Does your union need a digital strategy?

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Does your union need a “digital” strategy?

At the risk of sounding contrarian, the answer is no.

I’ve previously written that unions don’t need strategies, that digital platforms entrench corporate power and wrote an entire guidebook for unions on digital campaigning. So I’m obviously being provocative.

My point is to emphasise that rather than having a separate plan in your union for “digital”, it should be embedded in everything your union does.

Unions don’t need digital strategies. They need clear, unambiguous priorities to transform to become more relevant to workers and effective for members in building power.

The point of digital tools, like email, social media, chat, database and AI that they are only worthwhile for a union if they assist building power. Technology of any kind, but especially digital technology and data, should be viewed as a “force multiplier”, a means to increase the effectiveness of your activities and plans.

Time and union resources on social media is pointless unless it serves a purpose, which is to create and share compelling content that leads people to join or remain members. The point of investing in online join forms is not about databases or retargeting or other fancy technology — they’re about enabling workers to join the union differently and more easily. The point of complex, detailed member databases, or chatbots, or AI-powered marketing automation is to enable unions to serve members and potential members better and more effectively. The point of web-enabled learning platforms and Zoom webinars is to ensure that unions are central to how workers and members see and experience their working life (i.e. to be more relevant and retain those members).

By creating a digital strategy, you risk focusing on the technology, rather than the outcome. As I’ve previously written, everything is digital now. This means your union’s priorities need to be enabled by digital tools, not driven by them.

Here’s a few examples of what I mean.

Some unions are investing in chatbots and chat tools embedded on the union’s website. This is something many customer-focused corporations are doing — it is ubiquitous across most utilities, large retail, banks, and platforms.

The purpose of these chat tools should not be to experiment with the latest machine learning platform, but rather for unions to ensure they are able to serve, assist and support members more effectively, so they have a positive union experience and remain a member or become more active (i.e. to build power). Their purpose is to give members simpler and different ways to communicate that are easier than other channels.

Similarly, some unions are starting to develop more sophisticated marketing automation capabilities, especially for email and SMS. The purpose of these digital tools is to provide a better experience for members, so they join or remain members, or become more active (i.e. build power).

A union strategy that focuses on digital as a silo can risk getting stuck in those silos. Developing a plan for chat, a plan for email, a plan for data, a plan for social… these are focused on the technology tools themselves, rather than on the union and its members.

The priority for a union should not be to have an online join form, it should be to enable workers to join their union easily and empower them — and one of the means of doing that would be to have a seamless, technology-enabled join form.

Similarly, a priority could be to ensure workers are treated with dignity and respect — and an AI powered chatbot is a technologically enabled tool to enable members to access powerful information about their legal rights… Which means members are better informed about their rights and can uphold them.

If you’re stuck thinking about digital and technology as a silo that needs its own strategy, then you may also get stuck in the trap of leaving “digital” to the tech-heads or communications officers. In fact, everything is digital, which means everyone in your union needs to be a part of adapting.

A major challenge for unions is low (or patchy) digital literacy across all levels. Transforming your union to become more effective means that our movement needs to really invest in training for our staff — especially training in digital literacy, and how staff can use basic digital tools effectively (like Slack, Teams, Office, Zoom, and your union’s member database).

Building power and winning doesn’t require a high tech, digitally enabled union, but your union will be far more effective if you completely embed the effective use of digital and technology tools at every level, from leadership to industrial officers to organisers to admin staff.

So my suggestion is: ditch the “digital” strategy. Instead, think how technology can be a “force multiplier”. Pick technology that will make the work of your union — your organisers, your industrial staff, your finance and admin staff — easier, faster and more effective.

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