Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Top Ten List of Reasons Why Unions Aren't Using Social Media

I am continually surprised at the answers I typically get when I ask local union leaders the follow question:

“Do you maintain an email list of all of your members, and use it to blast emails out to the entire membership for organizing efforts, get-out-the-vote campaigns, newsletters, announcements, etc?” 

The answer in every instance has been: No.

The excuses:

I don’t know, we just don’t.”   At least they’re honest.

No, we set up phone banks or we do a mass mailing.”  Now this is what I call running a tight ship.  Let’s spend valuable staff time on the phone calling people, particularly when most don’t even answer their phones anymore.  Mass mailings are even more absurd.  On one hand, you can spend several hundred, if not thousands of dollars (and union dues) on postage for a mass mail out.  On the other hand, you can blast an email out for – free.  Where is the logic here?

We tried, but our older members often don’t have an email address, or they don’t want to give it out.”  Well, then you simply won’t have an email address for them.  Do you let that stop you from gathering everyone else’s?  Here’s a suggestion. Ask for it when a new member fills out paperwork, right next to address and phone number.  I noticed last week that an IBEW local had it on their application, but they admitted that the don’t require it.  Make it mandatory.  The large majority of new members and apprentices will have an email address.  They probably have a Facebook and/or Twitter account as well, which is why you, my friend (and I say this with great respect and admiration) are missing the boat, stuck in the past and putting your local on life support in the not-to-distant future, if it isn’t already.  This may surprise a few people, but email is old school.  It’s slowly losing ground to the Facebooks and Twitters of the world.  My point?  If you’re not even doing mass email blasts yet, you’re very far behind the eight ball and have some serious catching up to do. 

Social media is not a fad, folks.  It’s here to stay, and every expert will tell you that it has forever changed – significantly changed – the way we communicate in this country and around the world.  The labor movement needs to get their collective social media act together pronto if we want to take a step towards establishing relevancy to our corporate partners, those we currently have relationships with, and those with which we want to.

If you’re still skeptical, consider this:

  • Almost 45% of Americans have a Facebook account. This equals 128,936,800 U.S. residents.   
  • The top three age groups utilizing Facebook combined represent the ages of 18-44, making up 66% of Facebook users.
Do you have one for your organization?  You or someone on staff should establish one, if you haven’t already. You’re missing out on a very vital communication strategy to reach your members and potential ones as well.  We’ll breakdown a few of the most popular social networking sites in the next few posts, to highlight the ways you can use these mediums to further your local’s goals.  You might just be surprised at all of the ways you can use it to benefit your organization.  Social networking isn’t just about “What are you doing?” status updates anymore. 

I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge a few cold, hard realities of our labor movement right now, particularly on the local level.  Yes, these are generalizations, so these won’t apply to all of you (we do have a number of rogue, progressive locals out there among us), but they will apply to many more locals than they should.

The Top 10 List of Reasons Why Unions Aren’t Using Social Media

  1. Local unions are often led by older leaders who are steadfast in their unwavering dedication to upholding traditions of the past.  The local is structured and managed in much the same way it was 20 or 30 years ago.
  2. Work is down, membership is down, dues are down.  Not enough younger members are moving up the ranks fast enough to help influence or encourage change.
  3. Labor leaders consider themselves technologically savvy if they have an email address and/or an iPhone and use it to read their emails. While this is a good starting point, there is much more to learn.
  4. Labor leaders consider their local to be “progressive” if they have a website (even if it hasn’t changed in five years or more and still has an announcement on the homepage about the “upcoming” Labor Day picnic back in 2006).  Your international’s site doesn’t count.
  5. Labor leaders think that Facebook and Twitter are for “kids” and a fad.
  6. Local leaders don’t trust the internet and are afraid of putting their local’s information out in a very public way.
  7. Labor leaders who are not experienced in using the internet and/or social networking may feel threatened by those who do. 
  8. Those who aren’t familiar or comfortable with social media and networking assume that it would be cost-prohibitive.  Operating funds are tight these days, so “playing” on the internet isn’t worth the imagined cost.
  9. Internationals aren’t pushing social networking down to the local level.  International leaders, listen up!  It isn’t good enough to be incorporating social networking on just your level.
  10. No one has taken the time to show them how. 

Internationals, you have to give your locals the tools necessary to utilize it.  The next time you host a conference, convention or workshop for your local leaders and staff, add a Social Networking 101 break out session to the mix.  When you have all of your international training directors and instructors in town for a train-the-trainer conference, add Social Networking 101 to the agenda.  You have to teach them how to do it and give them enough support and exposure to it so that they’ll be more comfortable with the topic.  Show them examples of successful initiatives.  Show them what you’re doing. Put them in a classroom that is set up with laptops, and walk them through the process, step by step, of setting up a social networking profile.  Explain the differences in social networking sites.  Help them start to add friends and followers.  Most importantly, ensure that there is someone on your International’s staff that is dedicated to social media and can provide guidance and assistance to locals when they need it – training, troubleshooting, encouragement and referrals to other labor organizations that are doing well with it.

Our leaders are masters of their trades - plumbers, electricians, laborers, teachers, cooks, painters, operating engineers, nurses, government workers, miners, steel workers, sheet metal workers and pilots.  They are writers, musicians, bricklayers, carpenters, instrument technicians, actors, barbers, shipbuilders, insulation workers, embalmers, millwrights and fitters.  The list goes on and on.

What our leaders are not are public relations experts – nor should they be.  We are notorious for not telling our story in a proactive way, because we are always playing defense.  But given the current economic climate in this country, and a steadily declining percentage of the marketplace, they better become experts – and fast – and it’s up to the Internationals to see that they do.  Social media and networking are tools for combating the negative reputation labor unions have carried on their backs for decades, true or not.  They are very important tools that we cannot afford to ignore any longer.


  1. You are absolutely right!

    I do PR/Social Media for the Minnesota Nurses Association and we used Facebook, YouTube and a Blog in particular during 2010 contract negotiations for 12,000 Twin Cities Nurses.

    We built our Social Media channels from the ground up, and the results were amazing - 11,000 Facebook fans and 496,000 page views, 97,000 views on our YouTube channel, almost 3,000 comments on our Blog, etc. (Full results/stats here:

    What we found out was that our members embraced Social Media (particularly Facebook) as a way to connect and engage on the issues they cared about. To share important links/stories/videos/photos and to support one another through a very difficult bargaining period that resulted in two strike votes. Both strike votes had nearly 90 percent approval because of how plugged in our members were on Social Media.

    Nurses took over our FB page and answered each other's questions, calmed concerns and helped separate fact from fiction. The Twin Cities media began monitoring and mentioning our FB page, Blog and YouTube videos in their stories, which only added to the traffic and usage.

    Members really liked our nurse leaders doing personalized YouTube videos with bargaining updates as well.

    Our Blog became a place for MNA RNs to gather, share and react.

    The key to Social Media is not to use it just as a megaphone to broadcast messages. But to listen, engage and interact with your members. That was critical in helping us have such success.

  2. Some Unions do use social media, so it's important to recognize there are some good models out there. springs immediately to mind. Quite a number of Australian Unions use e-mail lists and facebook extensively, at an organizer and union leadership level.

  3. Liz, you're absolutely right. As you'll see in my upcoming articles, I'll be highlighting some of the excellent models that are out there, explaining why they are so effective.

  4. New Labor Media,

    Don’t forget that the Young Trade Unionists out of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council AFL-CIO are progressive in the social media area and helping the Local Labor leaders throughout the State of Maryland. To find out more about the Young Trade Unionists (YTU) check out BTW, that was a great article, and we see both sides.

    In Solidarity,

    The Young Trade Unionists
    “The Future of the Labor Movement”

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with this article. My union is in the midst of a labor dispute. Our contract expired the end of July. We are working without a contract until an agreement of understanding, "CAUSE", expires later this month. We went 13 days without a single update on our Union web site. Meanwhile the members are chatting away on an unofficial Facebook page. I link my blog,
    to the Facebook page. The contractors have brought up the Blog during negotiations. Obviously they understand the power of the new social media.

    John Patrick Sullivan
    President, U.A. Steamfitters Local 602