Trade union websites: Maximizing their use

According to recent Internet surveys, there are now around 580,000,000 people online. Most of them live in North America and Europe. That number continues to swell even after the “dotcom bubble” burst, and even though in many industrialised countries, Internet growth seems to have reached a plateau.
In light of these nominally huge numbers of Internet users, we wanted to look closer on how IMF affiliates use ? and not use ? the World Wide Web and email.

Let’s start with some numbers. The IMF has more than 200 affiliates in 100 countries from Algeria to Zimbabwe. Of these, fewer than 70 have websites. Two-thirds of the affiliates do not have websites.
There is a clear digital divide between North and South. For example, the IMF counts twelve affiliates in Nordic countries, and all twelve of these have websites. It has eighteen affiliates on the Indian subcontinent, in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Not a single one of these has a website. In all of Africa, only one IMF affiliate has a website. In North America, they all do.
Some of the most successful trade union websites we’ll look at come from countries where Internet penetration is very high indeed. Research identifies Sweden, Australia, the Netherlands and Hong Kong as the world’s most “mature” Internet markets, though the largest populations of Internet users in Europe were in Germany and Britain.
We looked closer at fifteen websites spread out over all the continents, in five different languages.
The first websites put up by trade unions in the mid-1990s were little more than online brochures. Very few offered anything in the way of updated news ? indeed, they were often left unchanged and untouched for months and years at a time. Instead of being electronic newspapers providing up-to-the-minute news and information, they were more like monuments carved in stone.
Today, all that has changed. Most of the websites we reviewed feature current news items on the very front page of the site, updated on a daily basis.
Germany’s IG Metall union and Korea’s KMWF lead the way with updated news ? in some cases several times a day. Other unions lag far behind. South Africa’s Numsa even apologises on its front page for the website not being updated in recent years, and promises to rectify the situation soon. Some websites are updated with news quite frequently, but it’s not obvious from the first glance. For example, Australia’s AMWU has lots of news on the front page, but unlike most sites, it’s all undated.
The introduction of “streaming” multimedia to the web in the mid-1990s promised to turn everyone’s PC into a television set, and every webmaster into a global television broadcaster. That vision hasn’t yet become real, in part because it takes broadband Internet access to truly enjoy television and radio broadcasts through the net.
Nevertheless, several IMF-affiliated unions are making impressive use of digital video on their websites. Canada’s CAW has had a professionally produced weekly video news for several years now. Australia’s AMWU includes five short videos on its site, while the USA’s IAMAW has over 25 online videos listed on their news page.
The web is all too often seen as a one-to-many broadcasting tool. Unions can use it to “get the message out” to members. This is, of course, an entirely legitimate use of the web. But the technology also allows many-to-many communications ? visiting a website can resemble watching television or listening to the radio or reading a newspaper, but it can also resemble attending a union meeting.
Unions have not rushed forward to use online discussion tools for a number of reasons. One of these is certainly the concern that such forums could quickly get out of control ? and to keep them effective, one would need moderators, which is a time-consuming and costly task. Even though most unions don’t offer online discussion through their national websites, there are exceptions. And many union branches and local organisations do use web forums, even if the national unions do not.
Brazil’s CNM-CUT has a chat room, but the leader of the pack has to be Korea’s KMWF with its discussion forums. These are open to all members and a glance will show dozens of messages posted every day. At one particular forum, there were already over 15,400 messages posted.
A top priority for all unions is organising. In many countries, union membership is in free-fall as centers of traditional union strength (such as manufacturing) shut down or move to countries (such as China) which are union-free. You would think that unions would make use of the web to recruit new members ? indeed, that this would be a priority on their websites.
But the reality is that most of the websites reviewed made only a half-hearted effort in this direction.
The IMF’s three Australian affiliates either allow potential members to request an application form which will be sent to them, or an information packet, or in one case ? nothing at all. The website just provides some answers to questions about union membership, but there’s no obvious way to even begin the process of joining online.
Not one of the four Canadian unions allows you to join online either. One gives out contact details for the membership department; another posts some email addresses you can write to; one gives out some phone numbers you can call; and the last allows you to fill in an online form ? but it’s not clear what happens when you click on submit (presumably, the union contacts you).
Two of the U.S. unions allowed you to fill in forms and later be contacted by the union.
An outstanding exception is Amicus MSF (British Section of the IMF). That site now allows potential members to join online, and to receive an email confirmation that they are members of the union.
The web’s potential for personalisation ? i.e. showing content according to the preferences of every single visitor ? is not new. Back around 1997, personalisation was a very hot concept and all the major commercial websites rushed to implement the concept, with varying degrees of success. To this day, the Amazon website remains the best example of what can be done. This is a site which not only greets you, but which you feel actually knows you. The more times you visit, the better the website becomes aware of who you are. Amazon uses very sophisticated technology to guess what products will interest you (based both on what you have purchased, and even what you have looked at). Unions could also move down the same path ? though few have done so, so far.
The first step toward true personalisation is to support logging-in for members ? and the creation of a members-only section of the website which includes documents and tools not available to the general public.
Svenska Metall has a membership portal called “My Metal” which gives members of the union much personalised content, such as collective agreements, online education tools, messages from the local, etc. According to Juhani Kulo, responsible for web strategy, more than 8,000 members of the union have signed up to use the portal, only one year after its introduction. (This is about two per cent of the union’s membership.) About 650 members per day log in to this portal and the union has ambitious plans for its future.
The IAMAW website in Canada has no fewer than four different members-only sections, according to webmaster Frank Saptel. Ian Curry of Australia’s AMWU says that his union’s website has a members-only section, but “it is not yet complete” and “has limited effect.”
Unions are increasingly using the web as a campaigning tool. This is done with varying degrees of effectiveness, and sometimes on an international level.
The CAW has a number of campaigns online and has a facility for members to fax their Members of Parliament. The IAMAW site in the U.S. allows members to send messages to Members of Congress and other elected officials; indeed, on this site “Politics and legislation” is the first thing you see on the menu.
Korea’s KMWF website opens with a striking photo of Bae Dal-ho, who burned himself to protest against the company’s brutal suppression of union members (ed: see separate article on page 6). From that special front page, you choose whether to go into the regular KMWF site, or straight into a special campaigning site focussing on Doosan.
Some unions continue to urge visitors to their websites to support campaigns, but then don’t give them an online way to do so. For example, the UAW has an appeal from locked out members of Local 1832 ? but to show your support, you are asked to phone up the president of the company.
The imagination is the limit when it comes to thinking what else should go on a trade union website.
The Numsa website, for example, has a section of “workers’ poetry”. This includes a submission by Aubrey Saki “on behalf of VW Numsa shop stewards” and was entitled “The spirit of Mbuyiselo Ngwenda,” in memory of the union’s general secretary. (A helpful link appended to the end of the poem brings us to a page with a biography of Ngwenda.)
Numsa also includes an advice column for workers called “Ask Judi”. Members write in with questions about housing loans and grants for higher education, and Judi Madumo answers them.
There is little point in doing all these fine things on union websites if no one is visiting the sites. That’s why it’s essential to monitor and analyse traffic to your websites. One of the worst ways to do this is by putting a visible counter on your page. This not only reflects a lack of professionalism, but also reveals to employers just how few visitors your site has.
One IMF-affiliated union website boasts on its front page of having had around 16,000 visitors in the last two-and-a-half years. That’s only around 17 per day ? and this in a union with over 230,000 members. That’s not very impressive, and certainly not something you’d want the world to know.
When we asked unions to tell us how many visitors their sites were getting, we ran into the whole problem of counting. What is a “hit”? What’s a “unique visitor”? Svenska Metall is getting 3,000 visitors per day to its site, or over 90,000 per month. Canada’s CEP gets over 11,000 unique visitors per month. IAMAW Canada gets around 4,000 unique visitors per month. Other webmasters gave us figures in “hits” which count every graphic image and are useless measures of web traffic.
Clearly, we still have a long way to go to get members to visit our websites.
We asked some of the webmasters for their advice to unions that don’t have websites or were thinking of changing or improving their existing ones.
Frank Saptel of the IAMAW in Canada stressed the uniqueness of the web and urged trade union webmasters to “engage” with the union membership. “Put items of interest to them, not only what you think they should know.”
Pierre Rose, webmaster for the CEP in Canada, whose website is one of the more successful ones when it comes to getting traffic, stresses the importance of promoting the website. “We need to direct our members to the site to maximise its usefulness,” he says.
John Gillies of Australia’s CEPU thinks that putting together a team before the site is launched ? to plan and generate timely, relevant, regular content for the site once it is launched. He also thinks that the “real strength” of a union website is revealed during “major disputes and protracted negotiations” ? because the web allows us “to spread the union word.”
Finally, Ian Curry of Australia’s AMWU reminds us that it takes time to build a union presence on the web and sums up his advice in three words: “Stick to it.”
IMF-affiliated unions have clearly come a long way in a few short years. For dozens of unions and tens of thousands of their members, websites ? and email ? have become essential tools for trade union work.
We have some excellent examples of organisations whose work should be emulated, such as the wildly successful online discussion forums of the KMWF, or the weekly video news broadcasts done by the CAW, or online recruitment at Amicus MSF, or the membership portal created by Svenska Metall.
By highlighting such examples of best practice, as well as pointing out some cases where we could be doing better, perhaps we contribute something to moving all our unions forward.
Published in Metal World, the magazine of the International Metalworkers Federation.