I often hear that one reason right-wing governments have been successful in attacking unions is because those of us on the left have failed to do a good job of telling our stories, explaining why unions matter — and of getting those stories out to our members and to the public.
“The tragic thing is unions do so much good work that the public never really sees,” says Weera. “I’ve learned that if you’re going to do an action, or support a movement like Occupy or Idle No More, then shareable content is key. It’s one of the best organizing tools we have. Non-profit and advocacy groups can also get their message out effectively this way.”
However, it’s not enough to just create your own Facebook or Twitter accounts (or YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, and so on). You’ve also got to know how to build your audience.
“The Internet is a huge place. People won’t stumble across you — you have to work to find them,” says Weera. “Even when you have lots of followers on Facebook or Twitter, you have to work to keep them consistently engaged. That requires rapid content creation and daily posts — ones that grab the attention of readers and make them want to like, share and retweet your message.”
The total likes, shares and comments generated for the various AFL Facebook campaigns in the last three years was more than 11 million. In her first four months as the Facebook lead at the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees Weera's taken the page from modest popularity to the most-followed union page in the Province with over 17,000 followers.
Now that’s a lot better way to reach people than standing in a stinky phone booth.
Q&A with Ishani
Did you grow up in an activist family?
I think marginalized people, racialized workers in particular, are perpetual activists. They don’t have a choice but to advocate for their rights, because their rights are constantly denied or challenged. My family and I immigrated to Canada from Sri Lanka in the 1980s when I was a kid. There were countless instances while I was growing up where my parents had to fight for their rights as workers. I have a parent who is a survivor of an occupational injury. For years he had to battle not only an employer who denied responsibility, but a team of corporate lawyers and well-paid consultants in “risk management.” These are the things you’re up against.
Do you see the role of social media shifting in unions?
It’s definitely shifting, especially at the international level. At the AFL-CIO, in the U.S., there is now a department dedicated to digital strategies — separate from their organizing department, and separate from their communications department. This kind of organization-wide prioritizing of social media has earned them attention. It’s not just that more than 150,000 people have liked the AFL-CIO’s Facebook page; it’s that they consistently have more than 20,000 people engaging with content. I see a really strong link between investing in social media and being able to maintain high levels of engagement. Unions are learning to prioritize this work and it’s an interesting time for digital organizing.
What does social media mean for traditional communication and organizing?
Social media is an essential part of grassroots organizing and union communication, not a substitute for what already works. I really see the attention-grabbing visual content we create for social media as an extension of the visual tradition of union posters. Labour movements have a long history of using strong imagery to generate campaign engagement.
Terry Inigo-Jones is a journalist living in Calgary, Alberta. He works for the Health Sciences Association of Alberta and is a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers. You can read some of his work in the latest issue of HSAA's Challenger.