Skip to content
Unions 21
| Blog post

Digital organising: Overcoming the trust barrier

By Henry Skewes, Projects Co-ordinator, Unions 21 | 5 min

Organising conversations rely on building trust between the worker and the rep, but what happens when that dialogue occurs over digital channels? How can you build trust without the benefit of a real time, face-to-face conversation where you can respond immediately to people’s questions and cues?

Our WorksForUs project launched early last year, a collaboration between Unions 21 and online petition providers US to experiment with new approaches for our unions to digitally organise non-unionised workers.

At Unions 21, our WorksForUs project looked at how to overcome the suspicions of: “Who are you, why do you care and why should I trust you?" Our early success in engaging workers over digital channels came from constant refinement of going to where workers engage with each other, focusing on the issues which matter to them most and using the language they use.

We started from the premise let’s organise workers where they find themselves, on the issues which matter to them. We targeted young, non-unionised private sector workers based in workplaces unions have found difficult to access - not only because we like a tough challenge, but because research has shown most young people are not opposed to trade unions but simply may have never even encountered a union or a rep.

Organise workers where they are

We first experimented with a direct approach to reaching our young workers by looking for their online communities where they talked about their employers, understanding which issues they found most important and then producing surveys which directed them to sign up to ask their employers to make changes around those issues.

Our first petitions were on topics like asking restaurant management to stop asking workers to use their tips to keep change in the cash register.

We invested in advertising to encourage people to sign up and we refined the imagery and messaging of the adverts as we learned what worked most successfully. As more people signed up, we contacted individuals and asked them to push the petition to their colleagues, friends and family.

And here we hit our first barrier. While we knew which issues young workers were talking about, and where, our target audience simply did not know who we were and why we were running petitions on their behalf, and signatures started to tail off.

So, we decided to build ourselves up as a brand, placing WorksForUs as our visual identity on digital platforms like Reddit, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and sharing positive stories about the change US had achieved as a means of explaining our purpose and relevance.

Overall, our approach resulted in a number of petitions but our most successful campaign has been our call to stop food waste at Starbucks with over 3,700 signatures. We’ve been working with food waste charities to consider how we should take the campaign forward.

Knowing that Reddit and Instagram are the preferred spaces for young workers to discuss their issues and seek support from each other, for our next stage, we wanted to explore how unions could use these platforms more effectively.

During our project, digital advertising had become a complicated landscape with Reddit and Twitter banning “political ads”meaning we not only then had to overcome a trust barrier but also navigate restrictions on talking to young workers. You can read more in my previous blog.

Creating a community

Undeterred, we decided to build on our learning and create a space to connect young workers with unions on Reddit. This platform has 330 million users worldwide, the vast majority of whom are aged 18 to 34, with the UK being the third biggest user of reddit.

Here, young people contribute to thousands of communities on the interests and issues they care about, so in January this year we started our own subreddit for UK-specific work problems, using our established branding.

We have already had a steady number of users joining and creating content including 65 active members since last month, discussing and seeking guidance on topics such as hot desking, anxiety and food waste at work.

Going forward, we would like to reach young workers on Instagram since there are 24 million users in the UK aged between 18 and 34. In comparison to Reddit, Instagram is more widely used but is fundamentally less discussion and community based. We’ll be exploring how Instagram can support our subreddit community, and we’ll then be looking at how we can convert members of our growing community into campaign leaders. As they say, watch this space.

We want to hear about your experiences in digital organising. How do you think unions can use digital platforms more effectively to organise young workers? And what is your union already doing in this area? Get involved.

More ideas