from Vol. 27 | Issue 3 | JUNE-JULY 2008
Finding Friends and Foes
By Derek Blackadder
Unions and workers are making much use of the latest web fad: social networking sites. But are sites like Facebook really adding anything to our ability to organize? If yes, how, exactly? And where are the pitfalls in using online commercial sites for organizing (in every sense of that word)?
Social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Second Life are hard to avoid these days. For those who haven't caught the bug yet, these are websites that allow users to organize themselves and their friends into networks.
Get past the dating efforts and the incomprehensible (to me, at least) need to stay in touch with high school chums and you'll see that work and all things workish, like unions, are one of the more common bases for creating networks of connected "friends" on sites like Facebook. This is understandable, given how much time we all spend at work. And given that Facebook claims over 2 million Canadians as users (almost 60 million in total), it's hard to imagine that, as you read this, there aren't organizers combing the site, looking for contacts who have clumped together as a group. Why? Because Facebook and similar sites are where workers have already congregated.
These sites offer accessible ways to self-organize. Workers who share a common employer, occupation, union or issues like health and safety concerns, are creating networks, sharing insights, venting, coordinating actions, and just generally doing good and useful things often without any formal connection to a union.
Some unions are facilitating these discussions, at least for their own members. Search any major union on Facebook and you'll see everything from groups created for members nationally through to groups created by union locals to keep members (or at least those who have and check their Facebook accounts) up to speed on their union's activities, using something like an online bulletin board.
There are also a number of action-oriented groups where strike support and other activities are being organized. But how effective organizing for action using Facebook can be is up for debate. More on this later.
Non-union workers are on Facebook in a big way. Some groups seem to have been created specifically to figure out how to deal with an employer's actions, and to plan how to organize a union. In doing so workers naturally start by venting about their employer, their supervisor, their work and their working conditions. And, heart-warmingly, about the quality of the goods and services they produce and provide.
That's only natural, right? If you're trying to figure out what needs changing, you need to define those things and see if the others in your network agree. Once the "why" is agreed upon, you move to planning the "how." That's true if you're talking about things over coffee in the lunch room, or online. There are crucial differences, however. For one, Facebook offers the opportunity to transcend distance (you can network with a co-worker in Hong Kong), and time (you can connect with people on other shifts or who retired 10 years ago). For another, a workplace-specific network can bridge over to another network. For instance, union members in an organized workplace can connect with unorganized workers directly, with no intermediary. Mostly, Facebook just lets what used to happen at the local Tim Hortons happen much, much faster.
So, to recap, on the up side, social networking sites are cheap or free, easily accessed, are established and hugely popular, and (pay attention, this one is crucial) are already being used by workers to facilitate fast communication. The point needs and deserves to be said as many ways as possible: Facebook and sites like it have already been selected by large numbers of workers as the way they want to organize amongst themselves.
For unions, this means it's possible to tap into existing networks of workers who have already identified their common issues. Perhaps more importantly, those workers have already developed a way of working together, identified their own leaders and done much of the groundwork for an organizing campaign.
In May 2008 I met with organizers in the UK from a number of unions. There the use of Facebook and similar sites is routine for organizers targeting a particular employer. It doesn't replace the essential face-to-face methods that, in the end, carry the day. But all the British organizers reported that it greatly reduced the amount of time they spent involved in a campaign. Why? Because the groundwork had already been done by the time the union connected with the workers. The issues had been identified, the workplace mapped, the barriers detailed, the inside committee established (of pro-union workers on the site), and the leadership (s)elected.
What was left was far from unimportant. The organizer and the union brought a lot to the process. But time had been saved and, most, most, most importantly, the workers all had a strong sense of having ownership, from start to finish, over the process. This, the organizers felt, meant not only faster campaigns with a better chance of success, but stronger unions when the campaigning was done.
The down side? Well, there are some legal issues that can cause real problems for self-organizing or union-affiliated efforts on these sites.
For members of a public group on Facebook, those comments about a nasty supervisor, the sometimes pleasantly wild and crazy ideas about what to do, or the simple venting we all do about our jobs, can become grounds for discipline or even a lawsuit. Even factually correct statements, if they contradict an employer's policies or if they amount to a breach of trust, can be, in law, cause for discipline or discharge.
The law on such things is by now well-established: posting comments on even a secure site or page is the equivalent of getting something printed on the front page of The Globe and Mail. There's nothing private about it and the author is responsible for the contents and the effect of that content.
Almost weekly there's media coverage of something Facebookish and workplace-related. Restaurant workers posting photos of employees mooning each other out the drive-through window blended in with comments about the way food was being handled. Healthcare workers caught expressing concerns about the quality of the service they provide after the latest round of cuts; harassment accusations against named supervisors.
All accurate, perhaps, but legally a problem because (and it's amazingly easy to forget this as you get deeper and deeper into Facebook) nothing you do on sites like Facebook is really private.
Far more important is the simple fact that such sites are big, profit-making businesses. The effects this has on what we can do with these sites are pretty wide-ranging. We need to understand that we don't own and so don't control these sites and what that means when we use them to do union work.
In 2007 the Service Employees International Union was organizing (successfully, as it turns out, congrats!) the Halifax casino. Facebook was an important communications tool for the inside committee. But one day the casino had a lawyer send a letter to Facebook, and the group that had been created for the campaign was shut down.
Luckily communication was still possible. But that wouldn't be true of many of the work-and-union-related groups on Facebook.
My own experience with Facebook also illustrates this point. At LabourStart (see LabourStart.org) we have, as a part of our mandate, been encouraging unions to use the Internet. So when new gizmos come along we try to assess their potential as organizing tools. We got around to Facebook last year, set up a LabourStart group and started testing the utility of some of its features.
The first problem we encountered was that we were too successful. Once our group hit 1,000 members and became one of the largest union-related groups on Facebook, we lost the ability to send messages to the members of our group, meaning we now had to rely on group members popping in regularly to see what was new. Not good. We lost our ability to effect actions quickly, and we lost the ability to interact with the group members except individually time consuming when you want to keep 1,700 people on track and engaged.
The second problem came up when I attempted to create a large collection of "friends" users I could interact with directly using Facebook. I started collecting friends as quickly as I could. This was a crucial aspect of our little test of Facebook, as the only way to mobilize users for more than one campaign over time is to create a large network of "friends" whom you can take with you from campaign to campaign. Making a large number of friends was, in other words, the only way in which Facebook could be used in a way to build improved organizing capacity from one campaign to the next (there's a new "fan" feature that some say changes this).
It wasn't long before Facebook threatened to, and then did, cancel my account and effectively killed the network I had created. As the initial organizer of the network, my disappearance meant it no longer had a central node and fell apart.
Our response (after determining that there was no appeals process) was to test Facebook as a fast-reaction campaign tool and to see just how client-responsive it could be when pressed. John Wood at the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in the UK started a campaign based on and directed at Facebook to get my account reinstated. In less than eight hours something like 3,000 people had joined the "Free the Blackadder One" campaign group on Facebook and I was back on Facebook.
Tellingly though, most joined only after a humour-ous appeal had been sent out by LabourStart to its readers. The response made it one of the largest union-related groups on Facebook, and certainly the fastest growing. The LabourStart mailing encouraged people to join Facebook if they hadn't already, and to then send a message to Facebook demanding the reinstatement of my account.
A crucial point here is that there was no way to act using Facebook itself, even when the target of our action was Facebook. In order to actually do anything, campaign participants needed to be organized using means outside Facebook, and then they had to use plain old e-mail. And, interestingly, a significant number of people wrote us to say they supported the campaign but had concerns about what Facebook would do with their personal information and so weren't going to register with it.
The best we could manage using Facebook as an organizing tool was to create groups with larger and larger numbers of members. But while the numbers and the rate at which they were growing were impressive in and of themselves, perhaps, there didn't seem to be much we could do with them. We were using Facebook to gather people we would then take elsewhere to do things.
A day later and now back on Facebook, I had a pile of friends and started herding them towards the various Facebook-based union campaigns that I was finding. Within a few weeks I was again booted off Facebook. This time for replying to (not sending replying to) too many messages. Many of those 3,000 people who had supported my reinstatement had sent me a congratulatory message on Facebook when I returned. I was in the process of responding to them all when I was given the boot a second time.
At the same time a few union locals I service had set up Facebook groups: one to act as a kind of online newsletter, and one as part of an effort to organize community support while in bargaining. One local took down a news group after members complained that supervisors who had Facebook accounts were reading posts. On a smaller scale, this replicated the Metronet (a British rail company) Facebook experience. There the union quickly found that managers were using a strike-organizing group to spread disinformation and confusion. After some fake user names were sorted and a vetting system set up, the group was technically secure, but politically compromised and effectively useless.
For one of the Canadian Union of Public Employees locals that I service, making its group available only to vetted members was more work than this small local thought it was worth. More importantly, the members simply didn't trust Facebook as a place to chat about their union and work. It has reverted to e-mail, newsletters and paper notices.
On the other hand, the bargaining support group got lots of people signing on. Unlike my other example, this group was for organizing concrete actions on a regular basis and often on short notice. Some of this group's organizers consider its Facebook site a roaring success and point to the numbers it attracted as members. There's no consensus on whether the actions it was intended to support were any larger than they would have been otherwise.
Beyond the contact/communicate part, numbers seem to be what organizing on Facebook is all about. Big numbers equal success. Or do they?
The size of a Facebook group doesn't really mean anything to anybody except the obsessive-compulsives amongst us. Once Facebook users have joined a group, that's the extent of the action they can take using Facebook. To do anything more they have to be directed to get up from their computer and do something out in real time, or they have to click over to a site outside Facebook. And all anyone organizing on Facebook can do with a number is announce it and hope someone somewhere will be impressed.
For example, the IBEW@Sears group had to direct Facebook users who had joined to LabourStart in order for them to actually do anything to support the locked-out workers. The only alternative would have been to send Sears a note telling them a bunch of Facebook users had joined a group against the lockout. Not too scary, if you're Sears. Instead, using LabourStart, supporters sent Sears a message saying they intend to boycott the store, and a copy of each message went to the picket line.
And there's another problem. If you want to get your group's numbers up by convincing people to sign up for a Facebook account just so they can join your campaign, you might want to warn them about all the plans Facebook has for the personal data they provide. And how the data doesn't disappear when they close their account after the campaign ends. They might already know and be reluctant to join your campaign as a result.
And don't forget that Facebook is accessible to employers, too. When Starbucks was facing an organizing blitz in the U.S. a while ago, brighter-than-I-wish-they-were managers copied members listings from social networking site groups set up by recent grads from the more progressive labour relations programs in the U.S. That list was then matched to a list of Starbucks employees and the union's "salting" efforts were exposed (getting pro-union people hired on to help a union drive). The entire time investment by the manager was likely no more than a few hours.
Australian unions report that checking Facebook to see if a job applicant has a history of union activity is a common practice. Reports of employers using Facebook to check on employees on sick leave or compensation or long-term disability are commonplace.
The worst sin committed by the current generation of social networking sites is that they do little to build organizing capacity for future campaigns. This isn't a technical issue: it's political. Facebook is a tool for making money for its owners, not for workers looking to organize. Note what happened to the SEIU and my (less important) efforts. Compare the number of friends I had when booted off the first time (well under 1,000) with the much bigger numbers associated with commercial users.
All of the above having been said, not all workers, especially not all non-union workers, have access to a worker-friendly social networking site. Until they do we need to be out there with a presence on Facebook and the other sites. But the goal shouldn't be to use those sites to organize anything much more than a departure for safer quarters.
Unions are starting to look a bit like lemmings in the rush to establish themselves on Facebook, which might be fine if we were handing out parachutes before jumping. But we're not. One day Facebook is going to pull the plug on your union group and, unless some one has a Plan B ready to go, your campaign just might be toast. There has to be an easier way to learn not to contract-out our online organizing than losing a campaign.
Brighter folks than I have been giving this some thought. In Europe, where unions are generally a lot more comfortable using the Internet, the concern about basing our organizing efforts on platforms we don't control is becoming acute but only because there's a recognition that the peer-to-peer style of communication that sites like Facebook can facilitate has much to offer in comparison with top-down models like websites and e-mail lists. Unions are thinking about how not to throw the organizing baby out with the commercial website bathwater.
Oddly, the debate reminds me of the "should we own our own newspaper" debate here in Canada (guess that dates me). Should the movement have bought the Toronto Telegram when it folded? Should we own our own version of Facebook? Mmmm... It doesn't remind me of the debate, it is the debate.
Meanwhile, use social networking sites for sure, but think carefully about how. And about what your Plan B looks like.
SIDEBAR:PRIVACY ON FACEBOOK
Privacy on Facebook has always been an issue for workers. Most obviously there's the manager who looks in on the open groups people create around their workplace. Or the worker who, deliberately or not, copies or otherwise makes available comments posted to a group page.
A local I service used to use Facebook as a kind of online bulletin board for pretty innocuous stuff: meeting notices and such. It was a closed (private) group and members were vetted and confirmed before being allowed to join. Useful, but not crucial to the way the local did its work.
One manager somehow gained access to the information posted there and the reaction from members was so emphatically negative that the local closed the group. Finding out that "private" didn't mean private was enough to make any usefulness evaporate. Fast.
And this is not to mention what someone could do with the public information to be seen in most users' profiles: it's amazing what you can do with just a name and a date of birth.
Increasingly there's also a need to worry about what Facebook is doing with your personal information. In May 2008 a group of Ottawa law students filed a complaint with the federal Privacy Commissioner alleging that Facebook had failed to properly inform users about the extent to which our personal information is being transferred to third (paying) parties. Where our info is going we apparently don't know.
Why do I say "we" if I'm no longer on Facebook? Because whether you're booted off the way I was or you just decide to shut down your account, your profile information isn't automatically deleted. Getting it erased from Facebook's records and so no longer available to Facebook friends and clients can be a long and frustrating process. But if you feel the need, there are dozens of websites devoted to helping you give it a try. And, ironically, not a few groups on Facebook itself will help as well.
Why should this matter to unions looking to use Facebook in organizing? Because these problems are becoming better known and more and more a cause for concern for the people who are using Facebook. The time is coming when they will migrate elsewhere to do the same things, or stay on Facebook but be much more circumspect in what they disclose.
SIDEBAR: FACEBOOK IN EGYPT
In other circumstances the results have been more heartening. Egyptian workers have been using Facebook to organize flash strikes and demos on a huge scale. However, after a particularly big strike, rumours began circulating that the government was looking to close access to Facebook for Egyptian Internet service providers. And bloggers who had been working to support and help organize the strikes began reporting a pattern to the arrests of organizers: it was looking as though the organizers were being identified by their activity on Facebook. Eventually they were charged explicitly and specifically and solely for their Facebook activities. Events announced on Facebook were getting as much of a response from the police as from strikers.
Organizing now is more diversified. While Facebook isn't being replaced with less public tools like text messaging and e-mail lists, those older, more secure tools are playing more of a role. Still, as a noticeboard, Facebook is still working for the Egyptian activists. Proof? Look at the groups they have formed. One hundred thousand troublemakers can't be wrong.
SIDEBAR: STAY TUNED
Stay tuned for what John Wood is calling "Unionbook," a union-run, reliable social networking site. FNV (the largest trade union confederation in the Netherlands) is already moving in that direction with "JobCircle," aimed at young workers. LabourStart and the global union for hospitality workers, the International Union of Foodworkers, are soon launching www.McJobs.org, a social networking site for McDonald's workers worldwide.