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Unions 21
| Blog post

Engaging members in new ways

By Andrew Pakes, Director of Communications & Research at Prospect and Christina Colclough, Director of Uni Global Union | 6 min

The speed at which work is changing is forcing unions to look at new ways to engage people. In turn we are finding new opportunities for members to network and organise over work and in how unions operate. Nearly 15 per cent of workers across the EU are now self-employed. In the UK as many as one in ten workers now work in gig economy platforms. The growth of workspaces over traditional workplaces is just one of the challenges facing unions. In some areas changing work patterns come from positive causes such as the growth in flexible and family-friendly working which means colleagues aren’t always around at work to get involved in the union.

These are challenges Prospect has been looking at with members in diverse industries and increasingly diverse set of work types. Over the last year Prospect has been working with UNI Global Union’s Young Workers Lab to look at how technology can create opportunities for us to reach out to our members (and non-members) to hear their opinions, dreams, priorities and thoughts in relation to work. One tool we have tested is called ThoughtExchange - an interactive survey tool that allows participants to post their ideas, and engage with each other’s responses. All online, via computers, phones, tablets…

The aim was to test how digital tools can drive collective action with in decentralised communities, particularly those areas where there is a young workforce. The benefits of ThoughtExchange are that it allows participants to see and rate each’s others anonymous responses. As Prospect’s Digital Projects Officer, Steph Izzard, commented, “ThoughtExchange allows us to reach out to many more workers in a particular sector than we possibly could do in physical meetings. We have discovered a lot about their experiences and priorities as a group – some of their top concerns have also be a surprise for us. We now have the opportunity to do something concretely about these issues.”

Our first test for the software was to help generate views from Prospect’s growing archaeologists branch. Prospect has been growing its archaeology membership over the last couple of years. One of the challenges is that the profession is dispersed limiting the opportunities for members to get together in one place.

Of a possible 770 participants, 123 took part in the exchange. 191 different priorities were shared amongst the group and ranked for each other. The results touched on both personal and collective issues. Financial questions lived alongside safety, membership experience, gender experience, and sector specific concerns. The exchange was launched during an industry networking forum and an email to the union’s existing members encouraging them to take part.

ThoughtExchange provided a chance to ask members directly about what challenges they saw for the future of the profession in the UK, and to share ideas with each other. The idea being that this was about supplementing existing democratic structures through greater insight, rather than replacing it.

Since then, we have worked with the union’s Bectu sector over the recent launch of its Dignity at Work campaign with an exchange that saw over 500 people involved. And on a more specific campaign, over 200 members in one branch took part in a detailed exchange looking at members perspectives on a new grading scheme being introduced by the employer.

Since ThoughtExchange is anonymous, it allows union members to have their voices heard no matter how old they are, where they are located, or how big the group is. This gives young members an equal footing with older members, as well as with members of a different gender or level of seniority.

So, what are the lessons so far?

Firstly, ThoughtExchange does not in any way replace the in-person town hall meeting or the phone call from an organiser. It does, however, act as a tool for the union and members to stay aligned, and in tune with the key issues facing us. ‘It has shown me a different way of working,’ Steph shared, ‘and a whole new approach to recruiting, retaining and organising members of a union (or any membership organisation, really!).’

One benefit of this approach is that it surfaced topics that were not immediately obvious, and created a space for those who may not feel comfortable with speaking in a meeting or raising a personal issue. All it takes is one user to submit their personal experience before others reflect and add commiseration about the same.

This is just one of the new approaches we are collaborating on to create power and agency amongst members. The lessons in this partnership so far are:

  • We need to try new ways of enabling workers to organise and use technology to shape our priorities.

  • Although it is difficult, put members needs first, not structures.

  • Listen out for different voices.

  • We are not the experts – sometimes new things fail or turn out differently. That is okay. It is part of experimenting. But always learn.

  • Fight for time to do things differently.

The challenges facing workers today are increasing not just in the UK but across the world. Unions are essential in providing a voice for justice and fairness in a rapidly changing world of work. But just as work changes, unions need to do so as well.

This has been a really beneficial collaboration between Prospect and UNI. From Prospect’s perspective we have gained insight from Christina and the team, as well as a network of UNI members globally who are sharing ideas around the same challenges. From UNI’s perspective, Prospect has provided a useful space to see how new ideas work in practice. A strength of Thoughtexchange is that it allows members to have a voice free from the limitations of space, time, discomforts or uncertainties. Members see each other’s responses, and as a group grow as they learn about each other’s thoughts. We are receiving the same positive feedback from all the other UNI members who have tried the tool. We are sure we will continue using it as we continue our quest to empower workers through strong trade unions.

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