Guidelines for building an effective rank-and-file website:
1. Tell people who, what, and where you are. It seems obvious, but many rank-and-file sites fail to do this. Every site should tell the visitor what the site is about, who is it for, who puts it out, and where they are located. Use a separate “About Us” page, but make sure your site title and description — the first thing people see on the homepage — gives people the basics. (This also is helpful to search engines and people linking to your site, who often quote your description in their link text. You can also use this description as a “meta tag” to help search engines identify you.) In the description, make it clear that your site is “unofficial.” What if you want to be anonymous?
2. Put contact information front and center. This goes at the top with the name and description. Give your e-mail at least, phone, fax, and address/post office box if possible. A “Contact Us” page, with a link at the top of every page or in the main navigation is fine. The more specific the contact information is the better. Give the name and e-mail or phone number of not just the websteward, but also of activists workers can contact to talk about problems on the job or in the union.
3. Put it on every page. Put the site name and a one sentence description on every page since people may not enter your site via the homepage.
4. Tell us when the site was last updated. Returning visitors want to know if there is something new since they last visited, new people want to know if the site is current. Tell people up front when the site was last updated. Do not use an automatic clock that just tells the person the current time and date. Don’t date items that are not time-specific or are rarely updated, like the union constitution.
5. Have a disclaimer. If your title and description do not do this already, make it clear that your site is not an official union website, nor sponsored by the union. If you give people advice on their legal rights, make it clear that you are not an attorney and that the advice is not a legal opinion or advice.
6. Tell people what you stand for and how you plan to get it. In addition to a brief description of your site and its purpose, you should have a clear, concrete mission statement that states what you stand for, the specific changes you want to make, and how you think they can be achieved. This is one of the most important items on your site, it helps people assess you and your intentions. The mission statement should be concrete – do not just promise to be good people and do good things. The mission statement does not have to be on the homepage, but you should give a brief summary of your mission and have a prominent link to the full statement.
7. Have clear priorities. The most important part of your site is the the area “above the fold,” the part of the homepage that fits into most people’s screens without scrolling. Part of this area is used for the site navigation (links to pages on your site), part for the title (name, description, contact information), and part is used for content, the information that you think it is most important for people to see.
Think about your goals for the website – what are you trying to accomplish? What information is central to your mission, what is the first thing you want people to see, what do you most want people to find on the site? The area above the fold is precious, don’t fill it with general news about the industry you work in, or big photos or logos.
If you want to educate, agitate, and organize, then make sure that there is a little of each above the fold. This can be done by placing links to pages with those contents, by taking a sentence or two from items you want people to read and then giving a link to follow for the rest of the story, or by making a “what’s new” list that has items from each category. Make sure you focus on the most important current tasks and campaigns, especially the time-sensitive issues – an upcoming action or meeting that people must act on now.
8. Focus. It’s easy to put a lot of information online, but it may not make for an effective website. Think about your audience and what they care about. Discuss with coworkers what they would like to know more about. Listen carefully to what people say on the job, in the union, in forums and discussion lists, etc. It may be that a campaign dedicated to winning one specific (but very important) demand could be more effective than trying to address every issue that you think people might care about. You have to judge what will work best.
9. Give people information and ideas that they need and want. With a little effort you can assemble information that people need to solve problems – legal rights, how to enforce them, grievance procedures, hiring hall procedures, pension rights, etc. Figure out what your coworkers need most — and provide it or, where it is already available, make it easy for people to go directly to that information on another site.
Get people to create content as well as consume it. Use forums, polls, forms, email, to collect information and ideas for your site. The internet makes it much easier to circulate articles and opinion pieces about unions, employers, and struggles. You are free to use all articles and other information the AUD website. Other publications, like Labor Notes ( http://www.labornotes.org) publish stories online. Link to articles that are relevant to your members, or, with their permission and giving contact information to the source, copy the article and post it on your site.
10. Tell the truth. Do your best to get the facts and make it clear what is fact and what is opinion. Don’t give advice that you are not sure of. Check with people you trust, contact other activists, or the Association for Union Democracy. A disclaimer can be useful here, like this one from The Conscience of 294, “Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the electronic documents and resources provided on this Web site. However, the Conscience of 294 makes no warranties, expressed or implied, regarding errors or omissions and assumes no legal liability or responsibility for loss or damage resulting from the use of information contained within..”
11. Provide information the union officers should be providing but aren’t – the contract, the union constitution, union meeting times and locations, minutes of past meetings, contract proposals, side agreements, election timelines or rules, grievance forms, officers’ phone numbers and emails, etc. All of this is useful to members. Don’t stop pushing the union representatives to provide this information, but if they don’t, go right ahead. In the worst case, workers will have more than one way to get the information they need – this is not a problem.
12. Help people understand the material you provide. Use Frequently Asked Questions, an advice column, or an “ask for advice” forum to answer members’ questions about the information your provide. Recruit a few designated “forum leaders” who will respond. Put a form on your site for members to ask questions. Summarize key legal rights or information in one page-handouts people can print and distribute.
13. Cut through the legalese. If you link to material on another site, look for the most accessible material – for example, the Association for Union Democracy (AUD) publishes the text of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act but also a plain language guide to the act that offers realistic advice. You can link to both (some people want to see the letter of the law), but prioritize the plain language guide.
14. Give people the actual documents – the full text of the contract – including side letters and “Memoranda of Understanding”, the union constitution, official correspondence on important issues. Members hate it when a union official refuses to let them see the full contract before a vote, the financial information, the vote count, or the minutes from a meeting. Show that it is possible and valuable to share information with the members. However, remember to prioritize: do not bury people in a hundred documents. People will not want to wade through your thirteen letters to the Department of Labor. (Design note: when posting a document, try to post it not just in PDF format, but also as html. Many people who will look at a document online will not skip over a PDF file – fear of viruses, or just impatience.)
15. Build your own network of trusted sources, including other rank-and-file websites. Where do you go to get information you trust? Link to websites, or copy material (with permission and a link to the original source). Contacting a site’s websteward can be a great way to get some direct help and make contacts.
16. Encourage people to think for themselves. Don’t use your website the way many companies, political campaigns, and some unions do – as an advertisement or propaganda machine. Instead of trying to “sell” people on your ideas or “spin” issues your way, use the website to talk with them, ask real questions, and give visitors information they can use to make their own judgment.
17. Build bridges and practice solidarity. Democracy and inequality do not mix. Make sure to include issues that affect each part of the workforce. Do not let the union leadership or management play you against your fellow workers: high seniority vs. low seniority, craft vs. craft. Make it clear that you want a union of, by, and for all the workers. Translate documents into other languages, highlight issues of concern to particular groups in the union like workers or color or workers in a particular title or craft, recruit people you are trying to work with to write to the discussion forum.
18. Use public documents. Union constitutions and bylaws, contracts, side agreements, and many other documents are public information that can legally be reproduced and distributed, including on websites. Do not be intimidated by a union attorney who threatens to sue for copyright infringement. Contact the Association for Union Democracy http://www.uniondemocracy.org.
19. Prioritize links. Use your priorities, and the needs of your audience, to decide who to link to. Long lists of links can feel like a waste of time to the user, and make it harder for people to understand what you are trying to accomplish (are you trying to be an online encyclopedia?).
20. Use links to educate and assist people. When linking to government agencies, public interest groups, etc, use targeted links straight to the page you need, not just the homepage. Give both phone numbers and URLs for government agencies. Tell people what to ask for and give them a sense of what they are likely to encounter if they do contact the agency.
21. Link to the official union and to other reformers. One way to encourage people to use their own judgment is to place links to sites of activists or organizations that oppose you or disagree with you. When your opponents are also reformers, although with a different view or agenda, a link to them shows that you understand that you are part of a larger process of debate. Always link to the official union website(s) and to any useful information they publish. You want your supporters to be with you because they understand and agree with you, not because you are the only people they know about.
22. Link to the employers? Links to the employer’s website and some employer-friendly websites can help members “know the enemy.” But think twice about linking to organizations that may share some of your criticisms of your union, or provide useful information, but actually want to do away with unions altogether, such as the NLPC. If you choose to link to a group like that, make it extremely clear to your visitors that you oppose their mission.
23. Have a clear specific audience for your site. The audience should match your organizing goals – in other words, if you are organizing on the local level, your site should speak primarily to your local members and their families or members of their communities. Likewise, the content of your site – what you post and the priority you give items — should speak to the top interests and concerns of the people you are hoping to work with. Any website is available to the entire online world – and you should keep that in mind as you design it, for example by including the country in your contact information – but an effective organizing site has to have a specific audience. Include this in your description, for example: “the unofficial forum for members of local 787, United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters.”
24. Work with others. If the point is to organize for democracy and power, why not make the website a group project? Like a print newsletter, a website can help a group define itself and keep its focus. The site can become a place where collective discussion and planning takes place, not just the record of one person’s gripes or their individual master plan for solving the union’s problems. It takes work to operate this way, but has important benefits: the site will be stronger and more representative and the group will learn how to handle debate and discussion and come to a decision.
25. Build community. Help people find each other. Isolation is a major obstacle for people who want to make changes. Your website can help them connect to other activists in their area, or work location. List the contact people, or create an activist directory that people can access by e-mailing you and asking for contacts in their area. There is also networking software, used by companies like MeetUp.com that some union members have used to organize meetings in their area.
26. Build your group. Use the website to collect names, e-mails, addresses, phone numbers and other relevant information. Once you collect this information, you need a way to keep and use it. Set up a database – a simple computer address book can work for this – and be careful to put in all the information you gather. The information you collect this way is often the most up to date and accurate and can be crucial in election campaigns or other mobilizing efforts.
27. Follow up on website contacts with direct personal contact. Make a phone call, meet the person after work, invite them to a meeting. Convert website contacts into real life meetings and discussions with people. Have a contact system – if a worker on a particular job contacts you, have a person on that job they can be put in touch with. (TIP: You can use a worker to worker network to organize this.)
28. Show that you are about action. Focus on what people are doing to solve the problems. There is a lot of complaining on the internet, just like in the union hall or workplace. It’s good to provide space for some of that (like in a forum or bulletin board) but to move from complaining to organizing you need to start talking about what can be done and what is being done to make a change. This helps people see that change is possible, that there are people who are trying to do it, and that there is a way to help. Give action items top priority on your page.
Follow the “70% positive” rule: don’t let your criticisms and complaints take up more than 30% of your website. (People posting to your forum or bulletin board may break this rule, but your own posts should not.)
29. Give people a way to get involved in the actions that your group has planned. If it is an event, tell people how to get there, what to expect, how to help organize it. If it is a petition, give people a copy of the form or a contact person to get it from. Use discussion lists, forums, or surveys to talk about possible plans. (You can save confidential details for private conversations or closed discussion lists.) This can be a great way to get people to participate in planning strategy and to get a feel for how much support there is for a proposed action.
30. Provide tools for people to take action online. Petitions can be signed and letters sent directly from a website. LabourStart’s ActNOW newswire is one such tool. (You can also include ActNOW on your website.) You can also use forums and polls for online participation in decision-making.
31. Provide tools for people to take action offline – petitions, draft grievances, flyers and handouts, stickers they can print on label paper, pictures and posters, newsletters, anything people might want to use on the job or at a union meeting. Don’t just send people off with an NLRB complaint form, though. Note: you want people to contact you to discuss the problem – there may be a great organizing opportunity hiding in a small complaint.
32. Follow up on your actions with reports, photos, discussion, and next steps. This is part of the focus on action. Post photos of an action or event, this can give people a picture of what it looks like to participate. Celebrate your hard work and recognize the efforts of people who made an event or action a success.
33. Show them you are about democracy. Question Authority. Have a little attitude – this is your union. Question your officials, demand the full story, don’t be put off or blown off. Name names and challenge your opponents to explain or justify their views or actions. Remember, what goes around comes around, be prepared to have your own authority questioned.
34. Hold leaders and representatives accountable. Help members develop the attitude that they really are the union and their representatives are there not to rule them but to help them build and use their power. List the union officers and representatives and their contact information, so people can call them directly. Tell how representatives and officers voted on issues of interest to the members. Encourage workers to consider running for office.
35. Practice what you preach. Encourage frank and honest debate and discussion in forums and bulletin boards, discourage “flaming” and personal attacks (though it is important that people feel able to name names). Do not overreact to bad behavior. It is understandable that many frustrated union members who finally find a forum to speak freely come out swearing and fuming. Offer friendly advice and feedback. Post correspondence to/from your opponents. Link to opposing websites. Show your confidence in the members’ ability to judge for themselves and model good democratic behavior: show others that it is possible to disagree strongly without treating the other person like the enemy of all humanity.
36. Build a network. Individual websites are not a bad thing, but look for ways to network. In some cases, as in the Carpenters, IBEW and United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, there is a network of sites and discussion forums run by individuals that form a kind of collective project. This format allows for maximum freedom on the part of the webstewards without losing track of common issues and projects — like the campaign for One Member One Vote in the IBEW. You may want to be a part of a larger network of this type.
37. Build a division of labor among activists. If someone else already has a great list of all the grievance settlements from your local online, or links to all the locals in your union, or hosts a lively discussion board, link to them. By adding links that make use of existing resources you are building community and connections between activists.
38. Keep the websteward accountable to the group. This can be tricky, webstewards get pretty involved in their work and it’s hard to hold back and let the group make key decisions, especially if you are in a hurry to add or change something. The group also has to be careful not to micromanage what is, after all, someone’s volunteer work. But, big issues or positions – whether to support a proposed contract or who to back in a union election – should be decided by the group. Consider creating a site that can be edited by several different people, like a blog or Content Management System site.
39. Advertise your site – put the URL and email on anything you print (leaflets, newsletters, buttons, t-shirts, hats, bumperstickers, etc.) Swap links with people whose websites are likely to attract the same people you want to reach. Post articles from your site in other web forums, with a link back to your site. (If your site includes regular news stories, you can become a volunteer correspondent for LabourStart and post your stories there. Details here: http://www.labourstart.org/newcorrespondents.shtml)
40. Get a good domain name for your site. Something short and easy to remember, like http://www.yoursite.org. (To see if a domain name is available go to “Who is..” http://www.networksolutions.com/en_US/whois/index.jhtml ). You don’t want to be stuck with the long cumbersome names that free website hosts assign. Compare Bartenders for a Stronger Union’s domain name http://www.vegasbartender.org (and clever e-mail Heybartender@vegasbartenders.org).
41. Tell us how to get from here to there (and back again!). Have a clear navigation system that is the same throughout the site (same list of navigation links, same names, same location on the page, same design and layout). The most common approach is to use three types of navigation links:
a. Basic navigation along the top of the page – typically, “home,” “contact us,” “about [your group’s name here],” “links,” “search this site,” and links to main content pages you may have, like “legal rights,” “upcoming events,” or “the forum.” The “contact” and “about” links should lead to pages with more detailed contact information (including a form for people to write to you), and a more detailed description of your site and its mission.
b. In the left column, a list of links to the contents of your website, organized in a way that will make sense to your audience. (Put the high priority items at the top of the list.) These links do not only have to be to sections of your web site (like a “documents” section) but should include links to specific pages (for example, “the Oct. 15 letter to Management about overtime violations”). It is good for content deep in your web site to “bubble up” to the homepage.
c. On a content page, use the left column for links to items on that page. (These are called anchor links.)
Bottom line, a visitor to your site should always know where he or she is and how to get to the other parts of the web site. If you don’t do this, it’s like you are just walking up to a coworker and dumping a box full of disorganized papers in their lap, “here!” Not a good organizing strategy.
42. Guide people to the material in your site. Help people find particular items by linking directly to them from the home page. In addition to a “Your Rights” link, have a link to “the Local 267 Bylaws” or “AUD’s Questions and Answers page.”
43. Descriptive links. The more specific and descriptive a link is, the easier it makes it for people to get to what they want. Use language that helps the visitor understand what they will find if they follow the link. For example, instead of just naming a link “Events” name it “local meetings and campaigns: Nominations next month, Carlson’s picket next Thursday.” Then link to a page with more information on those events. You may even want separate links to each event, if they are important to emphasize.
For all links off your site, give a short description of the site you are linking to, and the full URL. Check these links regularly. Dead links are a turn off. Be sure to tell people if a link means you endorse the site or not. Most internet users know that linking to a site does not imply you agree with it, but your opponents may try to make this claim.
44. “Search this site.” If you have a lot of information on your site – more than ten pages — include a “search this site” box on every page so people have an alternative way to find their way around.
45. Have one homepage. Every site needs one clearly identified homepage where people can quickly find out about the website and what is in it. This is crucial for effective site design (see the resources on web site design), but it is also important from an organizing point of view. The homepage is where you introduce yourself, explain what you are doing, and try to get the visitor involved. It is your best chance to show people what’s available on the site and how to get to it. Even if people enter your site from another page, they will go to the homepage to find out the basics about the site.
46. Make it two or three pages long. Do not make a homepage that is more than two or three times as long as the area above the fold. Many people will not have the patience to scroll all the way down. If you have several articles to share, give the fist few sentences then a link to “read more…”
48. Tell people about updates. Keeping a website current is a key to its success. People don’t want to keep visiting a site that never changes and still talks about “upcoming” events from last year. How will people know you have updated the site? 1) Set up a mailing list. Keep the updates short and to the point, with links back to your site. 2) Create an RSS feed for your website. Use it to keep people informed about updates to your site. RSS also helps build the links between union activists, since feeds can be collected and aggregated. (For more information on RSS see WebRef and ListGarden. See also our collection of RSS feeds: AUD Feeds.)
49. Be creative, but respect the low-end users. Graphics, video, animation, audio, and music are fun and entertaining, and we know that creativity and humor are important organizing tools. Draw on member’s talents to make the website more interesting, funny, provocative. Be sure to follow these three rules of thumb, though:
a. Don’t let graphics, splash pages, etc. become hurdles the user has to jump over to get to the content they are looking for. For example, do not add an extra welcome page before the homepage.
b. Make sure the user feels safe and in control. Involuntary gizmos like pop-ups and even voluntary items like cookies can make the user feel like the site is out of their control, or that someone is spying on them.
c. As a general rule, use a few simple graphics on most pages, and collect larger or more advanced files, like photos, songs, video in a gallery or special multimedia page(s) that users can open or ignore if they want.
d. Write content that anyone in your audience can easily read. 30% or more of internet users are “low-literacy” meaning they read at a 6th to 8th grade level. (Source: Jakob Nielsen by way of Eric Lee: http://www.ericlee.me.uk/archive/000129.html)
50. Open Source it: Got a great guestbook format? Did you find a really good free bulletin board program? Know someone who wants to start a website in your union? Follow the spirit of the internet (at least the good side of it) and share your know-how. Tell people about the good tools you have found.
Instead of a copyright symbol, use a Creative Commons license for your original work, enabling people to use material from your website as long as it the use is non-commercial, by attribution (they give you credit), and share-alike (they agree to let others use the material on their websites, too). See Creative Commons for licenses you can use.
Anonymous? If you want to be anonymous because of fears about retaliation from the employer or union (or both), use a false name or no name at all and provide just an email link. Remember that people can find the registered owner of a website by doing a “who is…” lookup ( http://www.networksolutions.com/en_US/whois/index.jhtml). There are anonymous domain registration services available: http://domains.aplus.net/anonindex.php. You can also set up an anonymous e-mail account. (See “Will Anonymous E-mail become a casualty of war?” for a good description of anonymous e-mail and many providers. http://www.cnn.com/2002/TECH/internet/02/13/anonymous.email.idg/)
The downside of anonymity is that it makes it harder for interested workers to get in touch with you and it may weaken your credibility – “these people aren’t even willing to stand up for their views and they want me to stand up to the boss?” Another option is to openly identify the site’s owner, but to include messages and articles by anonymous writers. “The Watcher” reports on union affairs in Operating Engineers local 30, for example.
For a basic handout on the democratic rights of union members as they apply to online activism, see Cyberdemocracy, your legal rights online.
For an outline of important legal rights that all web activists should know about, covering domain names, copyright, defamation and other issues, see Legal Perils and Legal Rights of Internet Speakers an outline with citations by Paul Alan Levy, Public Citizen Litigation Group (and AUD Board Member).
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