The Itch to Twitch: How We Opened Up Our Union’s Webinar
When our union announced a mass Zoom meeting, we knew members wouldn’t get the chance to participate in any meaningful sense.
There was a moderated question-and-answer session planned, but we did not know if there would be an open chat—and we certainly assumed there would be no discussion of a desperately needed strike authorization campaign.
So our merry band of rank-and-file activists decided to set up an alternative way for members to view and debate the meeting, using the live-streaming service Twitch.
Twitch is popular among gaming and sports fans. It allows you to show an external video stream (in this case, the union webinar) while allowing commentary over the top. We found partial inspiration in Mystery Science Theatre 3000, a snarky ’90s TV series where characters riffed on B movies.
Our intent wasn’t to draw members away from the webinar, but to cultivate a parallel conversation that questioned union leaders’ strategy and helped push the union into new directions.
Rank and File Action (RAFA) is a group within the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), a union representing 30,000 staff and faculty at the City University of New York.
Our mission is to challenge the culture of racist austerity in higher education and demand a more democratic, fighting union. We find inspiration in the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators caucus in New York’s K-12 teachers union and the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators in the Chicago Teachers.
Our union has been unsuccessfully fighting layoffs since the spring, when the governor announced that the university budget would be gutted. Almost 3,000 adjunct faculty members (10 percent of our bargaining unit) were laid off for the fall semester. More cuts are promised for next spring.
After a series of summer and fall events—most of which did not build towards greater mobilizing and organizing capacity—union leaders called this webinar in late October where members would sit through a lecture on what the PSC would be doing next. Two thousand people registered to attend.
Planning our Twitch stream was no small endeavor. We had to find a tech-savvy team, with strong and stable Wi-Fi to avoid any cutting out midstream, to host the Twitch feed. It took us a week of panicked late-night trial sessions—and we ended up recruiting one heroically patient child of a member.
For any PSC member to comment or ask questions on our Twitch stream, they would only need to create a Twitch account (though anyone with the link can watch—you don’t need a Twitch account for that). Twitch can be viewed through any browser or, if you’re on a phone or tablet, through an app. So, for participants at least, it is pretty easy and accessible.
For the person putting on the show, it’s much more complex. One of RAFA’s members played the role of host. (If you want to replicate this, your host should be the person with strong Wi-Fi, because everything goes through their computer.)
This person had to have Twitch open, as well as a third-party program, OBS, which helped us organize what we wanted to share to the Twitch stream. They also had to have two calls open: the Zoom webinar from the union, and a Google Meet for our commentators. You can’t have Zoom running two meetings on the same computer, which is why we used Google Meet for the second one.
Once the PSC webinar started, our host did a “share screen” of the Zoom webinar into Google Meet, so that this stream and the commentators were all in one place. From there, you share that Google Meet through OBS/Twitch and now your viewers can see the webinar and commentators all in one place. Sound confusing? It was.
For our commentators, all they needed was to be on the Google Meet, where they could verbally respond in real-time. We had three commentators, but you could have as many or few as you like. One challenge we found was hearing the commentary over the almost nonstop speeches through the webinar—and in order to avoid auditory feedback, the commentators had to keep headphones on.
FUN AND NEW FACES
We were thrilled that our parallel watch party drew in 80 viewers, maintaining a fun, occasionally sassy and critical, and bonding conversation in the Twitch chat. When PSC President Barbara Bowen spoke, the Twitch chat opened a refreshingly critical alternative to the chorus of thank yous of the main feed. We did have one person (who regularly attacks us on Twitter as well) join the Twitch to defend PSC leadership in the chat, but they were drowned out by the majority of attendees.
Perhaps due to our pressure in past meetings, where we had fought for an open chat, or because they were made aware of our Twitch plans, PSC officials made the unexpected decision to open the Zoom chat to all attendees. This meant that there were perhaps too many conversation streams running at one time, though we don’t feel that the Twitch distracted from the more formal Zoom chat conversation.
One lesson for the future is that we could have figured out a better mechanism to gather the names and email addresses of the people who joined the Twitch feed, so that we can follow up with them afterward and make sure they’re plugged in to union organizing.
We certainly gained a number of new RAFA members and sympathizers from this experiment, and will likely try it again.
Perhaps the best moment came when one of our comrades decided to host a spontaneous Zoom after-party. Remarkably, this drew in a couple dozen folks at 9 p.m. on a weeknight after a grueling two-hour meeting. In this call we got the chance to meet a few fellow union members, debrief about what had happened, and strategize about how to build a better, more inclusive, and more democratic union for all members. That, after all, is our purpose.
Boyda Johnstone is an assistant professor of English at Borough of Manhattan Community College and an alternate delegate to the PSC Delegate Assembly, as well as part of the PSC Executive Committee at BMCC. Gerry Martini is a staff member in the Office of Admissions at the CUNY Graduate Center and is active in both the Graduate Center’s campus chapter and the cross-campus Higher Education Officer (staff) chapter. Both are members of Rank and File Action.