Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Wisconsin Protests: A Lesson in Union Communications

Take note of the date February 15, 2011. It is the day that the American labor movement finally awoke from a long coma, and it did so on the steps of the Wisconsin Capital this week.

Every union member in this country owes Governor Walker a huge thank you. If it weren't for his moronic short-sidedness and political greed, these protests would never have happened - but they desperately needed to. These protests are serving as the spark that sets labor's passion on fire again - a passion that has waxed and waned for far too long. Let's hope that Wisconsin's fire spreads from state to state, because the middle class has taken a serious beating, and something has to change.

There are some important lessons to glean from these events. There is a very strong force that has driven so many thousands of protesters to Madison from all over the country.  This has become a national focus, and it happened at the speed of light. The driving force behind it is none other than social media in various forms, and demonstrates the enormous power that this medium has. An estimated fifty to sixty thousand people showed up today, which never would have happened in less than a week by setting up phone banks and sending out email blasts. Word spread virally in large part due to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like.  There is no denying the existence of a very strong online labor movement anymore, because it is (almost) singlehandedly fueling the events unfolding as we speak.

Labor leaders, please learn this lesson if you haven't already. Social media is creating a much greater level of solidarity and unity among those in the labor movement, which has been sorely lacking for decades. Union leaders and members are connecting with each other from one end of the country to the other, and coming together to support the cause. From Richard Trumka down to John Smith, a first year apprentice, and everyone in between - social media has created a new mechanism for connecting and communicating with labor folks from all walks of life, at all levels - and you and your labor organization needs to be an important part of it.

If your organization is dragging its heels because of aging leaders who barely use email, then take the initiative to recommend ways to get them involved. Oftentimes the fear of the unknown is far more stifling than the reality.  If they don't want to learn, if they don't want to encourage social media as a vital outreach tool for your local, then so be it - but at least you tried. Keep trying, stay involved - and one day you'll find that it's your turn to be the aging leader - but one that is tuned into the rank and file and national developments long before it hits the papers. It's far better (and sometimes easier) to lead others when you understand who they are, what they want, and what drives them as people.  

Conversely, you can't call them to action and expect an overwhelming response when they barely know who you are and you only connect with them personally a couple of times a year, at a union meeting or Labor Day picnic.