Invited for possible inclusion in a 2010 issue of WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society:
Edging Toward Cyberunionism: Retrospect, Salute, and Forecast
Arthur B. Shostak, Ph.D; Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Drexel University (arthurshostak [at] gmail [dot] com)
Eight pioneering Labor Movement Web masters (“digerati”) here and abroad explain their creative and empowering applications of computer power, along with their far-reaching project development plans for the near future. The prospects are next weighed of these “trimtab”-like projects soon edging out the “same old, same old” and thereby making significant gains in promoting CyberUnionism, a beckoning and transformative variation that tries to maximize both computer and human potentialities. As any such advance hinges on Labor first achieving a thoroughgoing improvement in deep-set internal problems, the prospects of CyberUnion gains remain less certain than are good for unionists and non-unionists alike.
Given how much it has struggled against throughout American history, Organized Labor’s resiliency calls to mind an encouraging insight of Albert Einstein – “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” (Cameron 1992; 165). Labor’s robust innovations nowadays draw especially on the seemingly limitless possibilities offered by computer-based information technology (IT). (Shostak 1991; 2000b) Ten years have past since this writer coined the term – CyberUnion – and went on to first write a monograph, and then three years later edit a handbook about how to develop cyberunionism, an organizational type that makes especially creative use of computer and human potentialities. (Shostak 1999a; 2002a). (1)
The record of Labor’s use of computer power, as from its first employ of mainframe machines in the early 1970s to date, gets better all the time. Since the start of the 21st century it has become commonplace to have every major union event (Convention, regional meeting, etc.) book-ended by pre- and post computer training courses of great variety and varying difficulty. Likewise, even the smallest local union office generally has connectivity, and all (or nearly all) union officers regard their Blackberry (or its wireless interactive counterpart) as a natural 24/7 ally. Hard-copy traditional union magazines include at least one page of newly recommended Internet links, and advice on IT upgrades.
Characteristic of the changes underway was the holding by the AFL-CIO on Labor Day 2000 of “the World’s Greatest Online Labor Day Festival.” Complete with delightful animated features, crisp interviews with rank-and-filers nationwide, and energizing musical bits, it won well-deserved plaudits. The Federation homepage began at that time to offer interactive games, downloadable screensavers, and an Executive Paywatch link that allows visitors to compare their compensation with that of a company’s CEO. With far less fanfare, though no less significance, the Web sites of major unions and large locals began at about that time to include password-protected set-asides for once-tabooed caucuses (gays, minorities, women, etc.), each a new “electronic community” with incipient power to help challenge the status quo and add zest to the mix (http://bergermarks.org).
Regrettably, the nearly four-decade-long record also includes many avoidable problems; e.g., fratricidal rivalries have kept unions from sharing IT advice with another, even as small-minded leaders have refused to replicate field-proven (“not-invented-here”) ideas. Egocentric newly elected officers and/or semi-autonomous large locals have insisted on taking their own IT approach, resulting often in incompatibility with legacy or headquarters material. Worse yet, extraordinary talent has gone untapped. Computer-using rank-and-file hobbyists worthy of being called “digerati” have seldom been given the opportunity to help move Labor along the learning curve (more on this later in Part Two).
Truly innovative uses of computer power other than those of a “same old, same old” type have had to wait on the spread of computers into the homes of union members (first those with school-age children) and the ability of IT companies to make hardware and software really user friendly. Ever so slowly Organized Labor began to authorize a larger range of uses, finally opening the way to the projects of creative union “digerati” – like those profiled below - who can help Labor seize opportunities made uniquely available by computer power.
Not to put to fine a point on it, but if the thought of the Labor Movement is soon to earn an admiring smile from most dues-payers, and also from a significant portion of the general public, this may hinge on the near-future spread of custom-tailored adaptations of the pragmatic, affordable, and consequential computer-based projects explored below. Each standing alone is valuable. Taken in combination, they significantly further an overdue transformation of the Labor Movement.
What follows below is a cautiously attempt at a progress report-of-sorts, the better to help spur overdue risk-taking and the achievement of fresh gains. (Shostak 2005). Attention is first paid to especially outstanding applications in American unions (with two exceptions, that of New Unionism and LabourStart). Mention is made of hopes by staffers for near-future improvements in the applications. Attention goes next to the role of union “digerati” (“black belt” computer use specialists), and also of trimtab innovations, a type of planned change that has disproportionate clout. In closing a cautious forecast is shared about the near future prospects of CyberUnionism in this country (discussion of extensive and impressive uses by unions overseas is beyond the purview of this essay).
Part 1: Pathbreaking Union IT Projects
Arranged in order of scale of outreach, from the smallest service area to the largest, the eight IT-based projects below include two city-based services (PhillyUnions.com; Streetheat: Union City [D.C.]); two statewide services (Kansas Workbeat; BARBWIRE [Nevada]; two national services (WINS; AUD); and two international services (New Unionism; LabourStart). Each merits far fuller attention than space permits, and an e-mail address is included with a source footnote to enable contact with project Webmasters (data on each is current only as of June, 2009).
1) PHILLYUNIONS.COM. Strong in having a rapidly growing e-newsletter that was going out in the summer of 2009 to over 10,000 area union members (including this writer), PhiilyUnion.com is a very credible publicity platform and communication network for Philadelphia area labor organizations. Its staff has trained many union leaders who use its system on a daily basis as part of their local's operations: “We made it easy and FREE. We have created the publicity platform we set out to create and more, and our e-newsletter base expands weekly by the hundreds.”
The project traces its start to a time in 2001 when Joe Dougherty, a union Iron Worker from Iron worker's Local 401 in Philadelphia Pa., found reason to wonder what publicity platform the local labor movement had with which to fight back against media attacks. He asked his father (business manager of Iron worker's local union 401 since 1981) about this, and on learning there was none, resolved to research what was out there and what could be done to address the problem. The more he looked into the matter, the more he was amazed at the lack of resources used by unions to network with each other as well as to publicize their agenda. The scant resources they did use were obsolete. Union friends, however, cautioned him that whatever reform ideas he might come up with had to be economical.
As a musician (as well as an Iron Worker), Joe understood the creative uses being made of the Internet to promote music online. Aware of the capabilities of online newsletters and viral marketing, his first thought was to start an online e-newsletter to help Philadelphia area unions promote and publicize their own news and agenda. Better still, it would allow them to rebut much of the negativity circulated by the main stream Philadelphia media. He also felt strongly the best way to utilize the media was to become a part of it.
Two successful Internet professionals and friends, Tim Allen and Jeff Beck, were supportive from the start, especially when they heard about the lack of resources available to Philadelphia area unions. Tim was an acclaimed web developer and programmer originally from online music pioneer CDNOW fame. He told Joe he had coincidentally developed an adaptable content management system that would allow them to build a newsletter database. It could become the tool to provide each area union local with its own self-customizable websites. It also had an internal secure messaging tool that would allow unions to network with each other expeditiously, even while still staying autonomous, and it had much more. The two friends believed in Joe’s new mission so much that they volunteered to get the system up and going.
Having gotten the hardware and software he needed, Joe’s next challenge was getting the union community to listen. For this, he consulted with his father, and this led to informational meetings with key area union leaders. Several months followed of development guided by AFL-CIO Philadelphia Council President Patrick Eiding. Finally, in the spring of 2002, the Executive Board authorized the Phillyunions.com system as its online publicity platform and communication network.
A typical issue, that of May 22, contained among many other features a call to join a June 3 rally called to protest the Chamber of Commerce’s “campaign of lies against the Employee Free Choice Act;” a call to help collect school supplies to fill 2,500 book bags for needy children; an offer of low-cost rental space in a union office; a call to aid the Fire Fighters union protest proposed cuts to the Fire department; a call to help guards in their effort to gain union recognition from the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and a selection of the outstanding e-mail replies sent to a question posed on the Web site on March 31 – “Why Union? Tell us in 50 words or less.”
Because it takes finances to expand and make dreams a reality, the project has created a Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO adopted marketing program for union and union friendly vendors who want to promote themselves to area unions. This not only gives area union members an authorized "Buy Union” Guide to find union/union friendly resources, but it also acts as a fund raising tool that benefits important Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO programs as well as helps to operate PhillyUnions.com.
To date, over 100 preferred Philadelphia area vendors have been accepted in to and benefitted from the program: the project Web site invites businesses to “Become a Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO Preferred Partner. Get Screened and Certified by the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO. Get comprehensively promoted to the Philadelphia area union community. Get a Featured Listing in the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO Buy-Union Directory. Network with the Philadelphia area business community. Get your business and products in front of a massive, targeted, loyal audience of area union members. Experience the advantages of becoming a Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO Preferred Partner.”
Not surprisingly, several challenges remain to overcome, such as overcoming “old school” negative union attitudes toward new communication technology. That said, Joe and his colleagues remain optimistic and “very proud of the fact that they have pioneered and revolutionized a technology that gives area unions the unprecedented ability to communicate and network with each other instantaneously while at the same time communicating with their own memberships like never before possible. (the project Web site closes with these words: “Union Members — Join YOUR UNION'S Email List. If you are a member of a Philadelphia area union, it's critical that you join your union's email list. Keep up with news, events, issues and situations that affect you and your union. To sign up, find your union's web site in the PhillyUnions.com Union Directory and click ‘Join Email List.’
As the PhiilUnions.com system is Internet based, and offers its template to all, Joe points out that “it can easily be adapted to meet the needs of union communities and councils across the country. It can help take them into the future. All they have to do is think outside the box!” (2)
2) STREETHEAT. UNION CITY: An award-winning daily e-zine – Union City - features up-to-the-minute news about the local labor movement in the District of Columbia, including ongoing struggles, rallies and picket lines. Although as a publication of a labor organization it has a definite viewpoint, Union City strives for objective reporting within that framework, maintaining professional journalism standards and avoiding direct advocacy. While unabashedly designed to help mobilize activists, it believes the most effective way to do this is to provide reliable information on a regular basis and allow its readers to make their own informed decisions. (
Distributed every weekday via email, Union City is tightly written and packed with useful information, including union staff openings in the metro region, and Action Alerts on issues affecting area workers. Supporters consider it a must-read for anyone interested in what's happening in the metro Washington labor movement. Its sponsor, the Metropolitan Washington Council, is an AFL-CIO "Union City" Central Labor Council whose 200 affiliated union locals represent 150,000 area union members, all of whom can check online 24/7 for daily updates at www.dclabor.org
Union City began as a faxed monthly newsletter in the mid to late 1990’s that the Metro Council used to keep affiliated locals up to date with its activities. Managing Editor Chris Garlock started working for the Council in 1999 as the Mobilization Coordinator. He inherited an email list of area labor activists compiled by an activist who worked for one of the major DC unions. Chris increased the fax frequency to weekly – and changed the name from “Just The Fax” to “Union City.” Beginning on March 3, 2000, it was e-mailed out, and the staff worked aggressively to collect additional e-mail addresses for Council affiliates as well as expand the activist list by signing people up at demonstrations, rallies and union meetings.
The e-mail list quickly grew, doubling and redoubling until Union City reached its current level of about 14,000, which is the largest e-mail list maintained by a central labor council in the entire country. After a couple of years, the faxed version of the newsletter was discontinued as by this time virtually all affiliates had email – and the Metro Council became the first to start using advanced email technology provided by the AFL-CIO (then called GetActive, now Convio). This enabled the sending of HTML-formatted newsletters, including photographs and other graphics, as well as color and other graphic elements. Union City also went to twice-weekly publication, adding a popular Hiring Hall edition that included jobs postings for area unions. In April 2007 it began publishing every weekday, making Union City the only daily union publication in the country.
In 2008, the daily e-zine took first place in the State and Local Central Body Publications category of the International Labor Communicators Association’s annual competition, besting far more established and much-larger publications. What’s interesting about this is that Union City – an electronic-only publication -- was permitted to compete in a print category. An e-zine category did not then exist and its staff successfully contended that since Union City looks and functions like print publications, it should be judged as such.
The Union City newsletter – which is also distributed to media contacts and political leaders – has carved out a very specific niche, focusing almost exclusively on local labor news in Washington, DC. Since this is the nation’s capital – as well as the home of most of the international unions – that means it often winds up covering national labor news when it’s manifested in a local demonstration or action. This gives it a local, national and international readership, thanks to the wide interest in what happens in Washington.
Now in its 9th year, Union City continues to be widely and closely read. Well over 300 readers responded to its sixth semi-annual Reader Survey, continuing a trend of increasing responsiveness. Local labor news continues to be most popular, with 68% (up 1%) saying it’s their favorite section, followed by labor history with 58% (up 2%), national labor news at 46% (up 2%), the Hiring Hall Edition at 46% (unchanged), calendar listings at 29% (down 4%) and union profiles 20% (up 4%).
Overall, readers continue to strongly approve of Union City’s content, design and frequency: “I don't start my day before I read it! … It is great that you can reach so many people to keep them informed about the movement … Union City is doing a great job in keeping union members informed of what is happening in the workplace … Reading Union City will make you realize the importance of a union … UC puts some glide in my stride and pep in my step, and helps put back the groove in the movement … a model for anyone else doing online communications…carries more news about the Labor movement in one issue than the Washington Post does in a year … I share all of the info with my friends and during my shop steward training classes…I don't see this information anywhere else ….” “Don't ever stop” is the basic message that comes through loud and clear. (3)
3) KANSAS WORKBEAT. At its initiation in 2002, Kansas Workbeat, the Web site of the Wichita/Hutchinson Labor Federation, had only 227 names on its e-mail list. It relied on a free on-line service, “Your Mailing List.” However, after Web Master Stuart Elliot attended a 2003 Midwest Labor Tech conference in Chicago and heard a presentation by Claire McDonough (IIRC), he took steps to sign up with the Union Voice program of the AFL-CIO (www.ksworkbeat.org).
Now, six years later, Stuart advises any union Webmaster considering such a step to “make it a goal to really learn the capabilities of the system. There’s a lot that it can do, even if you don’t use all of the tools at the beginning. There are valuable training resources, use them. Have a regular schedule for your emails. I think weekly is ideal.”
In 2003, there were only 227 names on the Kansas Workbeat email list. By the summer of 2009 it was going out to 2,146 unionists (including this writer). Response varies widely by issue, with an average of 50 to 70 participants involved in each of the Workbeat’s campaign; a number has been growing slightly over time.
Across time (and through April, 2009) the Kansas Workbeat Web site has had 1,324,723 visitors. It has sent out 317,386 mobilization messages, conducted 523 message campaigns, 140 advocacy campaigns, and gotten 42,551 letters off to specific targets. It was especially active in the AFL-CIO 2009 Minimum Wage campaign, and got 1,559 e-mail letters fired off to Congress, some to entire committees. It set-up sub-centers for two specific projects: (1) Opposing the privatization of Century II, Wichita’s exhibit and concert venue and (2) the Raise the Wage Campaign.
The issue of June 11, 2009, included among its many other features a calendar of the month’s labor events; the June highlights of Labor history; a list of recommended labor books available at a unionized bookstore (Powell’s); news of the showing of a social action-related film (“sick Around the World”) at area libraries; details of the operation of a joint CWA-IAM bargain food site (just $24 a bag and a pledge of two hours of community service); news of a grassroots leadership workshop, and, another one for any thinking of running for office; a call for birthday cards for a 90-year old unionist; and, the national labor news.
Despite its impressive growth the Web site remains in essence, a one-person operation. A few local people send items, and IAM and SPEEA communication staffers have been most supportive of the re-use of their material. Webmaster Stuart Elliot is intent on soon making it more of a team effort, developing more systematic recruitment efforts, getting professionally printed flyers, and finding ways to place promo material in local union papers and other such publications.
Eager to profit from new IT options, the Kansas Workbeat Web site now includes a Facebook group, and may soon do the same with Twitter. Much like two other prominent Central Labor Council (CLC) operations (Washington, DC and Chicago) it never stops reaching beyond the ordinary: Stuart hopes to soon make creative use of Union Voice’s social networking tools (Community Leaders), and also set up news and issue rss feeds for area locals to carry on their websites. (4)
4) BARBWIRE. Fifteen years ago union activist Andrew Barbano started providing Web-based services to fellow unionists in Nevada after experiencing a major disappointment regarding the use of the media: “In 1994, some workers came to me and asked me to engineer media exposure for their organizing drive at a downtown Reno casino. The old-timers were solid, but the younger workers were shaky and undergoing a withering campaign from management.”
“The senior workers who asked me for help said media exposure about the election would embolden the younger employees to hold solidarity. A dumb ass business manager who didn’t even live here hated the media and forbade any statements. The organizing drive failed and that hotel-casino, still one of Reno’s largest, remains 100 percent non-union to this very day.”
Determined as best as possible to help head off more such mistakes, Barbano launched a list serve, BARBWIRE, in 1994 with a few dozen subscribers. Now, in 2008, he reaches several hundred thousand Nevadans (and outsiders like this writer): “There’s no way to count them as I’ve been gathering addresses for lo, these many years. I maintain my several hundred lists manually so that I am able to target the message.”
BARBWIRE includes “anything that comforts the afflicted, afflicts the comfortable, and promotes the general welfare.” Barbano created it himself, rather than as part of labor officialdom, because he felt “the movement would not be forward-thinking enough to do so. This came after the elimination of a carefully-nurtured rebirth of a northern Nevada union newspaper.”
To this day Barbano is unaware of any state which has a website similar to NevadaLabor.com, dedicated as it is to gathering and disseminating labor news, something which mainstream media stopped doing decades ago: “Most union websites are crashingly boring.” His site generates web traffic “better than the print circulation of more than half of Nevada’s newspapers.
As for Web-aided accomplishments over the past 15 years, Barbano notes that on the strength of one e-mailed online BARBWIRE column, targeted to the entire Nevada Legislature (and appropriate influence groups), he was able to singlehandedly kill some brutally anti-environmental legislation in under four hours one morning: “I have had similar impacts on public policy to a greater or lesser degree, but that one was a clean cut outright win strictly due to the power of the cyber-pen.”
Barbano has also used his e-lists to raise money and awareness for children critically in need of health care. He has fielded so many requests from long lost family members searching for loved ones that he started an “In Search Of…” page at NevadaLabor.com, and he draws there on his long memory for pre-Internet Nevada, combined with today’s web search engines. Barbano is especially proud to have salvaged the annual Nevada Cesar Chavez celebration and put it on a firm footing. He lobbied and editorialized in favor of a law to make March 31 (Chavez’s birthday) a permanent Cesar Chavez Day in Nevada. The bill unanimously passed the Nevada Legislature this year and has been signed into law. (See CesarChavezNevada.com).
Over the next three or five years Barbano expects to develop additional delivery systems and expand his live TV call-in talk show, available on demand 24/7 at Barbwire.TV. (He syndicates reruns throughout Nevada). Along the way he will continue to make every local union in the state aware he is available to help them fight for their cause by using the media at his disposal. While sometimes compensated, he most often works free, especially for small locals.
Barbano loves getting out a good scoop: “Organized labor is still not very good at using the media to the movement’s best advantage. Some union members and decision makers consider the media an enemy – big mistake.” (5)
5) WORKERS INDEPENDENT NEWS. The Workers Independent News (WIN), according to its identification material, is “the only nationwide radio news service that focuses on the issues and concerns of working families and their labor unions. WIN provides an alternative to corporate media and brings the concerns of working people to the airwaves. WIN is heard on commercial and non-commercial radio stations nationwide, every business day, and online at www.LaborRadio.org.
Led by Frank Emspak, a long-time labor activist and historian, WIN has used the Internet “to revolutionize how the labor movement is represented in broadcast media.“ (Jamieson 2005, 483). One of the first online news organizations to give daily audio broadcasts, WIN is an independent, not-for-profit audio news service that produces high-quality news focused on issues important to working people.
WIN went on the air in February 2002, having worked out a system to distribute its signal to other union web sites. Now, in the summer of 2009, it broadcasts, podcasts, has a web distribution system, cellcasts, and has a daily e-mail list of about 10,000 people (including this writer). Initially, the total number of WIN listeners via broadcast was low; the number of hits on the Web site was only about 15,000 per month in the first year. Now, seven years later, total listeners per day are about 1,000,000, most through radio broadcast.
One-third of America’s International Unions have the WIN logo somewhere on their Web site, and about 200 local unions do as well--- though the vast majority of union listeners pick it up via radio broadcast. It has no counterpart doing a daily labor-oriented headline news service with broadcast, podcast, email notification, cell phone, and text. There are some regular- usually weekly labor shows on various community stations, but no daily news production.
WIN supplies the news to America’s very few daily labor-oriented talk shows. There is an on line newspaper- Work Day Minnesota- which has been on line for several years, but it focuses on Minnesota news, leaving WIN the only daily national service focused on Labor.
Looking ahead, WIN is building an interactive, state based news system- called Forward! News Network- a web based system to collect, edit and distribute community/local union news. It has tentative agreements to expand its broadcast to three additional major markets – DC, Chicago, and LA; plus it plans to syndicate the news on four progressive talk shows. If successful it can Labor news via broadcast to about 3,000,000 people per day. As well, it is redoing its web site so that it can be more interactive, and even include some video, such as YouTube. WIN will also push its podcast.
Finally, WIN is doing training to help unions understand they can use the Web in conjunction with leaflets, newsletters, broadcast, etc, and see communications as two way, each venue supportive of the others. WIN expects to have a significant training operation in place in early in 2010, and already, in 2009, does training once every few weeks. It takes special pride in “aunionbuiltnewyork,” its experiment in building a Web site to promote the unionized construction industry in New York.
Staff takes satisfaction from having had some success in shifting the content of news in significant stories they have carried. Overall survival and growth across the last seven years naturally also make them happy, especially as WIN is on the verge of becoming commercially viable: “If WIN’s mission remains successful, it will help change the face of media in the US by continuing to bring the unheard struggles of labor to mainstream radio stations nationwide” (Jamieson 2005; 488).
An especially valued sort of assessment comes from those WIN is directly trying to serve; e.g., Emspak recalls stopping in late May, 2009, at a Manhattan construction site at the 96th St. subway, and casually asked if anyone had ever heard the WIN Labor News Brief? Several union members (operating engineers, laborers and ironworkers) stopped work and told him not only had they listened, but they referenced recent stories: “This has happened more than once at construction sites, and it is our most impressive feedback. When any of us on the staff go to union gatherings people there have heard or read the WIN news – and this happens more and more frequently.” (6)
6) ASSOCIATION for UNION DEMOCRACY. Founded in 1969, the AUD is the only organization of its kind, dedicated to advancing the principles and practices of democratic unionism in the North American union movement. It’s website, uniondemocracy.org is the hub for union democracy information exchange online.
According to AUD Internet Coordinator Matt Noyes, “because US unions largely remain, in the words of Clyde Summers ‘one party states,’ official union websites are slow to implement the best of the social web. The free speech, transparency, horizontal networking that the web offers are seen as a threat – union webmasters may get the okay to deploy web 2.0 gizmos, but in their mission, content, and architecture, official union sites typically remain vehicles for one way, top-down communication. The rank-and-file web is the place to go if you are looking for innovation and growth.”
For two years in a row, 2004-5, the AUD ran the world’s first contests (in which this writer was a judge) to help promote the existence of a ‘rank-and-file web’ that Noyes sees as central to the ‘Labor Internet. “We wanted to show that rank-and-file sites exist, and that they are wonderfully innovative and effective – often much more so than the official union websites.”
To be sure, in the years since the contests labor unions have been adopting new technology (like CMS, blogs, social networking, etc.), but a fundamental difference separates most official union sites from the independent, rank-and-file sites: “For the rank-and-file, particularly those who are dissatisfied and looking for change, free speech, horizontal communication, interaction, debate and discussion, action, accountability, transparency – all the tasks to which the internet is uniquely suited – are indispensable. It is the ranks who are building much of Labor’s online ‘House’ using the latest tech and tools to lay a foundation of democracy and participation.”
As workers build a broader, more democratic discussion, the union officialdom has to follow their lead, or risk irrelevance. Thus the recent struggles in SEIU, particularly around the trusteeship of United Healthcare Workers-West, have been waged not on official union websites, but across an array of official and unofficial sites, using a variety of web 2.0 tools and media. In that “internal” union struggle – which had important implications outside of the SEIU, as demonstrated by the unprecedented letter to SEIU President Andy Stern from a hundred academics calling on SEIU leaders to refrain from putting UHW-W under trusteeship – official union sites were players within a larger discussion and had to act a bit more like rank-and-file sites in order to be heard, though at the end of the day, they still tended to take a propaganda or PR approach to communications.
The rank-and-file are also breaking down walls: if one were to draw a circle around that “internal” SEIU discussion, it would encompass not just the sites of those directly involved but also forums like My Direct Democracy, Daily Kos, the websites of several newspapers, Benson’s Union Democracy Blog, etc. The wall that union leaders have traditionally maintained around “internal union affairs” is coming down.
In the first year, 2004, AUD got forty entries from sites related to twenty unions. In the second year, 2005, thirty-five entries from sites related to fourteen unions. (In fact this represented an increase in participation as Noyes himself entered several of the sites in the first contest). In a report on the 2005 contest in /Union Democracy Review/, posted on the AUD Web site, there is a list of links to all of the entries. While many are probably now defunct, one can use the Internet Archive’s “Way Back Machine” to see archived versions of many such sites.
As a byproduct of running the two contests AUD got requests for help setting up such change-aiding rank-and-file sites. While it did not offer that service, Matt wrote a guide to “Designing an Effective Rank-and-File Web site” as a result. Although now somewhat outdated (it has nothing about blogs, content management system-type sites, social networking), many of the basic principles and suggestions are still valid.
Naturally, there were setbacks and disappointments. The contest proved time-consuming and it conflicted with other demands in an organization with meager resources, including beginning what has been a long process of rebuilding the AUD website. And unfortunately, says Noyes, calling attention to the rank-and-file web has not deterred “the opponents of rank-and-file free speech in the union leadership in their attempts to shut down or restrict rank-and-file websites.”
AUD’s Web site contest could begin again “by popular demand.” There are certainly plenty of prospective Best Rank-and-File Union Websites, including Railworkers United (railworkersunited.org) and The Steel Barrel News (for members of ILA Local 2038;www.steelbarrelnews.com). Matt hopes the new Drupal-based AUD website will make running it easier to do. Web sites have gotten more complex, and rank-and-filers are using a wider array of tools: next time the contest will have to include blogs, discussion lists, and Web sites, another measure of Labor’s progress in turning information technology to advantage. (7)
7) THE NEW UNIONISM NETWORK. After doing about 20 years work with unions and NGOs, five of them at international level, early in 2007 Peter Hall-Jones set up the New Unionism (NU) Web site with people he had met across the years. They felt unionism needed to function more inclusively at international level, and become a lot more real in the workplace. Unions had to start setting agendas, rather than just reacting to them. Accordingly, the early members agreed on four key concerns: Organizing, Workplace Democracy, Internationalism, and Creativity.
At present New Unionism (NU) is a collective of 350 members (including this writer). Almost half work for unions, 31% are rank and filers, and 11% are academics. It produces a newsletter (Work in Progress) which goes out to about 1,200 supporters or unions worldwide. Membership is international, though it is particularly strong in the USA, UK, Canada, and Australia. NU is especially pleased with its balance between white-collar and blue-collar members, as this suggests it has hit the right note with language and presentation.
As for NU’s major accomplishments to date, four stand out, the first a matter of data collection; the second, document storage; the third, pride restoration; and the fourth, organizational culture – this last a matter of modeling how to “walk the talk.”
Since 2007 NU has set up a global union database which lists unions, their contact and joining details, membership numbers, and other key information (www.younionize.info). Unions can also have a free homepage in the NU directory. Many volunteers continue to dredge up data at the national level, and NU is working to make its database searchable by sector. If it can get some backing it plans to add data on multinational coverage: “But this isn’t just trainspotting; it’s about building a base so that workers can find and contact each other, and start networking across borders.”
From the start NU has been collecting key documents for its online library, which it hopes will serve as a practical knowledge base for the labor movement. It contains hundreds of key documents on organizing and workplace democracy, as well as international overviews on various aspects of where workers and the labor movement are today. (www.newunionism.net/library
NU is especially proud of the battle it has waged against the forces of gloom that paint unionism as a movement in decline. Internationally speaking, this is condemned as a false narrative: “Unfortunately the ILO hasn’t done a proper report since 1997, and so people just keep repeating what they were told 10 years ago. It took a hell of a lot of work, but we managed to dig up enough data to show conclusively that union decline started leveling off towards the end of the 90s, and in fact unionism has now entered a 4th wave of growth.”
NU contends, “the union movement needs to give itself proper credit for this growth, rather than beating itself up over false perceptions of decline.” It has supportive graphs on its homepage, and it also offers links to articles that provide more detail and discussion (www.newunionism.net).
Finally, in the matter of accomplishments, NU founder Peter Hall-Jones is “personally most proud of the fostering of good old fashioned relationships between people. We’re a network, not an organization. Beyond the four key principles we have no formal structure, nor do we have officials, affiliations, corporate vision statements, or even policies. It’s just about people meeting and networking with each other. It’s not a formal meeting, it’s more like an endless coffee break between sessions (where all the best shit happens).”
Looking forward, NU is discussing whether or not to set up an NGO. Resources have been a huge problem; if it can crack that one “then there’ll be no stopping us.” Hall-Jones hopes to soon see “a genuine trend towards union members starting to democratize their workplaces. Employers want engagement, workers want voice. And society needs a humanized economy. It’s really a critical moment.” (8)
8) LABOURSTART. Arguably the intellectual “father” of the international aspects of CyberUnionism, Eric Lee started in this field in 1993, and in 1996 wrote the first book to explain how computer power could help bond unions around the world – The Labor Movement and the Internet: The New Internationalism (Lee 1997). In his London-based day job at present, Eric builds websites for unions and advises and consults with them on how to make the best use of the new communications technology.
Intent on finding a way to keep the list of Web sites in his book up to date, in June of 1997 Lee became the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement. From the outset he saluted one site a week as truly noteworthy, and by the end of the year visitors to LabourStart were voting one of them “Labour Web site of the Year,” an educational and inspiring practice maintained to the present.
In 1998 Lee expanded the site to include daily updates of hundreds of labor news stories from everywhere. An email newsletter was launched, beginning with 500 subscribers, and it now boasts over 60,000. While initially the sole contributor Lee presently gets material sent in over the Internet from 654 volunteer correspondents around the world. (As about 6,000 languages exist, LabourStart pioneered the development of a multilingual Web site. It has 23 editions -- in Arabic, Indonesian, Bulgarian, Chinese, Danish, German, Greek, English, Spanish, Esperanto, Farsi (Persian), French, Hebrew, Italian, Creole, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Finnish, Swedish, Turkish and English.
LabourStart correspondents add an average of over 250 news stories every day to the news links database. In reading news, contributing news stories, and above all by participating in online campaigns, visitors can feel themselves part of a worldwide international movement. They have the Web-based ability to rapidly and effectively help support one another wherever based. Accordingly, Lee now feels one of LabourStart’s major accomplishments to date includes “helping to revive an internationalist tradition that had been lost for decades – and that is sorely needed in an age of globalization. This builds the campaigning capacity of the international trade union movement.”
Along side the Network is a Labour Newswire Global Network, a list of over 670 union Web sites that use syndicated content from the main LabourStart news link database. As the news feed is updated every 15 minutes, news of relevance to working people gets very rapid dissemination to a very large audience worldwide.
In 2005 LabourStart began putting union-made videos on the net. Made around the globe in dozens of languages, their availability on LabourStart TV was thought to usher in a new era in union communications. Also in 2005 LabourStart launched a free Health and Safety Newswire in cooperation with Hazards magazine. Members of 95 unions in nine countries profited from unprecedented access to fast-breaking news about hazards, medical gains, etc. Most recently, in December of 2008 LabourStart launched UnionBook, a counterpart of FaceBook (“Use it to meet up with friends online, post comments to discussion forums, create a blog, upload photos, and so on"). By the summer of 2009 the service had over 3,000 subscribers (including this writer).
Lee’s many online campaigns – as originated and authorized by a union - have made a special concrete contribution to the worldwide Labor Movement, as they emphasize taking immediate action steps (form-based sending of protest messages, printer-ready posters and background material; online newsletters to give support to a campaign; etc.). “Suddenly, almost overnight, [computer advances] made international labor solidarity work accessible to large numbers of rank-and-file union members, at almost no cost, and with an immediacy never previously experienced” (Lee 2006; 4).
Thanks now to ongoing improvements in computer power LabourStart has the ability to provide near real-time responses to violations of workers rights, or, as Lee has put it, “international solidarity at the speed of light” (Lee 2006; 5). Many thousands of e-mail messages can flood into a target in a very few hours, drawing on what the military call the “force multiplier” effect (one message can stimulate 10 or more) and mind-boggling never-ending gains in message-sending velocity. When LabourStart launches a new online campaign, within 15 minutes a link to it appears on the front pages of union Web sites around the world.
Never one to mince words, Lee warned as far back as 2006 that that the window of opportunity may be shutting where online campaigning is concerned (Lee 2006; 16). Participants are getting more e-mail that they can handle. Some are showing signs of “campaign fatigue.” Targets are getting better at defending themselves, and spam defenses have some LabourStart messages rendered useless.
Accordingly, Lee looks to innovations to take up the slack. LabourStart is experimenting with solidarity fundraising online for needy strikers (it uses Paypal as a secure payment system). And it is trying Web and e-mail-based boycott and Buy Union campaigns. None of this will be easy, or develop overnight, as “trade unions are remarkably conservative institutions and they do not easily embrace change.” This notwithstanding, Lee hopes over the next few years “to grow LabourStart’s mailing list from 60,000 to a million. To grow UnionBook from 3,000 users to 100,000 users. To actually employ staff – programmers, graphic designers, journalists.”
All hinges in large part on more and more unionists soon joining the LabourStart mailing list, getting active in UnionBook, supporting LabourStart's many online campaigns on behalf of workers everywhere, and, sharing in the related financial costs. Unions need “to be imaginative in finding new tactics which maximize the new technology” (Lee 2006; 21). For as Lee wrote back in 2000, “The future of unions … is online” (Lee 2000b). (9)
Taken all in all, the eight examples above encourage hope they will be soon joined by more varied and comparably rewarding projects. Key in the matter is the rise of Labor’s “digerati,” a new generation of Web-faring activists eager to get on with using computer power to help transform the “same old, same old” into cutting-edge material that attracts and holds allegiance. While intent on helping to “transform the Internet into the world’s largest union hall” (Mandel 2009; 040; Sixel 2000) they are fully aware of current limitations in the use of computers, e.g., users can get mired in data and become devoted to triviality. Likewise, in recruiting new members “the Internet has yet to get even close to the coffee shop down the street” (Blackadder 2006; 4)
Marked by indefatigable optimism, many “digerati” trust in Labor’s invaluable capacity for self-correction. Ongoing projects of theirs include developing software to measure, for example, the lifetime value of organizing new members; the return on investment in public relations activities; the gains possible from reducing the cancerous hold of “isms” in the attitudes of members; possible uses of 24/7 polling of the membership; and putting meetings online in a real-time interactive way.
Many are excited by what IT industry insiders hailed in 2009 as the next killer app, the emerging social Web (Bebo, Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, MySpace, Unionbook, YouTube, etc.): “It is in our interest to engage this new terrain and figure out how to use these swirling forces to our advantage” (Smith, Costello, and Brecher 2009; 6). The digerati want to use it to create distinctive high-tech electronic (virtual) “communities,” the kind that can bolster high-touch old-fashioned solidarity among real folk (Rayport 2009). Networked members will be expected to mingle, “trading information, creating alliances, doing favors.” (Baker 2009; 036). They also want to create “enterprise social networks.” These Web 2.0 social media mini-worlds will offer “a searchable, digital archive of all the happenings and knowledge inside a [labor organization]. The dream is for [them] to double up one day as a kind of virtual headquarters” (Conlin and MacMillan 2009; 021).
Cynics will rush to contend a single robin (or the eight innovative projects above) does not a spring make (or, in this instance, an advance in CyberUnionism). What they ignore is the power of figurative trimtabs – the small adjustable flaps on ocean liners that enable deck officers to use only a small amount of pressure to move the main rudder on a huge vessel, and thereby reset its course. Organized Labor has always profited from uses made of such “trimtabs” - ever-smarter change-promoting projects - nowadays bolstered by the “force multiplier” of mind-boggling computer power (Shostak 1991; 291). Accordingly, the cumulative impact of seemingly random and one-off innovations in computer uses (as in the eight example above) is helping to keep Organized Labor – always itself a work in progress - from sliding into insignificance.
All of this makes possible a cautious closing forecast: In the immediate future the ripple effect of digerati “trimtab” projects could significantly advance the cause of CyberUnionism. First, however, overdue gains must be made in Labor’s democratic, ethical, patriotic, and spiritual realms (Reynolds 2003). Unfortunately, at present, the opposite is happening as “many unions are making war – largely with one another – in the biggest, nastiest surge of labor fratricide in decades” (Greenhouse, 2009; B-1). Unless and until the American Labor Movement finally becomes a genuine Social Movement, that is, a cohesive empowering body of Brothers and Sisters bound together in inspiring Solidarity, the digerati and their “trimtab” creativity will achieve far less than is possible, as will Organized Labor. Only when Labor’s “thoughtware” first significantly improves can its digerati make the most of its software, and help thereby ease the Movement along into CyberUnionism.
1. In addition to my 1999 and 2002 CyberUnion books, in 2000 I co-produced a 30-minute VHS film, “Labor Computes: Union People, Computer Power.” In 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 I wrote relevant articles (see References below.) Until 2008, I maintained a focused Web site at www.cyberunions.net. I have given invited talks about CyberUnionism in Canada, Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. I have also talked informally about it in China, Israel, and Japan. As a frequent panelist or speaker at LaborTech Conferences and other like gatherings I have both shared and gained ideas about this work-in-progress subject.
2. E-mail from Joe Dougherty, June 17, 2009. phillyunions.com;
3. E-mail from Chris Garlock, June 19, 2009.
4. E-mail from Stuart Elliot, June 19, 2009.
5. E-mail from Andrew Barbano, June 10, 2009.
6. E-mail from Frank Emspak, June 12, 2009. www.LaborRadio.org
7. E-mail from Matt Noyes, June 12, 2009. www.uniondemocracy.org
8. E-mail from Peter Hall-Jones, June 11, 2009. phj [at] newunionism.net
9. E-mail from Eric Lee, June 11, 2009. www.LabourStart.org
- Baker, S. June 1, 2009. What’s a friend worth? Business Week: 032-034.
- Blackadder, D. January 11, 2006. Face to face or cyberspace. http://www.ourtimes.ca/organizing/organizing_8.htm
- Cameron, Tulia. 1992. The artist way: A spiritual path to higher creativity. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
- Conlin, M. and D. MacMillan. June 1, 2009. Managing the tweet: Companies are scrambling to silence errant messages while exploiting social networks. Business Week: 020-021.
- FAST COMPANY editors. June 2001. Best of the best: Art shostak and cyberunions, 82.
- Fiorito, J. 2005. Unions and IT: Personal, research, and practitioner perspectives. WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society 8: 423-438.
- Greenhouse, S. July, 9, 2009. Divided they risk it all. Unuins’ moment threatened by ill-timed infighting. New York Times. B-1 (B-1,9)
- Jamieson, R. 2005. The workers independent news – The new face of labor media. WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society 8: 483-488.
- Lee, E. 1997. The labor movement and the Internet: The new internationalism. London: Pluto Press.
- _____ 2000a. How the Internet is changing unions. In Networked Labor: The Future of Unions and the Internet. Cambridge, MASS: Labor & Worklife Program at Harvard Law School (March 23-25, 2006). 34-42.
- _____ November 16, 2000b. What has the web ever done for us? http://www.themestream.com/articles/239388.htm.
- _____. Global campaigning: Beyond protest emails and solidarity messages. Paper given at a 2006 Cornell University Conference (“Global Companies – Global Unions – Global research – Global Campaigns”).
- Mandel, M. June 15, 2009. Interrupted innovation. Business Week. 034-040.
- Ness. I., ed. 2005. Information technology and labor’s future. WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society 8: 377-488.
- Newman, N. 2005. In labor missing the internet third wave? WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society 8: 383-394.
- Pinnock, S. R. 2005. Organizing virtual environments: National union deployment of the blob and new cyberstrategies. WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society 8: 457-468.
- Rayport, J. F. May 18, 2000. Our space: The shift to a social web: Soon we’ll take our social networks with us whenever we surf the Internet. Business Week. 067.
- Reynolds, D. 2003. The society unions can build: Towards a utopian social democratic America. In Shostak, A. B. Viable Utopian Ideas: Shaping a Better World. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc. 166-175. <
- Shostak, A. B. 1991. Robust Unionism: Innovations in the Labor Movement. Ithaca, NY: ILR.
- _____. 1995. For labor’s sake: Gains and pains as told by 28 creative inside reformers. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
- _____. 1997. On the revitalization of the U.S. labor movement: Can 21st century cyberunions be created in time? Unpublished invited paper prepared for the Silver Anniversary Conference (“Twenty-five Years of Higher Education Collective Bargaining”), April 14-15; The National Center for the Study of Collective bargaining in Higher Education and the professions, Baruch College, CUNY, School of Public Affairs.
- _____. 1999a. CyberUnion: Empowering labor through computer technology. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
- _____. 1999b. September 25. 1999. Computer impacts on organized labor: A sociological perspective. Unpublished paper prepared for reading at the 2000 Annual Meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society (Baltimore, MD.).
- _____. 2001. Tomorrow’s cyberunions: Labor’s BEST bet! WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society 6:82-105.
- _____. 2002a. The CyberUnion handbook: Transforming labor through computer technology. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
- _____. 2002b. Today’s unions as tomorrow’s cyberunions: Labor’s newest hope. Journal of Labor Research 23: 237-248.
- _____. 2005. On the state of cyberunionism: An American progress report. Unpublished invited paper prepared for the January 28, 2005 Conference (“The Role of Technology”), New York Law School.
- ____. 2006. Cyber unionism: Getting labor online. New Labor Forum 15, 1: 95-102.
- ____. March 10, 2007. Finding solutions for the future: Trade unions can benefit enormously from intelligent use of new technology. Invited paper for a TUC Contest (“Union Futures”).
- ____. 2008. “Five technologies.” In Oedy, Bob. Bigger labor: A crash course for construction union organizers. Winnetka, CA: Union Organizer Press.
- Sixel, L.M. April 19, 2000. Look for the union web site label/ Inter@ctive Week. 1-4 (http://www.zdnet.com/intweek)
- Smith, B., Costello, T, and Brecher, J. January 15, 2009. Social movements 2.0. The Nation (www.thenation.com/doc/20090202/smith_costello_brecher; 1-7.
- Stevens, C. D. and C. R. Greer. 2005. E-Voice, the Internet and life within unions: Riding the learning curve. WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society 8: 439-456.
- Von Bergen, J. M. February 11, 2006. Labor movement gets a face-lift. Philadelphia Inquirer, C-1.
BIOGRAPHY: Arthur B. Shostak, an Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Drexel University (1967-2003), taught as an Adjunct Sociologist at the George Meany Center from 1975 through 2000. His 33 books include two on cyberunionism, several on blue-collar life, and many on his major research focus, the use of applied sociology and futuristics to help citizens develop a finer future.