SoliNet: A Computer Conferencing System Designed
for Trade Unions (page 1 of 2)
By Marc Belanger
A labor union
is a communications system. It exists to collect the views
of its members, organize those views into persuasive arguments,
disseminate them amongst its membership and finally communicate
them to the employer. The effectiveness of a union's mission
is largely determined by the success of its communications.
Right from the
start unions organized themselves to communicate as effectively
as they could. Their primary medium was (and still is) oral:
talking to members, making speeches, organizing meetings and
conducting classes. But very early on unions moved to adopt
the major medium of the day: print. Not only was print effective
in communicating to large numbers of members but also it was
affordable. Unions could print leaflets, publish newspapers
and produce position papers.
Later unions would
begin to use film as an occasional communications tool. But
they were never able to effectively use the other major media,
which appeared on the scene. Radio and television were simply
too expensive for unions to adopt in any significant way.
Now however, as the world moves to re-organize its economic
activity primarily around information, unions have an unique
opportunity to, not only adopt the major medium of the day,
but help steer its development.
will undoubtedly play a pre dominant media infrastructure
of the new information world. And we in the labor movement
can use it to enhance our most essential activity our communications.
But perhaps more importantly we can take advantage of the
emergence of this new medium to guide it our way before it
is completely overwhelmed by commercial interests and goals.
in the development of a union computer communications system
is SoliNet the Solidarity Network. SoliNet is a computer conferencing
system owned and operated by Canada's largest employee union
the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). It is a public
system opened to the general labor movement and its allies
with approximately 1500 users. It is likely the world's only
national computer conferencing system owned and operated by
SoliNet was started
in 1985. In the past seven years of organizing SoliNet we
have learned many lessons and conducted many unique projects.
This document will touch briefly on those lessons and projects
with the hope that we can all begin to share the lessons we
learn no matter which computer conferencing system we use.
Each of the topics
we will discuss in this paper really deserves a chapter to
fully examine. But here we will limit ourselves to just a
few sentences each. Think of each section as just the door
to a much larger room of information. Someday, after we've
learned more computer conferencing lessons, we'll get together
and furnish the rooms. We'll build an electronic House of
Defining the Terms
First let's define a few terms. The sort of computer communication
systems we are talking about come in two sizes: bulletin boards
and conferencing systems. A bulletin board usually serves
a local area and can accommodate a few users at a time. A
conferencing system has many more features, can be accessed
national and internationally, and can serve many users at
a time. A computer conference is where a group of users share
the same message base. Electronic mail is the sending of notes
between individuals. And file transfer is the use of the system
to pass computer files amongst the system's users. Participants
use their microcomputer to place a telephone call to the conferencing
system. This can be accomplished by a direct telephone call
or via the country's computer communication system. Once connected
to the system they can read messages that have been left for
them and leave messages of their own. People do not have to
be on the system at the same time as others in or communicate.
Organizing a Conferencing
system the organization of the conferences and options available
on a computer conferencing system is largely dictated by the
capabilities of the system itself. But most can be organized
to provide a unique feel to the organization using the system.
Some of the fundamental organizing questions will include:
Who will have basic reading and writing privileges? Who will
be appointed "moderators" and "system operators"
and be granted extra organizing privileges (to, for instance,
create conferences, remove objectionable messages and add
users to conferences)?
SoliNet has three
levels of users. The system operator is charge of operating
the whole system and providing moderator status to particular
users. Moderators can create conferences and remove messages
within those conferences, which they did not originate. Members
have basic rights to read and write messages in the conferences
they participate in. All the organizations, which use SoliNet,
have at least one moderator. In addition, locals of unions
usually have a moderator to organize their on-line activities.
The interests of
the users of course, determine the sorts of conferences on
a system. But there are fundamental types on SoliNet: basic
conferences, topic conferences and special conferences. These
conferences can either be open to the whole SoliNet community
or closed to a particular group (with the moderator deciding
who has access).
The basic conferences
include: A central community conference in which all the members
can discuss anything they desire. (on SoliNet we call it the
Lounge). And a problems conference in which users can ask
questions about how to use the system. (called Problems).
The topic conferences include: Labor Issues; Health and Safety;
Women's Issues; Free trade; The Environment; Books; Cooking;
Shop Stewards and many more.
The special conferences
are usually month-long conferences on particular subjects
of interest. For example, SoliNet has run conferences on:
Labor Education in the 90s; Technological Change; Pay Equity;
Employment Equity; Labor Databases and Full-Text Retrieval
of the conferences have to decide whether their conferences
will be permanent or time-limited. The permanent conferences
are those likely to have continuing conversations (such as
a Shop Stewards conference). A time-limited conference usually
concentrates on a special issue (such as Technological Change).
Time-limited conferences are especially useful for generating
discussion because the members feel a deadline pressure to
The key to the
success of a conference is usually a skilled moderator. A
moderator has to organize the conversations (possibly by setting
discussion agendas); cajole users into participating (it is
a lot easier in a computer conferencing system to just read
comments); link themes found in the comments; discipline members
(for either overly-long comments or inappropriate comments)
and more. Computer conference moderators are like meeting
chairpeople with an extra set of skills.
By far the most
popular SoliNet facility is its electronic mail feature. Members
can talk to each other in complete privacy, or copy in other
members. Usually if a conversation in the mail side of SoliNet
starts to extend itself and include a number of people there
is a demand to establish a conference. Before the introduction
of SoliNet in CUPE our negotiators were limited in their discussions
to their immediate peers. But now they can talk to other negotiators
anywhere in the country on a regular basis.
SoliNet is being
used in a number of ways to support collective bargaining.
For example, CUPE has geographic areas, which have centralized
their bargaining at one negotiations table. In the past it
has been difficult to keep the bargaining committee informed
between meetings because the members were geographically scattered.
But with a SoliNet bargaining conference the committee members
can continue their discussion while from their home base.
with wide-area bargaining is that the locals and members often
feel that they are not kept up-to-date on events at the central
table. This is especially acute during the latter phases of
negotiations. However, on SoliNet central bargaining committees
establish conferences open to the members and post regular
bulletins of activities. This not only serves to inform the
members of the status of negotiations but ensures that they
are more involved in the process and ready to support their
Shop stewards also
use SoliNet. They post messages of their concerns and problems
into a closed conference. Others in the conference can help
solve problems or point to precedents they might use in their
relations with the employer. A shop steward conference is
especially useful to a local or union with stewards scattered
over a large city or geographic area.
Related to the
shop steward conferences are the grievance conferences. Stewards
and other union officers on SoliNet keep track of a grievance
through all its steps by entering periodic reports into a
conference. In this way all the shop stewards in the union
can see what grievances are being processed and at what stage
they are at. Conferences are also used to hold summaries of
negotiations. If a negotiator reaches a settlement he or she
enters a short description of the agreement in a conference.
All the other negotiators participating in the conference
can then be kept up to date on bargaining trends in their
area and use the information in their own bargaining sessions.
A search facility on SoliNet allows conference participants
to search for particular agreement report by keywords.
SoliNet is also
used for supporting strikes and organizing campaigns. For
example, the public relations departments of the various unions,
which use SoliNet, can quickly send copy for a strike leaflet
or organizing pamphlet to the local negotiator.
SoliNet has been
exploring some very exciting uses of computer conferencing
We have operated a number of courses completely on-line (solely
with the use of SoliNet). For example participants in a recent
course on Technological Change never met in a class. Instead
they interacted with their instructor and fellow students
in a computer conference.
There are two major
advantages to this sort of education. First of all, the students
can participate in the course at their convenience. Secondly,
instructors with particular skills (such as health and safety)
can be made accessible to the whole country.
A variation of
this service is the support of regular face-face-to-face classes.
The students in a regular class can keep in touch with the
instructor and their fellow students via SoliNet after the
course is finished. For example, when CUPE equipped its negotiators
with microcomputers it held a series of basic workshops. This
included training on how to use SoliNet. Afterwards, a computer
course was provided for the negotiators via SoliNet.
Another use of
SoliNet is the gathering of data on who attends or teaches
educationals across the country. The names and addresses of
the participants are file-transferred to the union's central
office and automatically entered into a central database.
Students can be tracked through union education for prerequisites
interesting educational project on SoliNet is the linkage
of the labor movement with universities. SoliNet is working
with the University of Athabaska (which is based in Alberta)
to provide university-level courses completely on-line. We
hope this service will eventually allow unionists to complete
a university degree via SoliNet.
stop there? There is a great potential for developing a global
Labor University. Instructors and students could participate
in educationals from anywhere in the world. More