did a parade," Sally Meckling, OCSEA's communications director, told me July 8. She was referring to a march on June 29 to deliver a 1.3-million signature petition to the Ohio secretary of state — a plea to place a repeal of Senate Bill 5 on the ballot in the next election. "We had 6,200 people. I don't think they thought a thousand people would show.

"That was something we almost exclusively planned on social media," Meckling said later on in the conversation, adding that the whole event was put together in about a week with the help of those tools.

Read the full post @ Techpresident

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