To Zoom or not to Zoom: Labor navigates a return to in-person meetings

By COLIN STAUB

With the pandemic on the wane and more labor organizations resuming in-person meetings, a dilemma arises: Move to a “hybrid” model that keeps some of the benefits of virtual attendance, or ax Zoom altogether?

Some local labor organizations see an argument for the hybrid system.

“Our attendance actually went up when we went online,” says SAG/AFTRA member Harold Phillips, a delegate to the Southwest Washington Central Labor Council (SWWACLC) who sets up and trouble shoots its Zoom meetings. “Suddenly commute time was taken out of the equation. You didn’t have to worry about feeding the kids and then rushing out.” SWWACLC recently returned to in-person meetings, but it offers an option for attendees to participate remotely. 

Vancouver-based Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 11 also found that members in outlying areas participated more when meetings were virtual, says secretary-treasurer Maureen Goldberg. So when the union began holding in-person meetings in April, leadership decided to keep a virtual option.

For the Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council, the virtual option has meant that delegates who are traveling out of state, or in one case out of the country, have been able to participate. “I think we have better attendance being in a hybrid mode,” says Willy Myers, executive secretary-treasurer of the council. Myers said meetings used to have about 15 attendees per meeting and now average 20. The building trades council plans to keep a virtual option for the foreseeable future.

But one of the biggest local unions dumped virtual meetings as soon as it was feasible. United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 290, with over 4,900 members, canceled meetings at the beginning of the pandemic, then migrated to a virtual format, and then resumed in-person meetings in July 2021 with no virtual option. Local 290 does broadcast meetings over Zoom to its satellite locations (as it did before the pandemic) since it covers a geographical area from Northern California to Southwest Washington. But there’s no option to watch or participate from home. That’s because union leaders didn’t see much demand for virtual attendance.

“Fewer people during the pandemic were attending, even though it was easier to attend,” said Local 290 business manager Lou Christian. In fact, the biggest spike in attendance came with the first meeting back in-person. Attendance has since returned to where it was pre-pandemic, Christian said.

One difficulty with hybrid meetings is interaction between virtual and in-person attendees. At Local 11, the president acknowledges each virtual attendee and gives them the opportunity to speak early on, because it can be hard for virtual attendees to have a dialogue with the in-person group, Goldberg said.

At SWWACLC, it came down to getting the tech setup right. SWWACLC meets at the Laborers Local 335 meeting hall, which has a large flat-screen TV with an HDMI input, so it was easy to connect a laptop so in-person attendees can see those participating via Zoom.

But bringing the in-person activities to the virtual audience is slightly more complicated. To overcome that hurdle, SWWACLC bought a Logitech Brio webcam for about $300, featuring a good microphone and wide field of view. The camera faces the in-person audience, so virtual attendees can see in-person attendees when they stand to speak. Meanwhile, SWWACLC officers are behind the camera, but are each connected to the Zoom side of the meeting on laptops with webcams, so they can be seen by online participants.

Phillips, who manages the technical side of all that, says it’s important to designate someone in the in-person meeting to run the online portion. At SWWACLC, Phillips monitors the online side so he can let the president know when there’s a comment in the chat, and he can switch the virtual meeting display to show an individual speaker when that person is talking.

“There was a fair amount of planning that went into this,” Phillips said. “We also had a dry run before our first meeting so we could iron out some of these kinks. I really recommend that to anybody who’s thinking about doing a hybrid meeting.”

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