While I definitely agree with most of this article, and quite honestly, it encompasses the core of why I do what I do, I don't think you give labor enough credit. I've noticed a significant growth in labor's usage of social media in just the past six months. There is a very strong representation of labor union members and organizations on FB and Twitter, oodles of blogs, websites and technology providers that cater strictly to labor unions. Labor even has UnionBook.com - the FB equivalent for union members only.
Yes, growth is slow, especially when you consider how many local unions exist in this country, compared to how many even have websites. However, we can't overlook the tremendous progress that has been made by some. I truly believe the labor movement is on the cusp of a great insurgency, and the increasing momentum of the online labor movement will fuel it.
Unions Labor to Embrace Social Media
The labor movement was into mass collaboration before it was cool. When union leaders were talking about solidarity, collective bargaining, and the idea of “one big union” connecting the global working class, the telephone was not yet a common appliance, much less the Internet. However, few institutions have been slower to embrace the innovations of the past decade than organized labor, despite the potential advantages that social media could provide across many aspects of their operations.
Lately that’s starting to change. Last month, a diarist at the left-wing political site Daily Kos documented a unique campaign to organize workers at the Anheuser–Busch InBev Metal Container Corporation in Newburgh, N.Y. Workers set up a community site and blog where employees could engage in open discussions among themselves and air concerns without facing the scrutiny of anti-union plant management.
Sam Fratto, the organizer who set up the blog, described the situation this way: “[The workers] were afraid to talk among themselves on the floor. They’d tried organizing the plant a few years back with a different union, and the bosses retaliated – they even fired some folks. But this time with the blog, nobody’s jobs were in jeopardy because management couldn’t single out who was for or against the union.”
Eventually, workers at the plant certified the union and opened what Fratto characterizes as a “productive first round of negotiations” with management based on mutual respect.
Stories like this remain the exception rather than the rule, despite the near-ubiquity of social media and its obvious utility in the context of the labor movement. There are a few explanations for this:
1. Consumer-based tools like Facebook are unsuitable. Union organizers have the same complaints about Facebook that many businesses and consumers do: It’s insecure, the company mines and uses personal information in unpredictable ways, the terms of service are constantly changing, and transparency is a two-edged sword when it comes to discussing sensitive issues. Some tech-savvy activists are working on their own social media platform,Unionbook, as a more secure and less distracting environment.
2. Privacy is critical. Most employers really don’t want a union in their workplace and will go to great lengths to foil attempts to organize workers. This includes infiltrating blogs and discussion groups, planting misinformation in social media streams, targeting suspected organizers for workplace discipline or firing, and creating lookalike sites provisioned with company-line propaganda to confuse the issues. Unions and workers interested in forming unions are rightly concerned about these issues because the stakes are unusually high.
3. Management has some innate advantages in the social arena. For the past five years, employers have adopted social computing technology for all kinds of reasons related to their core businesses, not just labor relations: viral marketing, internal operations, collaborative innovation, etc. Unions have not invested much in technology or social media institutionally. Any competencies they have developed are incidental, not systematic. This puts them at a disadvantage against negotiating partners who have already learned and adopted best practices.
4. The digital divide is occupational and class-based. Class may be a dirty word in American politics, but there are real gaps between educated white-collar workers in management and blue-collar workers in traditional unionized occupations in terms of technology adoption. Consumers with less earning power are less likely to own up-to-the-minute tech gadgets or prioritize expensive broadband connections, and are therefore less likely to have developed the social media habits that can help them learn and use technology at work. To make matters worse, union demographics increasingly skew toward older workers, activating generational issues around the technology as well.
All of this makes it an uphill struggle for labor to embrace tools that could help it reach the next generation of workers, improve transparency, and rebuild the sense of community that animated the union movement in its heyday.
Leaving aside the issue of whether unions are right or wrong for today’s economy, the workers who choose to organize deserve institutions and leadership that can advocate effectively for their interests, and that means embracing social media when it is the right fit for the mission.