What are the challenges for unions’ traditional ways of working in a digital world?
There’s a lot of talk out there about ‘digital disruption’. This is a process cited for the demise of newspapers, troubles in the music industry, the end of Kodak and the death of the high street.
Clearly some of the talk is over-blown, but there is definitely truth in the idea that there are a set of changes happening in the digital age that put stress on organisations who have previously been incumbents in their sector.
Do trade unions remain immune from the changes digital is wreaking on other organisations and other industries? My view: they are not immune – unions face a number of challenges in the digital age, and here are just a few…
1. Unions are smaller fish in a much bigger digital pond
Trade unions were built in a broadcast era. Many had the wherewithal to run newspapers and other broadcast channels. They had strong face-to-face communications networks and structures that could cascade messages down to millions of workers.
In recent years, unions have taken advantage of digital channels to save money on print (as any sensible organisation would do). That moves trade unions into direct competition with a great many other organisations who also use digital communications. The historic advantages unions had over these organisations in terms of direct access to people on the ground and the financial means to build their own channels for delivering communications are not relevant here.
UNISON is towards the front of the pack for UK trade unions in digital reach. But it is very far behind amongst people it should be reaching in society. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), a social research charity, has over 130,000 followers on Twitter. In comparison, the main UNISON Twitter account only has 40,000. The Facebook page of Cancer Research UK has 1.3m likes (as many as UNISON has members). UNISON’s page has 23,000. The people JRF and Cancer Research reach are likely to be similar to the people trade unions should reach – but are not.
2. Others are taking the union movement’s digital cake – and are eating it
It is relatively easy for smaller, more nimble organisations to pick off parts of the trade union ‘offer’. Others are eating into traditional union areas of leadership: workplace representation, activism and benefits and service provision.
Edapt is an example of an organisation using digital to compete with trade unions. It only offers legal support and representation to teachers, but it does it at a lower price than the teaching unions – it can do this because it focuses on delivering services digitally. Many no-win-no-fee lawyers fill similar roles in other industries – and run loss-leaders to bring people in with minimal risk to them.
The exclusive benefits and offers unions offer are also being undermined by digital innovations. Members are increasingly used to checking prices for holiday, insurance, energy prices and many other traditional areas of member benefits using online comparison sites. In addition, new initiatives such as The Big Switch initiative run by Which? and 38 Degrees are designed to take advantage of the same selling point that unions can bring: a large number of people able to get the best price for those participating.
Online activism sites often run campaigns about workplace issues. Because 38 degrees and others are tactical, looking at the symptoms of a problem and not the cause, they can focus on tangible asks. For example, they will protest the sacking of someone, and can achieve their goal in getting the person reinstated, but they won’t help stop it happening again.
In addition, the increasingly powerful organising tools individuals can access could mean an individual could effectively organise a proto-union in hours – with volunteers holding events, sending indications of their power and following to employers and demanding changes as a result. There’s even a specific activism site for union-like campaigns, Coworker.org, though this does build on simple petitions to get signatories in touch with organisers and using self-organising tools. As Australian unionist Alex White rightly asks, “if workers don’t need a union institution to win change in their workplace, what will cause them to join in the future?”
3. Unions can look less member-led in the digital age than they were before it
Unions are built on structures that cascade information down to workers – and bring views of the member back up the chain. Democratic structures have not, by and large, been updated for the digital age. Many quick routes to understanding people’s concerns and priorities through digital democratic engagement are not exploited. At a time when people are bombarded to engage digitally on many things they don’t care about from lots of other large organisations, they start noticing when there is no engagement on things they do care about from their union.
The very structure of unions, with a small base of highly committed activists, risks perpetuating a ‘filter bubble’ and causing them to lose touch with member views, as digital networking becomes a greater part of the population’s lives. Activists are likely to follow like-minded people. If and when the views of activists do not coincide with the views of other members, there is a danger that this could go unnoticed, simply because they may not hear as loudly or frequently alternative views in the social media or other channels they use. This could create an unintended disconnection between members’ views and decisions that are being made by their representatives, causing frustration and a loss of belief in the democratic relevance of unions.
Attempts at digital democracy or engagement can also conversely undermine democracy. It is quick and easy to send a survey to all members (or a subset of these) at the touch of a button. If even 5% respond, large unions will see tens of thousands of responses. Those are large numbers and it would seem sensible to make decisions based on such a large response rate. But it is often the same people who carry out online activities, time and time again. Unions that choose to use only digital consultation risk making decisions on flawed assumptions and potentially alienating members.
4. Members have the tools to point out publicly when unions don’t meet their expectations
Members’ experiences of help or advice services is generally defined by large private-sector service organisations — with large call centres and support teams. A call or email to these can be dealt with very quickly. In a union, the equivalent person to offer help and advice may well be a volunteer or someone with severely restricted facility time. It is not sensible to expect that many reps will be able to respond and help people at the same speed as these large teams can – at all times of the day or night. Yet that may well be the expectation a member has.
The digital age compounds this challenge because it offers any member a public space to sound off about their experience. Member’s voices have more weight amongst their friends and colleagues than the union’s does, and they can shout loud and hard using digital. If unions don’t deliver on promises, they will be taken to task – with comments that could put people off joining or encourage others to leave as a result.
5. Dispersed working makes it harder to be seen and heard by workers
There’s been lots written about the ‘gig economy’, Uberisation of work and similar trends within digital industries. Clearly one of the greatest challenges to unions is always adapting to changing employment patterns and fighting for recognition in new industries.
A major issue here is that workers don’t come together in traditional workplaces – or if they do their workplaces are more fragmented and dispersed. This may mean existing members have no direct access to their representatives and where union recruitment and visibility has essentially relied on face-to-face engagement to work, that suddenly becomes hard or impossible.
Have I got the challenges right? Are there other challenges I’m missing? Please leave your comments below…
UNISON’s digital work programme
As a response to the challenges above, UNISON is embarking on a two-year digital work programme that aims to increase the reach and quality of our digital engagement with members nationally and down to the level of thousands of individual branches. We are in the middle of a recruitment round for three key posts:
Interested in applying? We’d love to hear from you!