Five effective political lobbying tools for unions

Unions and union members are the largest voluntary associations in Australia, representing millions of workers in tens of thousands of work places. Legislation can have a profound impact on the rights and entitlements of working people, such as changes to occupational health and safety, tax, industrial relations, and trade and industry policy.

It is therefore entirely natural for unions and union members to lobby parliamentarians. Over the last few years, many unions have increasingly sent delegations of members to Canberra or State Parliaments to meet with key Members of Parliament, Ministers and advisors.

With the Federal election coming up this year, and state elections in Victoria in November 2010, it is timely to consider some effective lobbying tools. I’ve written here about two tips for union members to lobby their MPs – which is pretty general advice. Below are five more concrete tools for unions and union members to lobby their MPs.

1. Direct Contact

Direct contact covers a range of different tools, including letters, phone calls, emails, and faxes, urging a certain position on a specific issue.

  • Letters: Letters are fairly effective, but only if they are written by local constituents. Members of Parliament tend to ignore letters from people outside their electorates. They also tend to ignore “form letters” – since it is obvious that they are from the same campaign. Far better to get union members to write their own letters but provide “taking points” or an issue briefing so that members can easily see the main issues, but write the letter in their own words.
  • Phone calls: Again, phone calls are only valuable from constituents (this will be a theme), and it is unlikely that any callers will be able to personally speak to the MP. However, the electorate officers will take notes of calls, especially if there are lots of calls about the same issue. Unions considering this should provide talking points for their members, as well as some simple Q and As so that the members can rebut any party or government lines.
  • Emails: Email campaigning was originally thought of as revolutionary. Supposedly you could get hundreds or thousands of people to press a button and send an email to a boss or politician. However, recently it’s become clear that for email campaigns to succeed, the volume of emails must by truly massive. Eric Lee suggests that an email campaign needs a minimum of 5,000 or so emails, and from my experience in organising several email campaigns, this is about on the money. Politicians get so many emails that its easy for them to ignore email campaigns of any size except the truly massive. Filtering technology allows MPs to easily partition their inboxes to that it doesn’t impact their work. Similarly, by emailing MPs, Ministers or a boss, you hand over the contact details of your supporters. In several cases, I’m aware of Ministers and bosses emailing each of the protesters back with a carefully written rebuttal of the campaign. Unions should be aware of this eventuality and plan for a contingency. Nevertheless, email campaigns are great ways to build your email lists. Personal, custom written emails from your supporters are far more effective, and a letter has more power than an email.
  • Fax: This is a fairly old-school lobbying technique, and mass-fax campaigns do little except waste paper. I’ve spoken with several MPs who’ve been subject to fax campaigns, and in each case they advised me that their electorate officers disposed of the mass faxes. The net impact: zero.

The general advice, which is fairly standard, is that personal emails, letters and calls from constituents are more effective than form emails and letters. Phone calls are more effective than letters, which are more effective than emails. Faxes (in my view) are least effective.

2. Personal Intercepts

Personal contact is most effective of all. The contact need not be with the politician, but can be with their electorate officers and advisors. There are several places that this personal contact can occur: meetings in the MP’s electorate or parliamentary office, at fundraisers, debates, or public events like street-stalls or town-hall meetings. Unions in Australia can also try to make contact with Labor MPs or advisors at branch meetings or policy committee meetings.

This kind of contact can be either union members, or officials. In either case, the person making contact should be properly briefed on the issue, and, most importantly, seek some kind of commitment. This could be a formal meeting, a pledge (see below) or some kind of assistance or statement.

Contact can then be followed up – and the union should consider whether this follow up can be made public. For example, the union could write a letter to the local paper reporting on the meeting and any outcomes. They could write a blog post on their website. Or they could get the union member to call the local talk-back radio to recap the encounter. Of course, the union and union members should make sure that they are not revealing discussions that they undertook to keep confidential.

3. Pledges and Surveys

This is a tactic used often in the USA, and sometimes by conservative groups in Australia. They are surveys or pledge letters sent to MPs asking them for a public statement on their position on a particular issue.

The pledge can be useful for both political persuasions. For example, the union could send a pledge asking the candidate or MP to pledge that “I, candidate X, pledge not to vote to to remove the rights of working people…” If the candidate or MP responds in an unfavourable way (or does not respond at all), that is an opportunity to get some local news.

Similarly, MPs or candidates that respond positively can be future allies on that issue, and could be followed up with a letter or personal visit.

4. Social Media

I’ve written extensively on how unions can use social media. During elections, social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can be useful as both a media aggregator for campaign media stories, and also to disseminate key messages.

In my view, email is the most effective way to get your message out and to have supporters actually do something in the real world. Email is also useful in building a following on Facebook or Twitter. Analytics can ensure that you can see how effective your efforts are.

Importantly, social media is not a magical solution, but it can make a small campaign look much larger than it really is.

It is also useful platform to get free media. Political parties do this all the time by releasing a campaign advertisement on YouTube rather than on television. This ad nevertheless gets played on prime-time news, amplifying its effect much more than it ever would by itself. A key element to ads like this is production quality – the YouTube ads should be television quality in both sound and vision.

5. SMS/Text Messaging

Smart phones are becoming ubiquitous and almost everyone with a mobile phone knows how to send and receive text messages. The technology to use SMS effectively is also becoming affordable, giving supporters and union members instantaneous updates, event details, campaign messages and links to online campaign websites.

Similarly, unions can also encourage members to send text messages to MPs or bosses.

It boggles me that the ACTU Rights at Work campaign doesn’t have an iPhone app or apps for Android or Blackberry phones (UPDATE: I’m advised that work is being done on an iPhone and Android app – although there is not one currently). Similarly, I’m aware of no Australian political party with an iPhone app (although that’s the subject of another post).

Iphone apps for unions could have a range of uses, including making campaign videos and other media available on a member’s phone, as well as make facts and figures available immediately, and allow members to be directly “patched” to an MP’s office to have a phone conversation. Iphone apps could also allow union members to sign petitions and send emails on the go.

Most of the tools I’ve gone through here are fairly standard and mostly low-tech. I hope to see some innovation from the union movement, both in Australia and for the mid-term elections in the United States.

With most Australians online and owning mobile phones, even unions that cover blue collar industries, or low-paid service sectors will find that their members have regularly checked email addresses, Facebook accounts and oft-used SMS capable phones.

3 thoughts on “Five effective political lobbying tools for unions”

    1. They may well be working on an iPhone app. They don’t have one at the moment (to my knowledge).

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