The blog of Eric Lee - web design and internet consulting for the trade union movement.

Workers of the world - you have nothing to lose but your ZIP codes

Workers of the world -- okay, it's too much to ask for you to unite. But at least try to understand that there are some workers who do not live in your country.

If that sounds like it's a little bit harsh, maybe you haven't visited some union websites lately.

Here are a three examples, all taken from the USA:

* Wal-Mart is the world's number one anti-union employer, with around 1.7 million employees. One third of its stores are currently located outside the USA, with that number rapidly expanding. Unions have correctly thrown massive resources at global campaigns targetting the company. At the center of one of those efforts is the wonderful Wal-Mart Watch website. At the very top of every page, it (correctly) reminds visitors that they can "Receive updates and local alerts on how you can take action against Wal-Mart" -- asking them for their email addresses. And ZIP codes. But people outside of the USA don't have ZIP codes. (There's no indication on the site that putting in your ZIP code is optional, which it is.)

* The United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) -- a very worthwhile organization which I hesitate to criticize -- is running an online campaign in support of workers in El Salvador. I'd love to send off a message, but I can't. Their online form requires me to select which US state or Canadian province I live in.

* If you're looking to buy union products, you can visit the AFL-CIO's website, click through to (this is sounding promising), and you wind up at a website called 'America@Work' offering you '100% American-made' things to buy. As on so many US union websites, "Buy union" and "Buy American" seem to be synonyms.

The corporate world is increasingly becoming aware of these issues. Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen has written some guidelines suggesting the minimum that companies should do to ensure "that international users can use your site". What applies to companies applies equally well to us. Does your union website meet all (or any) of these guidelines?

1. On your web-based forms, make the field for name a single field -- not separate fields for first and last names. Why not? In many countries, people only have one name. And in some countries, the first name is the family name. (Think China.)

2. Use Unicode on your site to correctly display -- and receive -- non-Latin characters, or even Latin characters with accents. If you don't know what Unicode is and you're responsible for a union website, it's time you learned.

3. Don't use the expression 'ZIP code' if you want visitors from outside the US to use your site. If you are collecting postal addresses, use something like "Postal/ZIP code" instead.

4. Don't require state or province on a form if you want people from outside of the USA and Canada to be able to sign up.

5. For phone numbers, allow for international numbers containing a varying number of digits and a country code -- and allow people to key in the plus (+) character which is often used to indicate the international dialling prefix. Many sites currently block such characters, or require phone numbers to be put into fixed-size fields which are not appropriate outside the USA.

6. If you're using any measurements on your site, make sure you have them in their metric equivalents. In most of the world, people have no idea what an "inch" means. This is particularly important when discussing health and safety issues. Imagine the confusion if a reader outside of the USA reads that Americans are allowed to work outdoors when the temperature is, say, 40 degrees. In Celsius, that's very hot.

7. For dates, spell out the name of the month. In most of the world, 9/11 is the ninth of November.

8. Where possible, make your site available in multiple languages. Even if your site is only aimed at, for example, residents of the USA, you will want it to be available in Spanish as well as English.

Some of this admittedly sounds trivial. And of little concern to those of you who are not union webmasters.

But think back to our examples. If USAS had followed these guidelines, it would have more people from around the world sending off protest messages in support of those workers in El Salvador. And Wal-Mart Watch would begin to get people active who live outside the USA -- even Canadians -- and who want to campaign against the company.

As for "Buy union" and "Buy American" being used interchangeably -- well, Jakob Nielsen's guidelines don't help much there. Convincing trade unionists that their real allies are their fellow workers in all countries (and not their employers at home) is what it's all about, isn't it?