In the era of COVID-19, the union hall is going virtual

LIVE-STREAMED CONVENTION: Presidential candidate Joe Biden was a keynote speaker at the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO convention April 6-7, the first to be held online.

By Don McIntosh

In the internal life of local unions, it’s been lonely few months since COVID-19 turned life upside down in mid-March. Meetings, fundraisers and conferences have been canceled. Union organizing house calls are off limits. But unions are adapting by moving nearly everything online. They’re finding that Zoom and other teleconference apps have their limits, but the new methods also have advantages.

A number of unions are finding that holding meetings online is actually increasing attendance. Members are spared the drive to and from the meeting, and they can attend from home without having to find child care.

Protec17, a 900-strong City of Portland technical employees union, polled its members and found that many prefer the new meeting format. Some meetings have had over 100 attendees.

AFSCME Local 189 switch-ed to holding all manner of meetings on Zoom, including regular membership meetings and sessions explaining contract language. As many as 80 members are attending, more than were regularly attending before. Meetings also increased to as frequent as once a week. One meeting was joined by Mayor Ted Wheeler for half an hour.

American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 111 President Belinda Reagan says her union of Portland Public Schools support staff had over 300 members at one online informational meeting about furloughs, and the format also makes it easy for the union to hold meetings at different times to accommodate varying demands on members’ schedules.

From July 28-30, AFT will become the first to hold a national union convention entirely online. Local 111’s Reagan said she immediately saw one advantage to that: Local chapters like hers often don’t have the funds to send their full allotment of delegates to the convention. Now that won’t be an issue.

Of course, live meetings are without a doubt more exciting, And Zoom can’t replace a crucial function of such gatherings: The fellowship of informal meetings in which union members from around a state or nation get to know each other one-on-one.

The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO was actually the first to hold a union convention online on April 6 and 7, after the Pittsburgh hotel where they planned to meet announced it would close. To be sure, it was a greatly pared down convention. Many affiliated unions had expected to elect their delegates in March, but those meetings were canceled as the epidemic shut down gatherings. The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO convention normally draws over 600 delegates and lasts three days. Instead, it took place over two days, with 305 delegates registered and as many as 270 online at any one time. Being online did make it possible for AFL-CIO leaders from 10 other state federations to take part without having to travel. And unions were also spared the expense of hotel stays and other meeting costs, at a time when many members are out of work. Still, Zoom was no substitute for the personal connections that would have been forged in person, and Bloomingdale said the 2022 convention would return to tradition.

“We certainly missed the face-to-face interaction,” Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale told the Labor Press.

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