Trade unionists on the net

This article appeared in both the print and online editions of Solidarity.

LabourStart has just completed the first ever large-scale, global survey of trade union use of the net.
More than 1,300 union members participated in the survey, nearly all of them from English speaking countries (the survey was in English). Much of what we learned will surprise no one. But some of the results were important and in some cases unexpected. Here is some of what we learned…
Nearly everyone uses Facebook. If you’re on Facebook, you probably already know this. But those who aren’t may think that Facebook is some kind of passing fad, or something used by students only. The survey revealed that 88% were Facebook users and 60% said their unions had a presence on that social network.
The next most popular social network used by the trade unionists who responded was UnionBook, followed by LinkedIn. Less than a third said they used Twitter.
Second Life, the virtual world that was the subject of considerable interest by (among others) the TUC in recent years, has almost no union members involved in it. In spite of well-publicised and well-funded investments in a “Union Island” on Second Life, only two percent of those who responded admit to being part of this virtual world.
We learned that trade unionists are largely satisfied with their national union’s websites, but somewhat dissatisfied with (or unaware of) local union websites. Over 91% of those who responded said they visited their national union websites daily or sometimes. Only 73% said the same about local union websites. And while almost 65% rated their national union websites as “excellent” or “good”, only 45% said the same about local union sites. Four times as many rated their local union website as “poor” as compared to the national union website.
Unions are apparently making no use at all of the possibilities offered by smartphones and tablet computers (such as iPads). Even though over a third of the respondents said they accessed the net using smartphones and tablets, less than 5% believed that their union had an “app” for such devices.
We asked people where unions should be investing in these technologies and the most popular answers were email lists and online recruitment of new members. The least popular choices were Internet radio broadcasts and creating apps for smartphones and tablets.
So, what should unions be doing? Unions need to invest more in creating high-quality local union sites.
They need to stop wasting money and time on fads such as Second Life and instead invest in the social networks where trade unionists actually spend their time.
Instead of bells and whistles on their websites, they need to focus on practical applications such as recruiting new members and using tried and tested technology such as email lists.
But a word of caution: the wisdom of crowds isn’t always so wise. One wonders why those trade unionists who use smartphones and tablet computers — of which there are many — don’t see a need for their unions to maximise their presence by having apps of their own. That may change over time.