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Improving union organising and service delivery through digital

Case Study

In late 2016, Unite Union won a major victory for some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable workers, by ending the dubious practice of Zero Hours Contracts and winning guaranteed working hours for tens of thousands of workers in the fast food industry. The win was internationally celebrated and represented a fundamental shift in employment relationships for the most vulnerable workers in New Zealand.

This case study is brought to you by For Purpose - a certified Agency based in New Zealand. Be sure to visit their website and see their previous NationBuilder work.


The culmination of a decade-long campaign for secure hours by Unite Union, the victory ending Zero Hours Contracts was underpinned by the campaign's engagement strategy. A strategy which placed engagement at its heart by seeking to understand the target audience, engage people, and build an empowered community around the issue of employment rights.

In order to carry out this strategy, and facilitate deeper and wider engagement with people, Unite engaged For Purpose to implement an action-oriented website and database built on NationBuilder, a decision that proved to be a key enabler of the campaign.

“We needed hard data for the campaign – average age, how many with kids, average hours worked, changes from week to week. We started identifying “faces” for the campaign. We wanted members who represented the reality of the workforce which included people with dependents, not just school students. We needed to explain that it is impossible to get a mortgage or other loans on these contracts.” - Mike Treen, Unite Union National Director

Although some unions use NationBuilder or similar platforms globally to support their bargaining campaigns, many, to their detriment, don’t. Unite was particularly successful in ending Zero Hour Contracts. This was due to a deeper level of participation from members, and by engaging non-member supporters through tools like petitions, sending targeted letters to employers, managing events, and targeted social media engagement. All of which was possible through the smart use of their new digital platform.

Growing a non-member database, campaigning on issues not directly in their ambit but that affect their members, and capitalising on the outcomes to grow the movement are essential to keeping the unions relevant. We believe more unions need to take this approach.

But it isn’t the campaign that is the focus here. It is how, post-campaign, the union looked at the lessons from a digital-integrated approach to campaigning and assessed the implications for ongoing recruitment, organising, and service delivery.

Oh no! Not another app!

Yes, after two years of observation, trial, and error, we felt that if we were going to meaningfully contribute to the long-term welfare of working people, the most effective thing we could do was to further remove the barriers between members and union staff and the services they provide.

Reducing the sheer volume of enquiries for relatively trivial issues, the number of simple services that could be made more easily available, and the streamlining of communications all pointed toward the development of a mobile app, but an app for working people, not just organisers - designed to provide the services they need to improve their working lives and help them come together, in union, to win decent working conditions for them.

Some lessons from that journey...

Effective communication

Good communication is not only the key during campaigns but also to general organising. Providing easy ways for members to communicate with their union is critical, allowing them to raise workplace health and safety issues, recruit their colleagues into the union, learn when union staff are visiting their workplace, get them engaged in the struggles of other working people, as well as keeping them informed about negotiations.

From the campaign, we confirmed that email open rates aren’t good enough to get the result you need. We trialed various SMS platforms to see how we could improve general engagement. Whilst SMS open rates were good, the services we tried all lacked integration, leading to one-dimensional conversations that fall short of expectations on both sides.

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Although there are now some great apps available internationally, these are still unavailable in NZ and untested by us for everyday communications. We were looking for seamless communication between members and union staff, the kind we get with social apps, but where conversations could be easily logged into the database for future reference and follow-up, and this gave us the first clue that we might need to build something custom ourselves.

Information that is convenient to access

We wanted to create an app for working people, and working people are busy people. They need to engage and organise quickly and readily on their lunch breaks, or when they had a spare moment.

Initially, we customised the NationBuilder membership functionality to build a portal for all members, where they could access their collective agreement, see a noticeboard where staff could leave messages, and where they could read the latest news about their place of employment. However, we found its use patchy on both sides. For union staff who spend a lot of time out of the office, the noticeboard wasn’t really an effective way to communicate with members. Ultimately we found that recipients needed a notification, which would prompt them to check their messages.

Although collective agreements were available to members, logins and browser navigation put it just beyond the expedient reach of members who were predominantly wanting information on their phone during their break at work. An app solved these issues, by providing notifications, being usable while on the run, and not requiring a login.

Organising for efficiency and growth

This is probably where we had the most success. Prior, Unite had used a local server-based database and lots of paper and clipboards to organise which was not only limiting and inefficient, but also meant only a minimum of data was recorded then largely disappeared into a black hole in the back room. We implemented a system for organisers to log visits to all worksites, log all members contacted, and to record and manage all casework arising from issues in the workplace.

The simple act of recording that data has provided insights that have unlocked some real benefits. Tracking growth, the results of recruitment drives, and trends in reported workplace incidents are all now available for simple analysis. We even built a portal where staff can, graphically, get key insights to help them make weekly decisions that help prioritise their organising.

Using a cloud-based platform let union staff record all of this data on the run, and also enabled members to interact and do things like using the automated recruitment tools we set-up to sign-up their workmates on their phone at work and get the credit for it. Peer-to-peer recruiting has real potential and was something we were keen to expand upon when we built the app.

Where to go from here?

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The next phase (already under development) is to streamline the functions that union staff use and allow them to easily create notifications and other key functions via a companion app, which directly populates the member's app without using the NationBuilder control panel. It will allow union staff to log workplace visits and casework, and to receive notifications and direct messages from the member's app when members assigned to them take an action. This should allow seamless communications, notifications, and logging of contacts that removes the barriers between members and union staff and the services they provide.

We also have some additional functionality we could easily add like a searchable FAQ, general election GOTV enrollment and voting prompts, push notifications, and a shift work calendar diary. We have also heard from working people who are, by very the nature of their work, isolated from any colleagues and support staff, that the app will help them feel more connected so we think we want to strengthen this with a kind of check-in service so everyone knows that someone cares about their welfare.

We firmly believe that applying digital campaigning tools to union organising presents a huge opportunity to improve the lives of working people.

Feel free to download the demo version of our app and be sure to let us know what you think!

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