App-Savvy Unions Connect With Members

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By Tyrone Richardson

July 15 — The International Association of Machinists launched a new mobile device app July 14 to help its members navigate meetings, guest speeches and other events during the union's weekslong international convention in Chicago later this summer.

“We’re using apps in all kinds of ways to help members have the union at their fingertips,” IAM spokesman Jonathan Battaglia told Bloomberg BNA. “In any way we can be more accessible to our members, that's what we want to do. They're spending more time on their phones, so this is a way we can be there too.”

The IAM is part of a growing list of labor unions tapping into mobile app technology to organize and educate members. Mobile device apps have been created by some union locals and regional offices, with official versions launched by headquarters. The National Labor Relations Board also has an app.

Convention Alerts

The in-house communications staff at the IAM developed its app to include daily schedule details, convention documents, live streaming and capabilities to message “alerts” in case of last-minute changes during the September convention.

The new app adds to the IAM's toolbox of apps used to reach the 720,000 some workers the union represents, including engineers at Boeing Co., passenger service agents at United Airlines, and technicians employed by federal contractors at the Red River Army Depot in Texas.

The union is also planning to unveil a new version of its main union app as early as September 2017, replacing version 3.0, which launched about two years ago.

There have been about 13,000 downloads of the 3.0 version app, which lets users read union news, sign political action petitions, view IAM multimedia such as video and pictures, read press releases, contact union executives, view union social media accounts such as Facebook and Twitter, and request the assistance of a union organizer.

UAW, ATU Also Into Apps

The United Auto Workers is getting ready to launch its official mobile app “soon,” union spokesman Brian Rothenberg told Bloomberg BNA July 13.

The Amalgamated Transit Union launched its official mobile app in January, and the Service Employees International Union rolled out an “SEIU Convention 2016” mobile app to help its members navigate the international event held in Detroit in May, loaded with information such as maps and schedule details.

Unions have been tinkering with mobile app technology since at least 2009. They're among a burgeoning list of government agencies, companies and other entities tapping into this technology to stay connected with the masses.

Examples include mobile device apps to hail an Uber driver, track a pizza order or deposit a check into your personal banking account.

Labor union mobile apps offer information such as labor contracts and interactive tools like photo sharing and reporting workplace violations.

The apps, combined with social media such as Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook, are a way to reach more workers for their goal of unionizing and educating, according to Denise T. Ogden, a marketing professor at Pennsylvania State University.

“Social media is ingrained in our daily lives,” told Bloomberg BNA. “These sites combined with mobile technology are being leveraged by many organizations to boost membership and ultimately more effectively reach their goals.”

Apps Useful but Can't Replace Stewards

Ogden said mobile app technology offers several tools for a union, including a better method of reaching younger workers and increasing productivity to “reach many people at once.”

The app can also boost coordination between union members for actions against an employer “quickly before management can defeat the movement,” she said.

The app also offers a layer of privacy because users can access union information without utilizing company resources such as computers or telephones, Ogden added.

“Apps can make members feel a part of a community, especially when one is able to see who else has joined or committed to a cause,” she said.

The downside of the technology is that it takes time, effort and money to implement and maintain, Ogden said. But the benefits outweigh the costs, she added.

Lance Compa, a professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said apps provide an innovative way to reach younger and tech-savvy members, but the technology shouldn't replace face-to-face relationships.

“I would also add a caution that labor advocates should not see such web-based communication as a substitute for face-to-face organizing and representation,” he told Bloomberg BNA. “Workers should always be able to sit down with a real union steward or other union official for personal bonds of support and solidarity.”

CWA Used App During Verizon Strike

The 700,000-member Communications Workers of America taps into its “CWA Movement Builder App,” to coordinate actions such as protests and petition drives. That includes allowing members to “check in” at CWA events, upload photos and sign petitions such as the union's effort to have wireless company T-Mobile address policies regarding sexual harassment.

Participating via the app allows members to earn points showing how active they are in the union's campaigns, said Beth Allen, CWA director of online communications.

“When we decided to go ahead and do an app, it was to have a real purpose,” she told Bloomberg BNA. “We have a specific focus and this gives a value-added over just sending text messages with mobile alerts.”

The CWA movement app has been downloaded about 25,000 times and includes capabilities such as viewing union news, locating union events near one's location, signing petitions, receiving union messages, and viewing the CWA's social media accounts.

The app came into use during the 45-day strike against Verizon Communications Inc. About 39,000 East Coast workers, represented by the CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, staged a series of protests against the telecommunications giant before ratifying a deal in June.

“It has been helpful to get the word out about different events going on,” Allen said. “They used it during the Verizon strike to let users know where picket lines were near them and so they could join.”

Union App Development Continues

Allen said the union wants to work with a third-party developer to update the app to include more multimedia capabilities, including allowing users to upload videos. The main focus of the app will continue to be drumming up activity by union members, she added.

As for the IAM, it's seeking to make more use of a specialist it hired years ago tasked with handling coding and other technical and creative details needed to develop and launch a new mobile device app, spokesman Battaglia said.

Unions such as the CWA and the IAM aren't the only labor-focused groups with mobile apps on the horizon.

The National Labor Relations Board is also looking to spruce up its three-year-old app, once it gets more federal funding, according to NLRB chairman Mark Gaston Pearce.

“While the app has been and remains useful to many, it is our goal to create a more dynamic app that allows workers, employers, and unions to take action from anywhere,” Pearce told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail. “However, the current budget constraints facing all federal agencies make doing so in the near future unfeasible.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyrone Richardson in Washington at trichardson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

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