Using Google Docs in your union campaign

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Google Documents is a free online service that provides word processing and spreadsheets that are stored online (in the “cloud”).

Google Docs basically allows you to mimic Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint. The main feature (in my view) is that it is online, so it can be accessed from any computer connected to the Internet, and the second main feature is that files can be edited by multiple people at the same time.

Most of the basic features from the Office Suite are available – formatting, basic calculations, and so on – are available, although Google Docs is not as powerful as MS Office – yet. For basic word processing and spreadsheet work (without pivot tables and other advanced features) are more than capable of being handled by Google Docs. It also makes a change history for files, like the “track changes” function in Word – so you can go back and see who’s made what changes, and undo them if necessary. Files created or imported into Google Docs can be exported into native Word files – it can also read most common file types – such as .doc files and .xls files.

Google Docs is a potentially powerful tool for unions. It allows the creation of files that multiple people can edit and update. Changes appear immediately, and two or more people can open, view and edit the same file at the same time. The creator of the file can set access rights for individuals or groups – allowing some people to view the file only, and others to view and edit.

Drafting documents

Unions draft 100s of documents – from campaign leaflets to logs-of-claims, media releases, collective agreement clauses and letters of dispute notification – and more! Many of these documents are sent via email to scores of people, all of whom may make edits. This creates multiple versions of the same document, resulting in someone having to reconcile them.

Google Docs allows for the creation of a single, “master” document, that can be edited by multiple people simultaneously. All of the edits appear in the same place, and it is easy for the document owner (or decision maker) to revert unwanted changes. This can dramatically speed up drafting of documents, and allow more people (such as delegates, elected officials or staff) to be consulted in drafting important files. It also solves the problem of having several different versions of the same document.

Unions could also use Google Docs to develop draft logs of claims or agreement clauses. The membership could log in to Google Docs using a generic log in, and allowed to make changes. This could operate in a similar fashion to “wikis” – allowing open collaboration by a large number of people. Alternatively, access to edit the document could be limited to the “bargaining team”.

Maintaining databases

Google Docs offers spreadsheets. A big part of organising is maintaining good, accurate databases of members, work sites, density, and so on. Google Docs can easily provide this function – but allows multiple people to access the information at once. An excel spreadsheet on a network can only be opened and edited by one person at once. Google Docs doesn’t have this problem.

For unions that give organisers smart phones – Google Docs can be viewed remotely using a smart phone (such as the iphone or an Android phone). Thus, an organiser can check someone’s membership while on site, rather than waiting to get back to the office.

Databases can also be viewed and edited by remote union offices. For unions that have branch offices in several distant locations, this can be very useful. Rather than having to email files to remote organisers, they can log in online, and access and edit the database.

Reducing Costs

Few unions have lots of money to spend on unnecessary IT, and Microsoft relies on the expensive enterprise licenses for its Office Suite to make its mega-bucks. A union that did not require the “power tools” of MS Office’s advanced features could ditch Microsoft altogether and rely on Google Docs. (Of course, access relies on an Internet connection.)

Google Docs is free to use for not-for-profit organisations (and is only $50 per user per year for other organisations – cheap!). A union could also look at using Google Apps – a “native” version of many different Google services (including Gmail). This would allow unions to have their Google services appear as a part of their website. For example, LEAN uses Google Apps – so our Google Docs doesn’t use “”, but rather “”. A union could have “” to access all of the Google Docs services. Access would require log in of course.

Eric Lee from LabourStart has written about how there are alternatives to Microsoft Office, such as OpenOffice. My view is that online services are becoming increasingly competitive, and the collaboration features are far more useful than anything currently available from OpenOffice or Microsoft Office.

Case study: Google Spreadsheets and mass-call database

Recently, at the union I work for, we made extensive use of Google Docs for a State-wide campaign, coordinating around 100 union officials, delegates and activists over around a month. I recommended Google Docs be used as the main storage point for databases. The campaign involved calling the majority of the union’s members. So as to track how many calls were made, and to whom, we needed a database that was easy to use and accessible to multiple people simultaneously.

Google Docs allowed us to create the database of people we wanted to call. Union staff and activists could start calling immediately, from their desks or from the locally established call centre. They were able to update information straight from their internet browser. Because the updates were live, it meant that there wasn’t any cross-over in calls. Anyone else accessing the spreadsheet could see that someone had already started the call. Members responses could be tracked live, as could the number of calls made. This was very useful strategically, as it allowed me (coordinating everything) to determine if we were on track to making enough calls, or whether we needed additional resources and support.

The feedback from union staff and activists who used Google Docs was very positive. It was easy to use – just like using Excel. Mistakes could be undone easily. It allowed them to see who else was making calls – so they could keep each other accountable. For activists it also made them feel part of a larger effort than just a single person making calls.

Case Study: Google Forms and signup

Another excellent use for Google Docs is its “Forms” function. It allows the creation of online forms, such as contact forms, that people can fill out. The data collected by these forms is then stored in a Google Spreadsheet. The forms are completely customisable, with lots of options such as check boxes, drop down menues and so on.

The form I created is for the Sustainable Campus campaign – and is a signup form to allow activists to register their interest in participating.

As most members at the union I work have a computer with Internet access, and they regularly check their email, we decided an online signup form was best.

Google Docs allowed its easy creation, and I was able to easily embed it in the web page. We are then able to get live results for the number of people who’ve signed up to the campaign. This information can be exported as an .xls file or other file types, and used to create email lists, mailing lists and so on.

4 responses to “Using Google Docs in your union campaign”

  1. PeterHJ Avatar

    Thanks for this excellent, focussed review of a great set of tools. I'll cross-post this story into the rss feed on the New Unionism site (assume that's okay??). All the best with the work you are doing.

  2. Alexander White Avatar

    Hi Peter – more than happy for New Unionism to add this to its RSS feed. Thanks for the compliment.

  3. David Tomkins Avatar

    Hi Alex

    You don’t have any concerns about the security of your union membership data on Google Docs?

    I am hesitant to move our union to cloud computing because of the risk of a security breach.

    1. admin Avatar

      My view is that if your current database is accessible online (that is, people can access it remotely), then it is as vulnerable as Google Docs, if not more. I’ve seen lots of examples of union staff having low security passwords, or not updating their passwords. The main security issue (although not the only one) for organisations using cloud computing is to do with people, not the technology.

      If you are concerned about the physical location of the data (i.e. the servers) then it is possible to contact Google to ensure that the servers used a located in Australia.

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