U-Cubed: A new model for occupational networking? (+ labor, unions and internet recap)

For those interested in building occupational or sectoral networks within their union, here’s an intriguing experiment to follow. More at http://www.unionofunemployed.com/ucubed-resources/communicating_cubes/

Unemployed people in the USA are signing up and then linking themselves (if & when they choose) to others with the same zip code. Together, six members form a cube. If they like, this group can then join up with eight other cubes to form a ‘neighbourhood’. And three neighbourhoods can join to form a ‘power block’. It’s an ingenious way of bringing people together around occupation (in this case the unemployed) and location (per zip code). This builds community and voice in a natural way, and encourages activism at the base in a way that traditional representative structures find difficult. They’re only a few months into the experiment, with about 2500 members, so it’s too early to learn any lessons.

See also this interesting article on bottom-up online organizing by labor organizations (UK?):

“Hogan and Greene consider specific examples of bottom up campaigns to make unions more accountable to members, specifically the case of www.rogerlyons.com, where a website created by a lay member of the union MSF was used to expose fraud committed by the general secretary, hold him accountable and rid the union of corruption. In this case, detailed information about the union’s finances was made available to members, who had the opportunity to comment, vote in online polls or participate in other ways. This had the clear effect of undermining an oligarchy, and the presumed effect of encouraging rectitude among future leaders. Several trade union mergers down the line, the website still exists, now in the form of www.dearunite.com, where it continues to provoke ire. This shows the potential of ICTs to hold the leadership of the trade union movement to account, to act as a counter balance to the development of oligarchies and to facilitate transparency.

Lest we become too excited, however, Roger Seifert shows that new technologies can have a destructive impact on workplace struggle. He claims that the unofficial 30Kfirepay website undermined the leadership during the strike of the Fire Brigades Union in 2002-2004, was infiltrated by the security services, helped to divide the strikers and contributed to the defeat of the strike.

It should be pointed out that, while ICTs have a tendency to facilitate transparency, they are not de facto more democratic. Despite the ‘democratic deficit’ that exists in unions, trade unions structures are, for the most part, at least technically legitimate: members in a workplace elect shop stewards and other activists onto branch structures, who in turn elect regional committees, a National Executive Committee and so on. While this process differs from union rule book to union rule book, for the most part leaders are freely and fairly elected. Therefore it would be quite possible for an unrepresentative group of disaffected members, with no mandate, base or constituency, to have a disproportionate effect on union decision making due to technical skill, innovative use of technology, or the use of smear campaigns.

In the Roger Lyons/Dear Unite example above, it is worth noting that there are established ‘counter-hegemonic’ forces within the union, in the form of United Left – an organised group of Left activists campaigning for lay democracy. To what extent does Dear Unite engage with this structures? Member-led dissident websites should be viewed from this perspective.

While Michels argues that the ‘incompetence of the masses’ precludes them from full participation in the life of an organisation, due in part to a lack of sophistication and education, Hogan and Greene feel that new technologies are educational and provide an “up-skilling process”, and that technologies are getting easier to master. While this is almost certainly true – especially with the development of Webs 2.0 and 3.0, and the ubiquity of mobile phones that can access the Internet – it remains the case that the more ‘tech savvy’ are likely to have disproportionate power.

In practical terms, this means those working in white collar and technical jobs in the knowledge economy. Are we not, therefore, in danger of replacing one oligarchy with another, of yielding power to a cyber elite? Clearly, proactive strategies to bridge the ‘digital divide’ are necessary.

Some unions are embracing this challenge, recognising that the full participation and empowerment of their members lies in their being able to participate fully in a society that is increasingly dominated by technology. Like many unions, Unite has a lifelong learning strategy that includes providing free, accredited courses in ICTs to union members, delivered at the workplace by union tutors. My personal experience of facilitating ICT learning for Unite members is that many find it personally empowering and are inclined to view the union favourably as a result. Workplaces with these learning programs have tended to show increased membership participation as branches grow in confidence and become more dynamic.

It is worth pointing out that very many of the most significant and prominent bottom up strategies do not confine themselves to the boundary of union-as-organisation: most ‘cyber-activists’ are organisationally promiscuous and much of their activity is designed to bring together activists from different unions, as well as social movements and wider society.”

Eric Lee however, stresses the dangers of the internet for labor:

“Factory owners are a mouse-click from knowing everything about each of us. The old strategy of blacklisting — employed so successfully against unions like the IWW for so many years — has now become infinitely more effective thanks to the net.

According to a recent report, “Starbucks managers discovered that two pro-union employees in New York were graduates of a Cornell University labor program … Managers took the names of graduates from an online Cornell discussion group and the school’s Web site and cross-checked them with employee lists nationwide. They found that three employees in California, Michigan and Illinois were graduates of the program and recommended that local managers be informed.”

That’s pretty clever — Starbucks was not only looking for troublemakers, but for potential troublemakers, or people who might have sat in class next to troublemakers. It was chilling to me to read that they were specifically targetting Cornell labor program graduates. That brought home to me the point that if this technology had existed in 1974, it would not have been possible to covertly insert someone like myself into a non-union factory.

Using the techniques of data-mining, human resources staff are going to be able to block the employment not only of trade union organizers, but of people who might be friends with union organizers. If I were a union-buster, the first thing I’d do is signup to Facebook (where one is actually face-less and anonymous) and “befriend” all the union activists I could. In the real world, this would be tricky, expensive and time-consuming. But not online.

Many of us, myself included, have long argued that unions should make the best use possible of the net, and that the net offers us new possibilities to organize, to campaign, to strengthen our unions. The low cost and global reach of the net, we believed, we empower unions and level the playing field in the struggle with employers.

But the net also offers new possibilities for union-busters and there is some evidence that corporations are using the net more effectively than we do.

How do we cope with the dangers of data-mining and net-based blacklisting?”

The type of 2.0 organizing discussed above poses a number of questions for the labour movement:

1. What does it mean if workers begin organizing on their own outside and without the help of traditional organizations? We don’t know the ramifications for unions if truckers, for example, increasingly come together on-line to organize protests over gas price–as they did in April of this year–without ever attending a Teamster meeting or a receiving a house call from an organizer. Traditional union structures have already been outflanked by the global economy, now labor faces the challenge of workers acting collectively outside of trade union structures. This could offer fertile ground for trade unions and other social movement organizations or it might mean there are types of activities that are quickly becoming obsolete.

2. It’s easy and cheap for organizations to bring people together into a swarm but what do you do with them then? Groups like MoveOn have perfected how to share information, fundraise and sign petitions. But outside the electoral arena, few have been successful in converting group interest into escalating political activity. Because of this people are joining and then quickly dropping out of social networks. Labor and social movement organizations need to keep experimenting with how to keep workers engaged and ways to encourage online activity from information sharing and debate to collaboration and collective action.

3. Will unions and social movement organizations be willing to cede control as workers use social networking tools to channel their own activities? The destruction of hierarchies online means that trade unions will face increasing pressure from workers to permit more rank and file debate and input. This is a healthy process and a long time in coming. If labor and other social movements are to embrace the dynamism of social networking sphere and move beyond simply posting opeds on Huffington Post written by union Presidents or NGO executive directors, they will have to cede significant control. Organizations that resist this trend will become increasingly irrelevant online and offline.

4. How do labor and social movement organizations address the dangers associated with online action? The majority of online tools and spaces are commercial ventures, and the transparent nature of web means that elites and bosses are always watching. Several Egyption bloggers were jailed last year after participating in calls for a general strike. Facebook recently closed the account of an SEIU affiliate who was trying to organize casino workers in Nova Scotia, Canada. As Eric Lee warns “Social networks in principle are excellent but something such as Facebook, for example can close down anything it wants. So I think unions need to have their own tools, websites and mailists.” At the same time, there are legitimate concerns about the spread of online slander, “mobbing” of innocent victims (e.g. “swift boating”), false rumors and misinformation without ways to rebut. Social movements need to anticipate and respond quickly to racist, nationalist and other destructive forces converging online.

5. How do we track the demographics of who’s online and who’s not and what tools they are using? Some of the numbers on web usage are surprising. It’s known, for example that Latino’s in the US are offline in huge numbers but their cell phone use is skyrocketing just as mobile phones are increasingly web enabled. It’s also known that poor and working class folks in the US are often trapped offline, but those that are online appear to be more interactive and engaged than other segments of the population. So for example, according to the PEW Research Center households making less than $50,000 a year are more likely put content (pictures, music, post comment in chatrooms, etc.) online than higher-income households. The demographics are changing fast; social movements need to be constantly reassessing assumptions about their target audience.

6. How do we present complex ideas online? We know that people take in information in a whole myriad of ways and weigh it differently depending on medium. On the web it’s been difficult to figure out how to present complex ideas and synthesize large swaths of information electronically – blog posts work, long issue reports and white papers do not. The best model we have found for presenting and synthesizing a complex and evolving issue is Baseline.com, which has been tracking the global financial crisis.

7. How does offline and online social movement building fit together? We know it’s essential but where and when to rely on face-to-face contact during an online campaign and vice-versa is still unknown. When, for example, do we call a virtual vs. a non-virtual protest; when is physical contact required to build lasting and deep solidarity vs. cheap and fast FaceBook or Twitter campaigns? The Obama campaign has broken new ground by fully integrating their online and offline activities. Each time a supporter interacts with the campaign data specialists create new layers for targeting that person by region, engagement and volunteer preferences. Then organizers use a myriad of tools–text messages, phone calls, house visits, etc.–to figure out how and where to plug supporters into the campaign structure. Labor and social movement organizations need to experiment with these new techniques but anticipate that online organizing will continue to be littered with failed experiments.”

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