Boots Online: Digital At #AFLCIO13

The advance of online tools and digital strategy is very much in evidence at the AFL-CIO Convention. Some data points:

  • The listening sessions conducted for many months included robust online conversations.
  • There is now a Digital Department that has had thousands of participants in online webinars and offline training events.
  • A number of well-regarded netroots pros have been hired over the last two years.
  • Quite a few advanced software projects have been rolled out, or will be soon, including the Labor Web’s replacement and the RePurpose election tool.

So it was a pleasant surprise, though not a complete shock, to see that the most prominent booth display at the convention was for the Digital Dept., complete with an amazing “Boots Online!” sign.

Jessica Morales of the AFL-CIO Digital Dept.

Jessica Morales of the AFL-CIO Digital Dept.

It’s also been great witnessing a robust conversation on the official hashtag #aflcio13. One journalist present even suggested that part of the program – dozens of 90 minute action sessions – were “designed to give the proceedings the trendy buzz of a Netroots Nation conference.” Sounds good, right?

We’ve been advocating since 2009 that unions take digital strategy more seriously. This requires a number of things all done at the same time, including:

  • Strong, public support from the top for this direction.
  • Changes in job titles, duties, and the mix of staffer specialties in communications and organizing departments.
  • Actually organizing the digital aspects of unions with metrics and evaluations.
  • Finding ways for the digitally savvy to exert what we might call ‘expertise based influence’ that does not derive from how long they’ve been employed, who they know, or their spot on the pecking order.
  • Pushing change to the edge of the labor movement – the locals – and assigning appropriate resources to make that happen. (As opposed to merely having a decent team at the International working on strategic campaigns.)
  • Working with a wider array of capacity building partners and encouraging more local connections between unions and capacity building opportunities outside the union- or labor-movements. (Like NTEN, local alternative media conferences, and of course Organizing 2.0.)
  • Setting a goal of training 1000 digital strategists inside the labor movement – and making it easy to find out where they are.
  • Helping locals evaluate the cost and quality of digital communications services that they purchase.
  • Launching a Circuit Rider program that creates jobs for social media and digital strategy freelancers to work with multiple locals at the same time, as part of a coordinated, managed and sustainable effort to help every local – not just the strong ones.
  • Collecting case studies across a wide array of situations and make them available for inspiration, with an appropriate taxonomy. Include both successes AND failures.

The union movement is clearly on the right track when it comes to integrating online and offline organizing, and this convention sets some very positive precedents for that work. But in the rush to celebrate accomplishments, it’s easy to skip over the need for an accurate map of the terrain. The labor movement is weak and it needs as much help and as many allies as it can get. AFL-CIO President Trumka has made it clear that he wants to open-source the labor movement, creating programs, tools and campaigns that everyone can join, modify, and share. Those of us excited about how new communication tools can make a difference for the labor movement have a duty to accept that challenge.

[Got ideas and feedback of your own? Offer them here or on Twitter!]

Live Blogging The AFL-CIO Convention (Part 1)

Organizing 2.0 is here at the AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles. We hope to cover some topics of interest to the broader labor movement and investigate some of our favorite topics. If you’re just getting started in all things AFL-CIO Convention, consider starting with Josh Eidelson at The Nation and Labor Notes’ collection of ten great articles. If you just want the short version, this might be it:

Unions are in decline. Past efforts to organize more workers did not reverse the trend. Have we reached the bottom of the trough? Is there enough pain to force enough labor leaders to think and act differently? AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is proposing new kinds of relationships with environmentalists, civil rights groups and others; but the devil is in the details, and we simply do not know how these initiatives will pan out.

Meanwhie the alt-labor sector is generating a lot of attention. Is the future of labor to be found in worker centers, community-labor alliances, fast-food workers, domestic workers and others traditionally outside the union movement? Will minority unionism or direct action unionism stage a comeback? We just don’t know, but increasingly, such efforts are being prioritized by various unions – especially SEIU (fast food) and UFCW (OUR Walmart).

This is what most of the ink spilled will be about. My own interests are a little less macro and meta, though it’s unclear if I can learn much about them at this convention.

  • The last big push for organizing (in the 90′s) has a spotty record. Even when large unions took the plunge and spent big in an effort to organize the unorganized, it just didn’t add up. The cost per new member was too high. At a time when organizing is prioritized (again), we should be asking: how and why will this be different? Do unions have new, proven and cost-effective organizing strategies and tactics waiting to be rolled out? Or are we in the verge of another experiment that might fail?
  • The average age of a union member continues to go up. The chances of a young worker belonging to a union are in decline. What does the ‘young worker movement’ mean for the vast majority of young workers unlikely to ever see the inside of a union hall?
  • Organizing has changed dramatically as a result of new communications technologies. But the tools of online organizing are only rarely well integrated with the tools of offline organizing. To a large extent, the changes that the new Digital Department seeks to implement across the labor movement are in their infancy. What is the state of this transition?
  • The vast majority of workers in America don’t belong to a union. To the extent that supporting the labor movement is an attractive political or social opportunity, unions have not been very good at creating them for non-union members. Working America is the largest ‘labor solidarity’ organization meant to address this need. But actually, there are many labor solidarity efforts built by and for individuals who want to play a role in the labor movement that does not correspond to their day job. What is the future of this sector? How is it perceived by labor leaders? Can we expect increased attention paid to groups like Jobs with Justice, 99 Pickets, Brandworkers and Occupy related efforts?

If you have questions – or answers – please add them below or tweet me @organize20.

Training: Digital Skills for Labor – Aug. 21

We’re pleased to be co-presenting a daylong training on online organizing aimed at people in the labor movement. Whether you’re a beginner or looking to hone your skills with more advanced trainings, we’ll have something for you.

All participants MUST register here. The language in this form focuses on affiliates of the New York City Central Labor Council, but we are welcoming colleagues from community organizing groups, unions and labor groups who aren’t part of the CLC, students, activists and others allied with the labor movement. Wondering if this training is really for you? Just ask by emailing us here.


Wed, Aug 21, 2013 | 9:30 AM – 5:00 PM
New York City Central Labor Council
275 Seventh Avenue, 16th Floor
New York, NY 10001

This event is sponsored by the New York City Central Labor Council, the New York State AFL-CIO, the AFL-CIO, Organizing 2.0, the Consortium for Worker Education and the New York Paid Leave Coalition. Trainers hailing from the CLC, AFL-CIO and Organizing 2.0 will be on hand to give you a training tailored to labor’s needs. We’ll be teaching things like the Salsa email blast and petition system, social media skills for all levels, how to get buy-in for online organizing and what to look for in making a campaign website.

Registration is limited and expected to fill up rapidly. Register Today.

An Idea for Big List Online Organizing

Together with, we’re trying to address an interesting – but extremely sensitive – issue. How can the important organizations with large lists of progressives work together to influence the outcome of local races of importance? Specifically, the kinds of races that often fall in the cracks: local, primaries, recalls, non-Federal, but in a context where the outcome can have national significance.

Examples abound: The New York City mayoral primary and the Colorado recall races against John Morse and Angela Giron come to mind for this September. Because of the importance of these local races, it is likely that groups we know and love with large national lists will weigh in – perhaps fundraising, perhaps volunteer opportunities, but for sure with endorsements and calls to help get out the vote.

And yet, more could be done.

Imagine a scenario where different progressive groups combine their names into a single CRM. Some black box mechanism that assures everyone that no one is stealing their names, no one is going to spam folks uncontrollably, but that coordinates the messaging. Imagine further that the names and emails on this shared list are matched with the voter file, so that even smaller chunks can be messaged for campaigners working in smaller geographic units, or that emails can be written ‘from’ someone who is close by. Imagine that this shared list is run through a social media matching service (like to figure out who the best prospects are for high touch engagement.

(By ‘coordinates the messaging’ we don’t mean send the same email to everyone, we mean making sure that it’s possible to reach the right people, at the right time, with excellent emails that are both responsive to campaign priorities, are seen as legitimate by the recipients, and that take into account the local news cycle. It can be done!)

I bet such an effort increases turnout for everyone in that shared list. In a low turnout race, that can make a big difference. More importantly, I think that the combined effort would boost overall turnout AND get national press, particularly if this kind of cooperation was trumpeted as a news story. It’s widely known in our circles that simply emailing people might not improve GOTV, but working a list in this fashion, early and carefully with an experienced local staff person taking charge, does not constitute a program of simply emailing to boost GOTV.

There isn’t much time if we wanted to roll such an effort out for September. On the other hand, so many of the obstacles DO have solutions, even if they require some fancy footwork and goodwill. Examples:

Privacy issues and ‘can’t pass on emails to other organizations.’ There are solutions to this. First of all, a combined effort of multiple organizations working in close partnership doesn’t constitute ‘giving emails to another entity.’ It’s entirely possible to work with a CRM that keeps track of every email address’ source, and for that CRM to be formally owned/managed by a consortium of partners.

Lack of staff time in the national orgs for such a small fraction of members. Well that’s the whole point. We can’t really expect the managers of national lists to be focused on a local race, which is why having a local person take charge of the process makes so much sense. Imagine what your list could do if it was worked in the most efficient manner for a specific race for a limited amount of time?

List members might complain. But isn’t that always true? This exercise isn’t about building a list or raising money for the large org, it’s about winning an election. And we can’t trust candidates and their campaigns to do it on their own, particularly in small races that might not have access to the staffing and talents of a statewide or national race. More importantly – our progressive list members want to be effective, want to be informed of how they can make a real difference. That doesn’t always happen in local races.

If you think this is worth doing – please say so and let’s be in touch. If you can identify obstacles or hurdles, even ones you think are insurmountable – please post or email them. Sometimes, what looks like a problem from far away is an opportunity when a talented group examine it close up.

(comment below or email me at