Making unions heard: From phoning a typist to tweeting a picket line

Here's the conversation that took place recently between Solidarity Media's own Ishani Weera and self-proclaimed "old newspaper guy" Terry Inigo-Jones. Terry's article was originally published in Our Times Magazine.

By Terry Inigo-Jones



As an old newspaper guy, you’re more likely to find ink running through my veins than bytes in my bloodstream.

I started my career as a reporter in England on papers with hot-metal presses. I used to pound out news stories on a creaky but robust 1937 Imperial typewriter and used shorthand to take notes rather than a digital recorder.

To file late-breaking news stories on deadline, I had to run to find a working public telephone and phone my copy in to a typist. You may think the best thing about a smart phone is the video camera, the games or the ability to watch your favourite TV show anywhere. For me, the best thing is that it means no more standing in urine-soaked and vandalized phone booths.

 Even an old print guy can see to the opportunities of the digital age in which we now work.

“According to Facebook statistics from 2013, more than 19 million Canadians use the social-media platform once a month and 14 million check it every day,” says Ishani Weera, an expert in helping unions, non-profit and advocacy groups maximize their social-media outreach.

A 2015 Forum poll found Facebook is used by close to 6-in-10 Canadian adults, and most visit more than once a day. When it comes to millennials (people between 18 and 33), a recent U.S. study revealed that 61 per cent get their political news from Facebook compared to only 37 per cent looking to traditional television news.

Weera’s work is unusual in Canadian labour social media. Instead of using platforms, including Facebook, strictly as communications tools, she used social media as a tool for organizing action in her role as executive director of outreach for the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) and the person responsible for managing the AFL’s Facebook presence.

With an emphasis on daily engagement, Weera grew the AFL’s Facebook following from 500 in 2012 to more than 8,000 today, the highest figure for provincial federations of labour in English-speaking Canada. In 2015, the AFL won the Canadian Association of Labour Media (CALM) award for best use of social media.

Weera has been able to merge her expertise in organizing and her passion for social media in new ways. In 2014 she used the power of the hashtag to encourage Canadians on Twitter to offer tongue-in-cheek thanks to Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada in the voice of the 1%.

This was coordinated to work with a “Welcoming Committee of the 1%” event staged by the AFL for the Conservatives’ 2013 policy convention in Calgary. The cheeky stunt involved hiring local unionized actors to depict members of the very wealthy. Weera did everything from writing the scripts and drafting the handbills, to costuming the actors in elaborate gowns and vintage top hats. And she ensured the event was captured on YouTube. The stunt received CALM’s Dennis McGann Stroke-of-Genius Award for most innovative communications project.

After more than 30 years as a journalist, I’ve spent the last six years as a communications professional in the labour movement, first as communications director with the AFL and now as communications officer with the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), the union of health care professionals.

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.
— Terry Inigo-Jones

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.

Read the rest of the Q&A here.


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.