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February, 2004

AUD announces winners of Best Rank-and-File Website contest

NOTE: AUD provides links to facilitate contact and dialogue. Links to organizations or groups do not indicate affiliation with AUD or AUD's endorsement of that group or the contents of the site, nor does any contest prize.

The results are in. Out of the forty websites entered in the AUD Best Rank-and-File Website contest, representing members of twenty unions in the US and Canada, three have been chosen. The winning websites in this contest share the following characteristics:

  • They agitate: these sites stir members up by sharing information, debating union policies, proposing alternatives, offering a space for debate and discussion that is often lacking in the union. They hold leaders accountable and challenge authority. They tell it like it is - with blunt talk about union problems.
  • They educate: not only are they rich sources of information on legal rights and union affairs - the kind of information a good union leadership wants to share with members - they also help workers understand the information and how to use it.
  • They organize: they get people involved in dialogue about the problems and how they can be solved, they connect people to each other and help them get involved in collective action. The best rank-and-file websites focus on activism.
  • And they use good basic website design: they are easy to read, easy to access, they communicate clearly what they are about and who sponsors them, they make it easy to find the information they offer and always help you find your way back to where you started.

Websites were rated according to a long list of design and organizing criteria, such as "provides name and contact information at top of home page," "uses descriptive links," or "has a clear and strategic audience." Then, a panel of judges including activists and experts in website design and union democracy rated each site in terms of ease of use how effectively it encouraged member participation.

The results:

Central States Pension Improvement Committee, for Teamsters Union members and families, www.nopensionfreeze.org.

"Simple and strong... has a lot of opportunities for the user to get excited and involved, persistent navigation, descriptive links, diverse links to contact information, member interaction, very smart." -- the judges

When the trustees of the Central States Pension Fund drastically reduced workers' benefits, hiked up their costs, and changed the rules to make it harder for workers to retire and harder to collect their benefits, they provoked a prairie fire of anger and activism. The website lays out the story well.

Nopensionfreeze.org is a great example of how to use the Internet as part of a real-world organizing campaign. It avoids the common pitfalls that plague so many websites -- disorganization, irrelevant content, lack of priorities, confusing design -- by staying focused, action-oriented, and easy to use.

Our favorite features:

Up to date, useful information explained very concretely.
Clear and consistent navigation.
Box front and center for top priority content, frequently updated.
Take Action! section that offers flyers, buttons, and stickers galore.
Petition form with list of signatures posted on the site.
Committee meeting dates and reports on meetings.

There is room for improvement: for example the "Take Action" section should include all the ways to take action that the website suggests, instead of just providing flyers to distribute. The "Contact Us" page could use regional contacts for the Committee to help people get involved in their area, and a form for workers to fill out indicating that they want to get involved. The lack of external links (links to other websites) is odd - there is useful information online on this issue and other organizations fighting on this -- and out of synch with both standard website design and the culture of the Internet, which is all about networking.

You don't get a website like this without having a real movement among the rank-and-file to tap into and an organization ready to help build it. But, an effective and well-designed website like nopensionfreeze.org is a valuable tool for helping to spread the movement and helping workers organize. We hope that this experience is written-up at some point as a study in the use of the Internet for rank-and-file organizing. Anyone wanting to create a campaign-type website should turn here for a model.

 

The Committee to Defend Local 701, for members of International Association of Machinists (IAM) Local 701, http://www.free701.org/pages/7/index.htm.

According to this website, the IAM imposed a trusteeship on Local 701 in February of 2003 after members working at UPS refused to ratify a contract. As in most trusteeships, the international removed the officers, took control of all finances, staffing, and all decisions on policy. Union members maintained their key rights to free speech and freedom from retaliation, but lost virtually all control over union affairs. (Timeline)

Free701.org shows what a powerful tool an independent website can be in this situation, making the most of member free speech and providing a vitally important space for discussion and organizing when the normal spaces (such as executive board and local meetings) have been shut down.

While the website keeps information flowing, the key is keeping the focus on action. As one of our judges said, "This site appears to be a central tool in trying to undermine the International's effort to trustee the local and to impose an unpopular contract. For already-committed supporters, the site provides a lot of information. The undecided will not be put off, but will learn a great deal. Organizational efforts are quite prominent, such as a raffle and the sale of tee shirts to raise money to challenge the trusteeship in court." There is also a photo gallery that shows the action that is taking place beyond the website.

IAM president Buffenbarger's own words are artfully used against him -- a letter of his passionately defending the right of union members to vote on contracts is contrasted to the alleged imposition of a contract on local 701.

The design is also strong: the navigation links on the upper left are clear and consistent all the way through the site, you can find out right away who operates the site, what they want, and how to contact them. Everything is easy to read, high contrast colors, with no annoying pop-ups or animated doo-dads. The site uses photos, audio and video effectively.

Some suggestions for improvement: it would be good to clarify the issues involved by adding a mission statement to the photo on the "what we want" page. There is a very useful history of the struggle at the bottom of the news page that should be more easily accessible - it might help to put a link on the home page and a link on the "what we want" page.

 

Hotel Employee Advocates for Real Democracy (HEARDNY), for Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) members in New York City, http://www.heardny.org/main.htm

Our third prize winner is more typical of the majority of rank-and-file websites than the first and second place sites. Most rank-and-file websites are not based on single-issue campaigns, or fights to get out from under a trusteeship. Most are not created in the context of a prairie fire of member indignation and activism, and most are not the product of long established reform groups, or ousted union officers and their supporters. In most cases, unions reformers start from scratch, working alone or with one or two co-workers, teaching themselves how to design websites and use them to organize, in those precious hours between work and sleep.

The typical rank-and-file website has to serve many purposes, spreading information, offering the prospect of change, proposing changes to be made and how to get started, drawing people into dialogue - all of this without losing focus. This is a challenging task, and HEARD NY is a good example of how to do it.

Best ideas:
Mission statement: not only is there a clear and specific mission statement, but there are links to short explanations of some of the points, and - a great idea - the list is updated to show progress made.
The site offers much of the basic information members need to defend their rights in the union: union bylaws, contracts and memoranda of understanding, officer and delegate names, union contact information, and financial reports.
There is an alternative version of the website for people with slow internet connections (we favor having one, easy-to-access website, but this is a step in the right direction).
The "contact us" page anticipates the concerns many members have and provides helpful suggestions on how to proceed on a workplace complaint.
Using real documents helps the visitor feel involved - see the exchange between HERE President John Wilhelm and AUD board member Arthur Fox, for example, on the subject of notifying members of their democratic rights.
The union provides useful information for delegates and seems fair - recognizing when the union officials do something good.
Room for growth and participation: there are several areas on the site that welcome and ask for members to help gather information and ideas.

The site navigation and design are pretty good. However, the navigation buttons on the left drop off of some content pages and the color scheme makes it harder to focus on what is important - is green more urgent than orange or yellow? Put the basic navigation on every page. We also suggest dropping the animation and background patterns, using fewer colors and always using them for the same purpose: black for text, red for urgent information (not the whole text, just the title or date), and the usual blue for links, purple for visited links.

One weakness of this site is that the information it contains about activism and ways to get involved is scattered throughout the site, instead of grouped in a "Take Action" section. It would be great to have petitions, meeting information, information about how to get involved and reports on actions taken all in one place. This site can be even better if it prioritizes action and rank-and-file organizing, and shows that in the design.

Honorable Mention: Members for Democracy, for workers in US and Canadian unions, www.ufcw.net

This is an ambitious and comprehensive website. You find plenty of information on the UFCW of course, but also on a range of unions in the US and Canada. Members for Democracy does a great job of bringing in many voices and sharing ideas and perspectives from the rank-and-file. The Toolkit, Trough, and Open Forums are all great features. The content is well-written and consistently up to date. This website is a major undertaking and a valuable resource. Webstewards can also benefit from the advice and support offered in the forum "Tips, Tricks, and Tools of the Trade." Members for Democracy has also played an important role in fighting the United Food and Commercial Workers Union's (the UFCW) attempts to suppress free speech rights online.

Some other good tools:

Interactive Guestbook: JD Walker, a Greyhound bus driver in Arizona, has designed a guestbook that works like a survey. Walker personally answers entries, responding to the visitor's comments. Great way to get a discussion going, and respectful of visitors.

Humor: Snakebites, a website for UTU members, uses wry, salty, and sarcastic language and graphics to make serious points about safety and working conditions in a dangerous job.

Educational handouts: TDU's massive website has a great collection of educational handouts on subjects like running for union office, handling grievances, and making the most of union meetings.

Congratulations to all the entrants! The winning websites had the strongest combination of qualities we were looking for, but all of your sites demonstrate the value of this new form of worker communication and organization.

Special thanks to the judges, who took the time to carefully review each site.

Unions represented in the contest: APWU, ATU, CWA, HERE, IAM, IATSE, IBEW, IBT, ILWU, LIUNA, NRLCA, NWU, TWU (Canada), UA, UAW, UBC, UFCW, UNITE, UTU

Articles on the internet and union democracy:
Appeals court backs union curbs on the internet
Free Speech in the SEIU and MEBA?
Union officers uncomfortable with online free speech
Surrendering to the internet: Democrats in spite of themselves?

IBEW president Hill upholds Canadian member's rights
Union officials "condone and endorse" attack on member's internet free speech rights
Round 2 in the internet battle in AFSCME DC37
In AFSCME DC37 - A round in the internet battle
Danger of democracy on the Internet? Kill it!
Whose "IBEW" is it? An Electrician on the Internet.
Results of the 2005 AUD Best Rank-and-File Website Contest
Union democracy online survives two lawsuits
Online Guide: build an effective rank-and-file website
SEIU Pulls plug on "Labor's Future" discussion
52 Playing cards = fearsome "Local 52"
Using the Internet for Union Democracy

AUD's Best Rank-and-File Websites of 2004
Matt Noyes on AUD and the Internet
2KB of free speech? ACLU & Public Citizen sue in IBEW Local 46 election
Making a splash: SEIU's Unite to Win and the "free and open debate" on Labor's future

SAG officers unnerved by actors' internet free speech

Free speech irritates UFCW

Free speech in NWU
IATSE 600: Internet democracy triumphs over super centralization
Cyber-democracy: your legal rights online.(handout)

See also:
AUD's 50 Guidelines for building an effective rank-and-file website, and the sample homepage.
The labortech tag on del.icio.us.

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