Beyond email and the web: A union uses text messaging to mobilize its members

I often tell people that I work with unions and the new communications technologies and get asked if that means email and the web. It doesn’t; it means those technologies plus others, including some which have not been invented yet.

While unions have started to get around to using email intensively and most have websites, there are still technologies which, though widely used by the general public, are still barely used by unions.
Early in October the 1.3 million member American Federation of Teachers announced that it would be the first union in the United States to use text messaging to mobilize its members.
On October 3, 2006, the AFT apparently made history by sending a message to its members urging them to volunteer in support of pro-union candidates in the upcoming elections.
What struck me as odd was the AFT’s claim to be the first union, at least in the US, to have done this.
After all, use of mobile phones and text messaging is far more widespread than the use of email and the web.
For many poor and working class people, a personal computer is an expensive luxury, but a mobile phone is — a phone. According to some reports, there will be two billion (two thousand million) mobile phone users worldwide by 2007. And by mid-2004, it was estimated that some 500 billion messages per annum were being sent out; that’s almost 100 messages per human being on the planet every year. Today, the numbers are certainly higher.
Unions in developed countries which do not use text messaging are not only failing to use a cheap and effective way to reach large numbers of their members, especially younger ones.
Unions need to begin by collecting the mobile phone numbers of members into the union membership database.
They also need to consider how text messaging changes the nature of the message. The limit on the number of characters you can send through a single text message is quite low, well under 200 characters. There are many trade union officials who can barely say “hello” in so few words. Unions will need to be able to condense their messages to the shortest possible length in order to use text messaging effectively.
But of course that’s a skill that useful for other things too, such as keeping an email message, or even an article or report, concise and to the point.