Business-like, isn't he?



Columbia Journal

    Technology helps on the picket line

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2005 First published in Columbia Journal November 2005

    As a Vancouver elementary school teacher, over the past few weeks I’ve been deeply involved in my union’s job action. As I write we’re preparing to vote on the mediator’s recommendations; but it’s not too early to note a few ways that technology has had an impact.

    I acted as a ‘zone captain’ for my local (Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association- VESTA); every day a zone captain visited each shift at each of the approximately 200 picketed work sites bringing news and announcements and fielding questions from the picketers. Compared to our last lengthy strike (in 1993), a big change was the impact of cell phones. At least one picketer seemed to have a phone on every line; when there were major news announcements those phones started ringing. This was both good and bad—news got to the line faster, but so did rumours. Some of the zone captains had cell phones and could be in instant touch with the local office or hear from their picket lines when there were problems, but many of the zone captains were driving around with no way to reach them in a pinch. Next time, we need to plan how to make use of cell phones in a more organized way.

    My local’s website ( was updated regularly, sometimes several times a day. Because of this, many members came to rely on it for information. (The local’s website averaged about 10,000 hits for each of the past three days—not bad for a local with about 3,000 members). The commercial news sites tended to lag behind, often featuring news stories that had been left behind by a rapidly changing situation. An up-to-date website can be an important tool for any organization, but if it features stale news, its usefulness quickly declines. Kudos to Vesta’s Glen and David for keeping their union local’s website up-to-the-minute.

    Union locals needed ongoing access to membership lists from the BCTF; this time around this was done online, enabling the locals to update the lists in real time. I set up a bank of older, scrounged computers at my local’s office so that a bank of volunteers could get to that data as needed. We found that the old hardware did just fine for that; many home, organization, and business users are replacing computers that still have lots of potential for basic Internet access, word processing, and more.

    More could have been done online, however. Union locals were expected to download picket rosters, print them out, then fill out these paper forms by hand, eventually sending them back by mail or fax. This was cumbersome and time-consuming and should have all been doable as an online form.

    Business and government has been busy using technology to help make their operations more streamlined and efficient (though, to be fair, too often they’ve thrown a lot of money at technological ‘fixes’ that simply made things more cumbersome and ineffective). Unions, non-profits, and other popular organizations rarely have money to toss at high-end solutions. But they can often still use technology as a low-cost but effective tool; Vesta’s bank of recycled computers cost nothing, for instance. And keeping the local’s website up-to-date took ongoing volunteer time but cost no more than leaving it with old, stale news and announcements would have.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at