How to host an online union convention during the pandemic

Does your union have a convention scheduled for 2020 or early 2021? Have you been pondering how you will accommodate physical distancing while also keeping democracy alive? Organizing it online might seem like a harrowing prospect, but it may not be as difficult as you think. Below is a method for doing this in a self-service low budget kind of way. Let’s talk if you have more ambitious plans!

Let’s run through what you’ll need to do.

Pre-convention prep

Provide training so all members are familiar with the range of tools on Zoom, as well as your voting platform of choice. Zoom can support polls involve simple yes/no votes, but for elections, you’ll need something else.

One concern about this type of event is that it can privilege those with the ability to buy nicer equipment. One way to flatten that a bit is to provide members with hardware so they can participate fully. You might mail webcams to all delegates to make sure people have high-quality technology. For key delegates who will likely be on camera a lot, you could ship them Chromebooks to make sure they have solid computers that will work. It would be expensive, but still likely cheaper than covering the cost of food, paper, and room rentals.

Registration

Create a process for getting registered, so you can ensure only members are approved for participation. (To maximize security, you can provide members with an ID code to use when registering). Take advantage of the registration process to ask questions that help you understand the member’s expectations of the convention.

By using Zoom with the large meeting add-on, you can allow up to 1000 participants. Make sure to set members’ names to a uniform style (e.g. first name, last name (pronouns) local number) and turn off the feature which allows people to rename themselves.

Lobby/Waiting Room

Provide Agenda & Program. Necessary documents can be housed on a constantly updated Google document.

Convention floor

Share a view-only Google document that will serve as the speakers' list for convention floor debates. Have a team of people monitoring the Zoom chat updating the speaker’s list to account for people asking to speak. You’ll need a separate list for points of order vs discussion, and possibly for balancing gender if your union does that.

Speakers

If you want people giving live speeches, you should do dry-runs on the tech with all speakers, and always have them show up early for their speaking slots. You can also consider having speakers pre-record their speeches.
Those presenting can take a few steps to look and sound good. This 3-minute video from an expert photographer sums it up nicely:

Important step to take: positioning the camera at the subject’s height by raising up a laptop camera onto a platform; using a USB mic to produce the clearest audio; ensuring a light source (a window or lamp) behind the computer or camera, so the light falls on the face of the presenter.

For a more detailed exploration of framing, lighting set-ups, and ideal clothes and backgrounds, read this thorough article published by the Ryerson School of Journalism.

Caucuses and Presentations

Use the Zoom break-out room function to provide simultaneous events, including caucusing, speakers, and policy events.

Traditional in-person conventions often feature professionally edited and pre-produced videos that can highlight the work of caucuses, committees, leadership and membership engagement, or campaigns. If your union produces these videos in advance, it is fairly easy to play the videos during a live Zoom meeting. These highlight videos can also be shared as stand-alone content on social media platforms where appropriate for maximum impact.

Voting

Voting will be the most difficult element of a convention to pull off online. Our suggestion is to use the polling function on Zoom for most procedural votes. It's fast and if you've only allowed members to join, it should be pretty mistake-proof. It’s also helpful since you can queue up votes in advance and yet it’s also fairly easy to set up a vote on the fly if needed. For elections, you might want to use a more specialized voting application to ensure a secret ballot.  There are several available including: Simply Voting, Simple Survey, eVoting, Election Runner, and Scytl.  Simply Voting is the dominant application.

Convention solidarity online rally

Host a virtual rally. At lunchtime, play a recorded program of musical bands and speeches. Live stream it on as many platforms as possible, including Twitter, Facebook, Periscope, and Twitch. Then redirect everyone’s attention to a particular campaign, and flood the offices of a company or MPs and MLAs offices with calls and emails.

Socializing

Consider setting up a Convention Slack where members can access general or special themed chats, or message people one-on-one.

One evening, you could set up a separate Zoom call where you make everyone a host and set up several breakout rooms. As hosts, they will be able to move from breakout room to breakout room to talk with others. It will be chaotic but it will allow people a place to mingle with each other. 

There is also the Icebreaker platform which allows for quick chats between people to introduce themselves in a fun way.  

Host a night-time online dance party!

Can some aspects of the convention happen in-person?

If you’re organizing the convention in a period in which mass gatherings are still prohibited, it will have to be held entirely online. If the convention is being held once things start to open up, it could potentially involve a combination of online speeches and votes as well as in in-person outdoor regional gatherings, which abide by physical distancing but allow some social contact.

If some of the physical distancing measures have been lifted, you could consider incorporating some in-person organizing. If you are a national union, you could arrange to put up some tents outdoors in major cities, serving as regional hubs. You could project the keynotes on screens.  People could caucus and attend breakouts in different parts under the tent, using laptops to connect to the Zoom sessions. 

Other important technical aspects

Streaming: Test and re-test your WiFi or Ethernet connection ahead of time. Shared WiFi is less stable and reliable than a dedicated Ethernet connection. Consider upgrading your Internet connection to get the best speed, quality of connection and reliability, and check-in with the key speakers about the quality of their internet.

Recording: Zoom meetings can be recorded locally on a computer or recorded on the Cloud with a paid account. Recording locally will result in a higher resolution file which will look better when viewed in the future.  Recordings include a video file of the event, an audio file and a text file of the chat. Test your recording features in advance and be sure to have enough free space on the hard drive of the computer if you choose to record the video files locally on a computer.


If you want help taking your convention online, get in touch with Campaign Gears!

With contributions from Alex Lisman. Alex is a Toronto-based videographer with decades of experience in streaming and video production for conventions and organizations.

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