Survey results

Thanks you to every one who took part in the survey. Here is an initial overview of the results. Analysis will follow later, and I will also make the raw data available, with personal information removed.

An overview of survey responses
A hundred and seventy five trade union activists completed the survey on their use of, and opinions about, new technology. One hundred and fifteen were based in the UK. The second largest group – thirty five respondents – were from Canada. Other respondents were from South Africa, Kenya, the USA, Australia, Ireland, The Netherlands, Germany and Malaysia.

Union membership
80% of respondents were from Unite. Others in the UK included PCS, Unison, RCN, CWU, EIS, UCU, GMB, BECTU, Equity, NUJ and UCATT. Most Canadian responses were from CUPE. Other unions represented by survey respondents included the CWU in South Africa, the Inland Boatmans Union, SEIU, AFSCME, Ver.di and several other banking, health and media unions.

Trade union role
There was a fairly even split in what respondents reported as their primary trade union role. The biggest single group was trade union staff, followed by union learning reps – reflecting my relationship with this group of activists. However, trade union officials, shop stewards, and union members who are not activists were also well represented.

Twenty respondents reported “other” roles. These included retired members, policy officers, development workers, young workers, branch chair, roving steward, trades council delegate and one vice president.

Industrial sector and job role
While there was bias towards white collar jobs, the Manufacturing sector was well represented, with as many respondents (14%) as ‘other service activities’ and ‘education’. Other sectors that were well represented included Health, Financial services, and Membership Organisations, Charity and Voluntary. The latter probably reflects the relatively high number of trade union officers and staff who took the survey.

Although 42% of respondents categorised themselves as ‘professionals’, with fairly large numbers reporting associate professional, managerial or admin roles, 24% reported working in a manual role. Because there is a question about whether the digital divide is determined by job role, I coded respondents into ‘white collar’ and ‘blue collar’.

As is probably an accurate representation of trade union demographics, most respondents were between the ages of 41 and 65. Deeper analysis of responses also showed that young respondents used social media more than older respondents, who were more likely to use email. However, this result was not as marked as might be expected.

Women were under represented in the survey response to a degree that probably reflects their marginalisation in trade union structures.

Distribution methods
Despite my use of social media, 63% of survey results came from emailed requests. The second biggest response was from Facebook with 15%. Other distribution methods, including Twitter (6%) and Unionbook (3%), yielded even smaller returns.

Attitudes to trade union use of electronic tools and barriers to participation
Almost all respondents reported that their trade union had a website, while only 37% reported their branches had one. Most reported that they visited the union website fairly often, with 75% visiting the site several times a month or more. Very few respondents thought their union website was ‘very good or ‘terrible’ – most reported they found it ‘OK’. In the comments field, many responded that the design of their union website was poor and outdated, that there was often a lack of up to date, relevant information, and that their views on what the needed from the website were not considered. Some Unite respondents reported that the sheer size of the union meant the website was complex to navigate.

Most respondents reported that their union used a variety of tools for electronic communication and organising. The tools that most respondents thought were essential were a website and email lists. Many other technologies were seen as useful but not essential, including Facebook, Twitter, blogs, podcasts, text messages and online forums. Most respondents thought a presence in Second Life was useless, while none felt it was essential.

Respondents were asked about their use of technology and tools. Most reported intermediate to expert use, particularly with regard to using PCs, smart phones, email, the Internet and text messages. Use of blogs, web conferencing software and feed readers was much lower. 86% of respondents reported that they were primarily self-taught, with some also learning IT skills at work, in education or from friends. 12% reported attending union-organised training courses. Most used email for trade union work, with significantly fewer people using Facebook and Twitter. Some reported using online forums and Virtual Learning Environment.

More than half of respondents reported that there were no barriers to them making effective use of ICTs – even those respondents who only used email. About a quarter reported that they lack the time or expertise to use technology more effectively. More than half of respondents thought that new technologies would ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ help organise workers in new sectors and young workers, help with the equalities agenda and give a voice to the marginalised. More than 80% agreed that new technologies would help organise young workers. Respondents were less sanguine about the possibilities for renewal, but were not particularly concerned about their privacy being undermined, being tracked by employers or about union structures being undermined.

Most respondents to my survey answered ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know’ to questions about their union’s use of Twitter. This includes respondents from Unite, which has multiple Twitter accounts for different campaigns, and whose joint general secretary Derek Simpson has featured in the media for his use of the technology during the BA dispute. Only about 12% of respondents were aware of any Twitter hashtags. This accords quite closely with the response to the LabourStart Twitter survey, carried out in October 2009. 1,534 people responded to the survey, and 834 left detailed comments.

I coded these comments, and found most of them fell into the following three broad categories:

1. “I use Twitter and find it useful for trade union work.”
2. “I don’t know much about Twitter or how it works, but trade unions need to be innovative and use whatever tools are available”.
3. “Twitter is faddish rubbish and trade unions should stay away from it”.

About half the comments fell into one of the first two categories (although 31% of respondents used Twitter, very few used it regularly and many admitted to not really understanding it), and another half fell into the strongly anti-technology group. The sentiment against Twitter was common even among trade unionists who used Facebook. It would have been interesting to record their views on Facebook a few years ago, before it reached wider acceptance.

Operating systems and software
Windows XP was widely used operating system, with 90% of activists reporting familiarity. Other versions on Windows – Vista and Windows 7 – were also well known, and Apple Mac OS slightly less so. 14% of respondents reported experience using the FOSS Linux operating systems. Most respondents replied that the software they used did not make a difference, as long as it was accessible to everyone and easy to use. Some mentioned how using a particular piece of software helped – for instance, how switching to the Open Source WordPress CMS had made maintaining a branch website much easier:

“Yes. Switching to WordPress, a more user friendly platform for our website, has immensely improved our online presence and thus helped us better communicate with our members”. – White collar woman, CUPE member, Canada, 31 – 40

A few respondents commented specifically on Open Source software:

“Yes, Open Source software is more in keeping with core trade union principals of collectivism.” – White collar man, Unite staff, 51-65

“Yes. At work we use Microsoft heavily, but outside work I rely mostly on free software for web sites etc. I am frustrated that the movement hasn’t produced a suite of software built from the main Open Source tools (e.g. Drupal, Joomla) and mailing list software so that we can all use something consistent and coherent.” White collar male, senior Unite rep, UK, 31-40

One respondent addressed both the strengths and weaknesses of Microsoft:

“Microsoft is easy to use and easier to share but very expensive and a target for viruses, spyware, etc – Blue collar male, Unite learning rep, 51-65”

The next questions tested awareness of Open Source software and the Creative Commons movement. Awareness of Open Source was fairly high at 44% (a further 18% had heard of it, but were not sure what it was). Awareness of Creative Commons was lower, at 25%. A question about how important these are for unions reflected this awareness quite well: most respondents answered, quite honestly, that they did not know. Those who had answered in the previous questions that they were familiar with Open Source and Creative Commons generally answered that these were either ‘desirable’ or ‘essential’. Very few answered that it was ‘irrelevant’.

Thirty respondents left detailed comments about their views on FOSS, almost all of them positive.

“Trade unions have the resources and the expertise to produce a range of activist tools that can be key to the whole social justice movement, and that can massively reduce the costs of in-house development for each union. Not only are open-source models of collaboration and development more in line with trade union values, they also make firm fiscal sense for us as a movement”. – White collar man, CUPE staff, Canada. 31 – 40

“Open Source Software follows the spirit of solidarity and cooperation, Creative Commons is essential so that other activists can make use of resources”. – White collar male, UNISON rep, UK, 21-30

A handful of respondents said that they found Open Source tools difficult to use, did not have the time to use them, or that they found the users elitist:

“I like to think I know a bit about computers, but am too often put off Open Source by the … ‘I’m better than you’ attitude displayed by people who evangelise about Open Source. Perhaps I should get some better friends ;)” – White collar male, Unite organiser, 31-40

Several expressed a desire to find out more:

“You opened my awareness to several new concepts and approaches which I will explore diligently. Thank you”. – White collar male, CUPE staff, Canada

“Just worried that I don’t know about it. And that there could be all these easy to use opportunities that I am missing out.” – White collar woman, CWU member/Labour Service Organisation staff, South Africa

Trade unions and online campaigns
The survey results showed that just over half had taken part in a LabourStart Action Alert (i.e. by writing a message in support of unions in dispute). However, 25% reported they had never taken part, and 20% that they did not know what it was. Most respondents felt that online campaigns were fairly effective, but that the effectiveness was context specific and lessened by the fact that campaigns of this nature are becoming widespread, leading to activists feeling ‘bombarded’.

“Somewhat effective. I am bombarded by labour and social justice emails at the moment, which lessens the effectiveness of these campaigns. I have to decide which are the most important and thus worth my time.” – White collar women, CUPE rep, Canada, 31-40

Also, as companies become used to the tactic, it appears to lose its power. The consensus seemed to be that while effectiveness could be limited, it was still a very worthwhile tool due to the fact that it is easy to use and not time consuming:

“Given the amount of time it takes to do one, surprisingly effective. It takes a minute to sign an action alert, which isn’t a massive time investment for the individual activist (what I think is the beauty of it), but the sum of thousands of emails being sent can apply some kind of pressure on a company/government”. – Unemployed male, Unite activist, UK, 21-30

The survey results showed a fairly low level of engagement with video among activists: while 10% had created and uploaded a trade union video to YouTube, 49% had never even watched one. Those who had watched trade union videos reported that quality varied, and that low production values were a problem:

“Very mixed. Some of them are terrible – mostly due to being painfully boring on account of trying to mimic the News. Others are very good, mostly ones that have an entertaining way to put across a point (there was an Australian one called ‘What Has the Union Ever Done For Us’ that was at least nominated on LabourStart’s video of the year that I would say falls into this category) or ones that are short and might give you ‘the view from the picket line’ or something similar that you wouldn’t get to see normally.” Unemployed male, Unite activist, UK, 21-30

Only a tiny percentage – between 5 and 6% – reported that it was ‘definitely true’ that the labour movement in general, and their union in particular, was ‘innovative’ in its use of technology. Almost all respondents agreed that unions should make wider use of technology, and very few agree with the statement “trade unions should stop wasting time online and go back to workplace organising”.

More than half of respondents indicated a desire to learn to make better use of technology for union activism. Asked “If your trade union offered any of the following training courses for activists, would you be interested in attending?”, more than half responded affirmatively to courses on Web 2.0 and Social Media for union activists, Setting up and maintaining a branch website, Creating union newsletters and publications, and Using Free and Open Source Software for union work. There was also a high level on interest in courses on Using Online Surveys, and Creating Union Films. One respondent commented that

“What you don’t know, you don’t know. I think a course on all the technologies available and how to use them in organising and campaigning would be useful as a simple introductory course.” White collar woman, Unite officer, UK, 31-40

In addition, 106 respondents left contact details and indicated they were willing to take part in further research.

Posted in Research, Theory and tagged .

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