|Issue No 27||20 August 1999|
Technology for the Times
Extracted from [email protected]
- Report of the ACTU Overseas Delegation April/May 1999
New technology offers exciting opportunities which help union growth, according to this extract from [email protected].
The internet and e-mail allow members, delegates and officials to communicate quickly and effectively, call centres offer efficiency gains, and the potential of websites to boost campaigns is largely unexploited. Effectively managing a process of change in the union is important in achieving growth.
THE KEY ISSUES FROM OVERSEAS
Some overseas unions are using call centres to streamline and professionalise the way they handle inquiries and provide services and, at the same time, allow other resources to be redirected into organising and recruiting. Unions generally contract their requirements to a major call centre operator.
Opportunities with IT
Unions are exploring ways of using computers, e-mail and the internet to communicate, boost campaigning capacity, link delegates, and speed organisational change. The wildly enthusiastic welcoming of the internet as a tool of empowerment for workers, as a great leveller between corporations and workers internationally, is far from realisation - but it is an increasingly useful tool. The union representing hydro-electricity workers in Quebec attracts new members via its website.
Dealing with change
The pursuit of membership growth through delegate education, workplace organisation, and recruitment at non-union sites is a demanding and difficult process of change that is often compounded by shrinking revenues.
The AFL-CIO has established an Organisational Change Working Group to help union locals maintain representational effectiveness and shift resources into organising. The Working Group also examines ways in which national unions can promote change at the local level.
Successful change requires a well-focused strategy, efficient and professional resource management, and vigorous leadership. Leading overseas unions and peak councils employ executive assistants with broad political, administrative and managerial skills to work with and advise senior leadership on strategic issues.
Many General Secretaries of unions in Great Britain have attended a strategic planning and management course at Cranfield University. A number of unions, such as the AEEU in Great Britain, a large electrical and engineering union, routinely assess the performance of officials and staff.
Scrutinising traditional approaches
Union structures and methods are being overhauled in response to falling membership in traditional industries and occupations, and the necessity to attract and involve young people, women, shift workers, and casuals. Decades-old branch structures and meeting procedures are giving way to communications through technology and other flexible approaches driven by issues and the new preferences of members. Surveys are used to identify issues, test the effectiveness of unions, and fine-tune campaigns. Updated media and marketing methods are also emerging.
Economies of scale
Unions are negotiating with hardware manufacturers and internet service providers for discounted purchasing and leasing deals, free internet access, website development, and training and advisory support.
Unions in the US have negotiated a 50% discount on telephone usage in union offices, Swedish unions have bargained with suppliers for discounted electricity, and there are a range of union discount and credit card arrangements.
ILLUSTRATION OF THE KEY ISSUES - CASE STUDIES FROM OVERSEAS
UNISON embraces change
UNISON is Britain's largest union, with 1.3-million public sector members - but it must recruit 150,000 members each year just to stand still. UNISON strategically reviewed its operations as an initial step towards change. As part of that review union surveys revealed that:
∑ one in four members do not know their shop steward;
∑ four in ten workplaces do not have a shop steward; and
∑ people will join a union if asked, providing the union offers reasonable service.
UNISON responded to these challenges by becoming an "organising union", and by streamlining its operations using new technology. It established a call centre called UNISONdirect, which is contracted to a major call centre company. The call centre is seen as the key to providing more cost-effective advice and information, and releasing resources for delegate education and organising.
UNISONdirect is a free-call service and is still being developed. It currently receives about 1,500 calls per week. Three main numbers give access to shop stewards, members, and membership inquiries. Agents can generate a personalised membership application form based on information given by callers, and a 999 service deals with urgent cases - dismissal, suspension, disciplinary, or harassment. The call centre also provides information on union services.
If a member needs immediate help, the call centre agent contacts an organiser through a pager or e-mail. Eventually, organisers will be armed with hand-held computers, giving them access to e-mail, facsimile and the internet. Defining the level of industrial advice that can be given by the call centre is a dynamic issue, but the long-term objective is to ease the servicing and advisory workload of officials.
The union also uses the outgoing call facility to handle 'customer care' calls - to check that the member received the expected level of service.
UNISON has also harnessed new communication technology, offering free internet access to members under an arrangement with POPTEL, a non-profit internet service provider.
The internet and e-mail will be used to communicate with and organise members, and UNISON will eventually provide all delegates with internet links and e-mail addresses. The package for officials and delegates currently on the drawing board includes internet and e-mail access, facsimile facilities, and bulk-leasing hardware deals.
T&G on the cutting edge
The Transport and General Workers' Union in Britain (T&G), which has 6,000 branches, has negotiated bulk deals on PCs, established a union intranet, established IT training centres, and includes computer training in delegates' courses. This is not seen as an end in itself - more as one facet of a strategy to equip delegates for servicing and bargaining, and therefore free resources for organising.
The T&G also offers a 24-hour legal hotline, which will be extended to an open-line on all union services when training and referral arrangements are complete. The legal hotline receives more than 61,000 calls each year.
The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions is developing a password-protected campaign website, which will allow unions from many nations to share up-to-the-minute information on actions, results, and suggested improvements during campaigns. The site will act as a rapid-response clearinghouse, dramatically cutting the time taken to transmit information to a multitude of organisations during a campaign, when speed is often critical.
The International Chemical, Energy and Mineworkers' union is also actively exploring the campaign potential of the internet, running successful corporate campaigns via its website against major mining and manufacturing firms operating across the globe.
Politicising the web
The Canadian Labor Congress (CLC) uses its political action website to mobilise members for community campaigns, including those run by affiliated unions.
The CLC posts Fax Your MP campaigns on the website (faxes are more effective than e-mail because recipients do not necessarily read e-mail). A participant chooses a campaign from the topics listed on the website and then enters their name, address, and postcode. The database automatically calls up the electorate associated with the postcode, generates the relevant MP's name and address and places it on a standard letter. The letter can be amended before being faxed via the internet.
The user is invited to leave an e-mail address, which is loaded on to a database. At the end of the action, letters are sent to each participant, thanking them and advising them of the campaign outcome.
The CLC also posts a "union-made" database on the website so browsers can identify goods and services provided by unionised workplaces.
WHY THE ISSUES ARE RELEVANT FOR AUSTRALIA'S UNIONS
Unions can make great gains by maximising technology to improve operations, communications, campaigning and political activity. Linking delegates by e-mail and the internet can be a powerful industrial tool.
Providing professional service
Unions are membership service organisations. As well as focussing on collective strength, unions must also provide professional service, and maintain effective communication, with individual members. Call centres and information technology can be developed to better meet individual service demands.
Efficiencies yield resources
The increased emphasis on education and organising requires funds and staff. Resources can be released by improving the efficiency and management of union operations, and finding cost-effective ways of providing information, advice and services such as through a call centre.
Union amalgamations aimed to create significant cost savings through the sharing of resources. This objective remains relevant, as many unions proceed to streamline union operations. But the process of change must continue with a greater emphasis on education and organising - and the realignment of resources in order to make the new priorities a reality. Careful planning and union management will be vital.
ACTION FOR AUSTRALIAN UNIONS
1.Sharing ideas, exploring potential, building expertise
Many unions are well advanced in the use of information technology. Their experiences, and ideas for the future, should be better shared amongst affiliates by:
∑ holding a Unions and Technology Conference; and
∑ building expertise at the ACTU so that information, advice and strategic direction on the use of information technology can be gathered and shared amongst unions.
Specific initiatives for consideration by the Conference, the ACTU and individual unions must include the development of:
∑ modern membership systems;
∑ union websites;
∑ websites to support political and corporate campaigns (domestic and international);
∑ on-line campaign coordination and reporting;
∑ on-line vocational learning for members;
∑ on-line education for officials, delegates and members;
∑ union intranet capacity, containing a data-base of awards and agreements;
∑ communication with members and delegates;
∑ delegate networks, including international links;
∑ communicating industrial information to mobile organisers and delegates;
∑ on-line surveys and union news;
∑ hardware, e-mail and internet access requirements and proposals for bulk purchasing and leasing; and
∑ education in IT for officials and delegates.
The proposal for an integrated hardware, software training, website development, internet access, and entertainment package under consideration by the ACTU Executive would promote all of these objectives.
2.Examining call centres
Unions should explore the potential of call centres to more professionally and cost-effectively deal with:
∑ simple queries from members;
∑ membership inquiries, particularly in response to marketing campaigns;
∑ requests for information about services and membership benefits;
∑ requests for basic industrial advice, with possible referral;
∑ outgoing calls, including surveys and polling;
∑ follow-up calls to new members, as well as those who have resigned; and
∑ responses to campaigns about specific issues.
Call centre operations could be developed in a staged process, allowing adequate training of staff and development of the information data-base, testing of effectiveness, and a slow build up of investment as the benefits are demonstrated.
3. Developing a union call centre
The ACTU call centre should be developed and marketed as a contact point for the community with unions. There is currently no well-known, easy method for non-union employees to make contact with a union. A collective union call centre could offer potential new members, particularly those in employment growth areas, basic information about unions via one telephone number. Reliable telephone transfer arrangements to each union would be required for industrial advice and for existing members.
The ACTU call centre also has great potential for use in organising campaigns, developing delegate networks, and has been a successful weapon in retaining members through cost-effective contact with those who have resigned but have new jobs in the same industry.
To develop the call centre will require union agreement, assessment of funding needs, and professional management, development and marketing.
4.Modern union management
Unions should ensure that modern management methods are adopted. The achievement of membership growth is linked to the most efficient use of resources. Many unions use modern management methods, however all unions should establish criteria and methods to assist, such as:
∑ strategic planning of union operations and objectives;
∑ modern financial and budgeting methods;
∑ staff management which encourages the achievement of clear goals;
∑ standards to be met in the provision and marketing of membership services;
∑ industrial bargaining and campaign objectives;
∑ communications and IT planning;
∑ identification of membership growth targets;
∑ levels and quality of union education to be achieved;
∑ democratic membership and delegate involvement, reviews of delegate effectiveness;
∑ means to plan campaigns and measure outcomes against objectives;
∑ modern and proven membership record systems; and
∑ analysis and appraisal by an external organisation.
In the search for additional resources, Australian unions should ensure that post-amalgamation union structures are closely aligned with the objectives of democratic membership involvement, industrial effectiveness, and the efficient use of funds.
5. Building union management expertise
Unions should put in place a strategy to educate officials in union management. Officials must have the skills to assert control over finances, assets and staff to ensure growth, and to manage a process of change.
NewTUTA already conducts a union management course which has been completed by 70 officials. When unions review their education plans they should increase the number of senior officials attending union management education.
6. Collective support for change
The new ACTU Organising Centre should develop the expertise and resources to help unions review their operations and allocate resources to growth. Help could be offered with:
∑ strategic reviews and planning of union operations and objectives;
∑ financial planning and resource allocation;
∑ staff management methods;
∑ union education planning;
∑ establishing an organising section; and
∑ managing the process of change.
Collective knowledge of modern and professional union practice could be built in this manner, drawing upon international experience, and what is working in Australian unions (as well as what is not working).
NewTUTA has helped some unions review operations, develop strategic plans, and develop better financial and management methods. Advice of this nature can be invaluable during a process of change, especially when reallocating resources for education and organising.
7. Regional approaches to union organisation
Unions need to evaluate the potential for collective approaches to union organisation in regional Australia. Individual unions are often unable to resource an organiser and/or a union office in regional areas, however a group of unions can. In areas such as north-eastern NSW and south-eastern Queensland, where there is rapid population growth and economic development, union activity can be built by cooperation.
Overseas unions are co-locating in regional towns and areas in an attempt to achieve economies of scale and release more resources for organising. Trades and Labor Councils could facilitate such change in Australia.
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