Repost: Farewell from Creative Unions

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[box border=”full”]Reposted from Creative Unions[/box]

It was in 2009 that we founded Creative Unions, a new effort to raise the bar for trade union campaigning, design and communications. Our manifesto was “success doesn’t happen by accident, it happens by design” and we set about trying to find world-class examples of union campaigns.

Now, three years later, it’s time to end our experiment. We have both spent a life-time in the union movement, working for several different unions. Now, we are leaving the movement to pursue opportunities in other sectors.

We believed that unions, as the world’s greatest, most transformative social movement, were slow in taking up many of the new tools, techniques and standards that the rest of the non-profit sector were adopting. Across the globe, unions were facing pressure on membership numbers, conditions and members’ rights. We saw four areas that unions could improve:

1. Effective campaigning. Although unions were the birthplace of social campaigning, many unions were stuck using old, outdated techniques, or were largely responsive and ad hoc. We argued that union campaigns should be planned, research-driven and have clear goals.

2. Social media. Before the Arab Spring, we argued that social media was a potentially transformative communications medium that would allow unions to re-engage with members in a highly personal, meaningful way. We argued that ownership of unions’ social media must be given to members, and that unions should adopt best-practice.

3. Good writing. Unions once used powerful language and words that mobilised thousands and tens of thousands. Good copywriting would help remove jargon and insider-language that was now a hallmark of union writing. Our goal was for simple, clear and concise language, written with the audience in mind.

4. Graphic design. The connection between good communication and good design is clear, and a hundred years ago, unions were once at the forefront of graphic design. Today, many of the brochures, newsletters, posters and other material that unions produce is amateurish. Poor design standards do great disservice to unions, and we argued for unions to recognise the importance of design as a specialist skill in its own right, not something organisers or media officers should do in their spare time.

As we reflect on our successes and failures, and prepare to leave the union movement, we thought we’d leave you with some thoughts on what we have learned.

1.       Change is hard
We both underestimated the difficulty we faced in trying to change things. Both in our own union (the NTEU) and more broadly. Every day, we would face the challenge of people (organisers, union leaders, members, delegates) wanting to keep doing the same, comfortable (yet ineffective) things. We continued to see unions spend small fortunes on printing leaflets that were unreadable, or pursue losing campaigns with no goals, no measures, no research and no prospects. We continued to see unions set up social media accounts that then languished unattended or simply pushed out megaphone broadcasts. We continued to see newsletters, posters and websites filled with industrial jargon, written for insiders rather than for members.

Along the way, we did meet many inspiring comrades, in Australia and across the world, who shared our vision and beliefs. We are heartened that some people, some unions, have started along the road. We were encouraged to see the scores of amazing, powerful campaigns that unions are running in every corner of the world. Change may be hard, but it’s happening.

2.       Forge our own path and don’t be afraid to fail
When we started Creative Unions, we didn’t really know what we were doing. We knew we wanted to develop and improve design and communication standards, and that we wanted to look internationally. One of the early mistakes we made was overestimating how much people wanted to interact with this. While the positive support is overwhelming (we have over 1000 Facebook fans and Twitter followers), we found that people were more interested in watching and listening, than talking back. Similarly, our attempts to foster a broader community of union designers ran into the problem that both of us were working full time on our own union’s campaigns – there simply wasn’t time.

We tried a lot of different things. Some worked, some didn’t. Our Creative Unions pads were very popular, but also very expensive (and we financed Creative Unions almost entirely out of our own pockets). The few events we held were time-consuming and less successful than we’d hoped. Each success and failure was a valuable lesson, and we certainly weren’t afraid to say “this didn’t work”.

3.       There’s power in a union
Although both of us are leaving the movement as paid officials, we remain proud unionists and union members. The best thing of the last three years has been that Creative Unions has helped us see campaigns and union work that is, simply, incredible. We are both deeply honoured to have been able to promote the work of hundreds of unions to hundreds of other unions.

There is always the risk in unions of being too focused on our own work, our own members and the daily or weekly crises that occupy us. But the union movement’s strength is in our solidarity – the fact that we are an international movement that spans borders, race, gender and language. The breathtaking campaigns we saw came from every continent on earth, from every sector conceivable.

We are, and will remain, incredibly privileged to work for the members of our union. The work we have done with Creative Unions challenged us, depressed us, infuriated us, and inspired us.

In solidarity
Atosha McCaw and Alex White.

12 responses to “Repost: Farewell from Creative Unions”

  1. miquel loriz Avatar

    Hi Alex,

    It’s a pity that you leave the union movement. I guess that for most of us, you and your posts have been a source of inspiration, and an incentive to spread the need for a better and more social communication in our unions.

    I only con wish you a bright future in your new challenges.

    Thank you for a lot of things.

    1. Alex Avatar

      Thanks Miquel. While I’ll be leaving the union movement as a full-time official, I will be remaining an active union member.

  2. Barry Hock Avatar
    Barry Hock

    Alex, I look forward to your weekly updates, e-books and other online material and wonder if you are closing them down too. There is so little insightful analysis about union communications. What a great loss if you cant continue. I reference your work frequently and hope that, under any circumstances, you will leave them online. Best of luck in your endeavors. I hope you’ll let us know about your future work. Thanks so much for your commitment.

    Barry Hock
    National Writers Union
    UAW Local 1981

    1. Alex Avatar

      Thanks Barry, I’m glad to hear you find this blog useful. Don’t worry. The only site that is closing down is Creative Unions. I will continue to blog (although the union-focus may be watered down a little). Thanks also for your well-wishes.

  3. Morna Ballantyne Avatar

    How true that change is hard. But your web site was very helpful to the many of us who push from within to think strategically and write clearly. Thank you for keeping it going as long as you did and best of luck in your new adventures.

    1. Alex Avatar

      Thanks Morna. I appreciate it. 🙂

  4. Bob Miller Avatar
    Bob Miller

    Hi all,
    Sorry to see this useful service has not been taken up by the unions. Best of luck with future ventures.

  5. Jess Day Avatar
    Jess Day

    Sorry to hear this – your resources are really valuable. Will the e-books etc still remain online? I’ve just recommended them in some online resources for UK union reps I’ve been working on. Best wishes with your next move, but the union movement is the poorer. I agree that a fresh approach to communication is really overdue in many cases.

    1. Alex Avatar

      Hi Jess, thanks for the comment, I’m glad that my e-books have been useful. Don’t worry, this blog will continue, along with all its posts and e-books. Only Creative Unions is winding up.

  6. John Avatar

    HI Alex,
    Congrats on the new move – hope it works out well for you. As others say, it’s a real shame for the rest of us to be losing your strong focus on the labour movement in an area where we are probably always going to need that kind of help, but I hope you’re able to keep influencing us by drawing out lessons for unions and activism from good practice in the work you’re on to next. Thanks for all you & Atosha have done on this (so far!)

    1. Alex Avatar

      Hi John, I really appreciate your kind words and encouragement. Thanks.

  7. James B Avatar


    Just wanted to compliment you on an excellent site with some invaluable resources first of all, and also to say I was sorry to hear creative unions is winding up – but best of luck with future endeavours of course.

    I wondered, is the creative unions manifesto available elsewhere online, now the cu site is no more? It was a really useful document and i’d love to have a copy.

    All the best,

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