Issue 1 - Summer 1994

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.

Computer communications 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.

One experiment 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 a union.

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 Labor.

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 Programs.

The moderators 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 contribute.

Moderating a Conference

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.

Electronic Mail

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.

Supporting Collective Bargaining

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.

Another problem 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 bargaining committee.

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 in education.
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 and certificates.

A particularly 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.

But why 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 >>


WELCOME! You are visitor number

Designed by ByteSized Productions © 2003-2006