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Year End 2003   

Interview: Robbo’s Rules
Labor Council secretary John Robertson rules the line through 2003 and looks forward to a bigger and better year to come.

Unions: Fightback 2003
Tony Abbott, no less, summed up the tone of 2003 when he complained workers were frustrating his agenda, as Jim Marr reports.

Bad Boss: Madame Lash Whips Tony
Jim Marr explains how a local can manufacturer knocked off a quality field, including a notorious American call centre operator, in the race for Bad Boss honours.

Politics: United Front
Facing a new leader and new rules, Jim Marr speaks to key union players about the hot issues at January’s ALP National Conference.

Economics: Looking Back - Looking Forward
The year ends with the thought that 2004 must be better, writes Frank Stilwell in his annual review of all things economic.

International: Net Benefits
International editor Andrew Casey looks back on a year where workers stood up globally for services we once took for granted.

History: The New Guard
Who were Australia’s fascists in the 1930s and was John Howard’s father in the New Guard? Labour historian, Andrew Moore, uncovers some surprising information about Australia’s fascist past.

Poetry: What is the PM singing this Christmas?
Our Kirribilli spies, led by resident bard David Peetz, have been listening in on the PM's preparations for Christmas, and have recorded the Howard family rehearsing this new Christmas carol.

Review: Culture That Was
2003 saw the Howard Government signal its readiness to swap culture for agriculture in a free trade deal with the US and film maker George Miller lament that Aussie's had run out of stories to tell anyway, writes Tara de Boehmler.


The Guessing Game
We have consulted our regular list of mystics and gnostics to offer these throughts for the future.

Folk You Mate
Jan Nary looks at the role of workers songs in the upcoming National Folk Festival.

Shane Maloney – Crime Writer
For a crime writer whose books are set against a backdrop of unions and Labor Party politics, Shane Maloney confesses to little direct experience of either.

The Locker Room
Workers Online Sports Awards
Noel Hester and Peter Moss give their annual rundown of the good, the bad and the ugly in the world of sport.

The Web We Weave
Social Change Online's Mark McGrath's annual review of how unions are using the web to grow.


Backs to the Wall
How does one judge a year like 2003, when on the surface the powers of darkness – read Bush and Howard and union-busting bosses - can point to the scoreboard and claim ‘we won!’?


 No Joy for ANZ - This Time

 Nurses, Teachers Win Big

 Govt Coy on Sackings Threat

 NSW: State of Discomfort

 Fashion Police Collar Moe

 Telstra Picks Up Union Signal

 E-Missiles Strike White House

 STOP PRESS: Doubts Over Driver Test

 Juggler Catches Union Gong

 Chubb Beats Up On Own Guards

 Commuters Face Long, Hot Summer

 MUA Members Play Santa

 Bennelong Grinch Strikes Again

 G’day To Union Made Wines

 Activists Notebook

 Tom On Mark
 Looking The Otherway At Christmas
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The Web We Weave

Social Change Online's Mark McGrath's annual review of how unions are using the web to grow.

Union web usage still relatively small but critically important

It's important not to kid oursleves here: web usage of union sites is still small in relation to total union membership. A typical statistic for a 30,000 member union would be around 1,500 page views a day. So if you accept that on average, each visitor views 3 web pages per visit, then this equates to about 500 people per day, or less than 2% of the membership.

But that's not to say that union websites are a waste of time. In fact it's more a case of the opposite: union website traffic is growing markedly and the better sites are playing a critical role of getting the message out to the people that further carry forward a union's message: the workplace activists that mobilise existing members and recruit new members.

Most unions are online but only a handful are realising its full potential

In terms of getting online, the early adopter phase is over and we are now in the late majority phase, where only a handful of Australian unions don't have a web presence. But just getting online is not a pass mark. A good union site should:

- have regular news updates posted to the site and distributed via email

- enable users to self serve themselves on workplace issues by accessing valuing added content

- provide members with easy access to officials

- engage users in latest campaign actions

- allow new and existing members to pay their fees securely online

Whilst many Australian unions can now claim most of these points, very few could claim them all. The web is just another communication channel, so think of it this should be able to get the same service from a union using a website as you could using telephone or post.

So what do unions need to do to get this pass mark? A successful website can be boiled down to three essential things:

1. Technology to make it work

2. Content to make it worth visiting

3. Promotion to let people know it's there

Technology to make it work

This unpacks into into a few things:

- a content management system to enable unions to easily and quickly publish web content

- interactive tools to enable users to search, submit, discuss and subscribe on the site

- a payment gateway to enable secure credit card transactions

If you don't have these things in place then:

- you'll struggle to get content up to your site

- users wont be able to do much on your site

- and you won't recruit any new members or activate existing members

If you haven't got a content management system (CMS) to run your website then chances are you struggle to get critical content up on your site when it's needed most. A CMS is a software package embedded into a website that enables non-technical people to publish web content using a simple copy-paste and click process into a series of content entry forms.

CMS's help break the web publishing bottleneck because it opens up the field of web publishing to anyone in your organisation that has content worth publishing. This means that more people can publish more content more quickly to your site using a CMS.

A good CMS will have workflow management tools: allowing high-level administrators to determine who gets access to the CMS and approve published content before it goes live to the web. This gives web administrators the ability to farm out the publishing work without losing control.

The upshot of employing a good CMS is a saving of time and money with the increased capacity to respond to campaign demands.

The second piece of the technology triplet is interactive tools. A search engine to locate articles by keywords. A forms processor to enable people to submit information via online forms that will generate a transactional record via email back to the union. And a subscribe facility that allows users to sign-up to an online newsletter. Pretty basic stuff some may think but you'd be surpised how many unions still don't have all of these elements in place.

Thirdly, access to a secure payment gateway is needed to allow members to pay their fees online using their credit card. This is pretty easy to do nowadays as there are a number of reliable providers that will rent you out access to their secure payment gateway. Typical costs are around $500 to set up and then ongoing fees per transaction that would work out about 0.5% of the sale amount.

All a union needs to do is spend some money on building an order form housed on their site that will calculate an order amount and then pass this information onto the payment gateway. So long as your order form is simple (ie not too many permutations on how many different types of membership you are offerring) then the cost shouldn't be more than two or three thousand dollars to develop such a form.

When you consider that many unions would be processing tens of thousands of dollars per annum via an online payment gateway (see NSW Teachers Federation below) this makes good sense.

Content to make it worth visiting

A well designed site backed by smart technology still requires content and this can only come with adequate resourcing.

Sadly, too many unions think that simply chucking media releases at a website will do. Do you think handing a prospective member a stack of media realeases would convince them to join a union? Of course not. If people are to join a union then they have to be persuaded with useful content that addresses their needs. Clear answers to issues like, "what should I be paid?", "what are my conditions?","what are my rights", "why should I join?", "how do I get help".

Similarly, existing members also need to be serviced with content that helps them resolve their workplace issues. Information like how to; get a workplace organised, handle disputes with management, how to go about establishing an enterprise agreeement need to be available to engage members in meaningful union activity.

Now all this is hard work. It requires significant resourcing from a union: people who can write to be given the time and materials to put the content together. The point is that union web content should be a value added service and to add value you need to commit resources, otherwise it's a case of don't bother because if you don't then your users wont either.

Promotion to let people know it's there

Most unions have adopted the "build it and they will come" approach to promoting their website. Whilst this approach may hold for active unionists who are online, it doesn't fly for the other 90%+ of a union's membership. Unions should make the same effort to promote their website as they do for their campaigns they run. Getting the message out there via stickers, pamplets, posters, mousepads, wallet cards, and ads in their journal are all viable ways to increase website visibility.

Another way is online advertising. In my spare time I webkeep the Evatt Foundation site. As part of my contribution to Evatt I sponsor some online advertising for them on Google. For less than $50 spent over the last 12 months I have advertised Evatt over 85,000 times on the world's most popular website and delivered 460 new users to the Evatt site. That's about 10 cents per new user: that's fantastic value for money.

Both Eric Lee and myself have written about this previously but the take up by unions using Google to advertise hasn't been that great. It's cheap, it's easy it's effective. All it takes is a credit card and some copywriting skill. Unions should be using this service to not only promote their websites but their specific campaigns as well.

Rio Tinto doesn't advertise itself on Google. There's only one ad that appears when you key in "Rio Tinto". This would leave plenty of space for the CFMEU to advertise under the keywords "Rio Tinto" with an ad promoting their industrial campaign against the mining giant.

Spam a serious but avoidable threat

Email is the preferred method of communication for most organisations nowadays and unions are no exception. So the recent avalanche of spam hitting people's inboxes is not just inconvenient it's a serious threat to a union's effectiveness.

Instead of waiting for spammers to either give up or get legislated out of existence there is some effective measures a union can take that are low cost and easy.

One is installing a spam filter on your mail server. This should be standard practice for your ISP that serves your email. Two is getting an email client that has good spam filtering built-in. I can recommend Mozilla, either built into it's browser or as the stand-alone package called Mozilla Thunderbird. Mozilla is free, easy to install and captures about 80% of my spam first go. It also gets smarter as you go; learning from the spam you delete.

The Highlights of 2003

Enough of the sermonising, it's time to recognise a number of good things the Australian union movement did online in 2003.

ACTU's Massive Online Archive

The ACTU has built a massive online archive of news, views and policy resources on their site. They also run a great information service for union members via the shared resource of Ask Neale that appears also on LaborNET. Add latest campaigns, a massive subscriber list to their online newsletter and you have a site that is attracting serious traffic and influencing the opinion shapers in the political debates.

Labor Council's Integrated Web Services

The Labor Council of NSW continues to break new ground in using their website as a wide extranet to service their affiliates. Any piece of correspondence that goes out to their affiliates on paper is now published on their site in a mix of public and private areas.

But it's not just bulk publishing online. Labor Council are cleverly integrating web services to get their messages out. Their site uses a web2fax gateway that automatically looks up LaborNET's Directory to source an affiliate's contact details and their preferred method of delivery (email or fax). The web2fax gateway then sends out batch correspondence to unions, groups of unions and individuals via combinations of email and fax.

The end result is that affiliates can get everything they want when they want without having to pick up a phone to hunt down missing documentation.

LHMU's Hilton Hotel Campaign

The LHMU's Hilton campaign is well know to the readers of Workers Online and although it used the international Labourstart site for it's online campaign resource, I think the real grunt behind the success of this campaign was not software but wetware. The zealotry and viral marketing savvy of the LHMU's Andrew Casey made sure that the Hilton Hotel management in Australia was hit from all angles all at once.

NSW Teachers Federation's Online Payment Service

If the ACTU could hand out the Organiser of the Year title to a non-human this service would win it hands down. After collecting over $100,000 in member payments and signing up over 1,000 new members in the last 12 months, the NSW Teachers Federation's secure online payment service has extinguished any doubts about how worthwhile an online payment service for members should be.

The Teachers Federation are currently taking the next step by web-enabling their new membership database so that members can online:

- log into the Federation site with their credentials authenticated from the membership database

- update their own details

- check their financial status

- set and recover their own password

- pay their fees which will then automatically update their records on the membership database

Workers Online Reaching The Double-Ton

Not just because it's managed to put out 200 issues - but because the way it reached this milestone.

Workers Online is the news engine of the Australian union movement. It gives the union movement's arguments currency, credibility and makes them saleable in the establishment media. Time and time again Workers has broken stories that end up in the daily tabloids and on television. And it also a great community building resouce: keeping unionists informed about what's going elsewhere in the movement.

HSU Pulling Off Some Polished Promotion

The Health Services Union have done something simple very well with a nice marriage of technology and good content development.

On the homepage of the HSU site you will see a feature box at the top of centre column titled, "Welcome". This features a picture of a member at work explaining why they're a member of the union. From this feature box links are then provided for users to find out more about member benefits and how to become a member of the union. This is a smart referral service. Having members vouch for the union is far more persuasive than the union vouching for itself.

The photos are good and commentary is succinct. Plus this is a randomised feature, meaning that each time a user returns to the HSU homepage the chances are that he or she will see a new image. This helps keeps the content fresh and dynamic, reducing the risk of users becoming bored with the site.

The Future

Finally, some things I hope to see in the future.

Union Intranets

Now that many unions have got online with a public internet site to organise their members, it's time to organise themselves internally with a well designed, CMS-enabled intranet site. Having a good intranet site can lift the efficiency of the organisation. Officials can get quicker and easier access to the information they need, plus greater knowledge transfer can be achieved with a lot less effort.

Workplace Extranets

Technology now exists for users of CMS's to roll-out an unlimited number of subsites that are equipped with password-protection, file upload facility, feedback forms, web forums, polls and mailing lists.

All of this technology could be used to create a workplace subsite for each major workplace that a union manages. I remember how frustrating it was when I was a site delegate trying to facilitate members in the negotiation of an enterprise agreement. Key documents routinely either didn't get delivered or were misplaced. Members quite often couldn't make meetings and soon lost track of the negotiations and as a result lost interest in the process.

A workplace extranet where members could log into their own password-protected subsite and download the latest version of the EA, view minutes of meetings, participate in discussions, submit inquiries to their organiser, vote on issues and be notified by email about upcoming meetings would go a long way in engaging members more in union activity.

This strategy isn't going to be viable for every union. But the prime candidates where it would be viable are those unions which have large memberships, concentrated in big workplaces, with ready access to the web. Any takers?

Syndicated Campaigning

With Labourstart, LaborNET and a number of union sites on LaborNET, we've seen the rise of the campaign action form where key decision makers are targetted with a form generated protest email message that users submit from a campaign site.

The next logical step here is following the lead of Labourstart and building a syndicated network of campaign action forms where unions can support each other's campaigns by displaying these forms on their own sites, which are drawn from a central source. A good solution would enable each union to select which campaigns they would like to display on their home site.

A Movement-wide Online Referral and Payment Service

Many non-union members who see the value of unions and would like to join, don't. Simply because they either don't know which union they should belong to or don't find it easy to join a union.

Wouldn't it be nice it non-union members interested in joining a union could at the one site:

- enter their occupation details

- be advised of what their appropriate union is

- view the benefits and costs of membership of this union

- contact the union for more information

- join the union securely online

Well all this is technically possible. The only hurdle being the vexed issue of demarcation of membership territory amongst unions. If the leaders of the union movement could broker an agreement between unions on who gets what members through this sort of service (based on occupation and industry) then the benefits could be huge.

Cynics might say that the realpolitik between unions renders this an impossible dream. But this flies in the face of crumbling factionalism and the growing cooperation between unions (like the AWU and MUA) that were once rivals.

...Mark McGrath out there in cyberspace dreaming of something more than a white Christmas.


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