Face To Face Or Cyberspace

I'm a webhead. Ask my partner, my co-workers, friends, my family. Many of them wouldn't ever see or hear from me if they didn't have an e-mail address.

So it pains me to say this: the web ain't what we thought it would be when it comes to union recruiting in the 21st century. In the mid-'80s, I and a bunch of other tech-inclined types were (insufferably) convinced the Internet was going to change the labour movement in a profound way. Change the way people communicate within organizations, we thought, and you change the organizations.

Change the technology unions use to talk to non-members, we said, and you can change the nature of the real "labour market," the place where workers go when shopping for a union.

While waiting for the Internet to become more available, we set up dial-in "bulletin board" systems and handed out passwords to our co-workers (who wondered why they needed a password to check the bulletin board by the water cooler). We got resolutions passed at conventions and budget money out of national executive boards. We tinkered with unstable "mail gateways" to the text-only Internet, and waited while the serious geeks, locked in their parents' basement and eating nothing but Cheezies and Root Beer, made the revolution possible by working the bugs out of "Hypertext."

Nice idea. Still is. Just a tad over-ambitious, perhaps.

I like to think there were 1914 versions of webheads like us who believed that a direct telephone link from London to Berlin had the potential to stop the First World War. After all, if English workers could speak directly to German workers, they might realize how much they had in common . . . .

The fact is, though, that recruiting new union members today takes the same face-to-face legwork that made unions grow 200 years ago. This isn't to say the Internet hasn't turned out to be a useful tool for organizers. As a way of communicating, e-mail is right up there with the phone, and the web is this century's replacement for the poster. The Internet has as much potential to transform a union as it does to transform any other organization. It's just that, while there are practical realities that make the Internet faster and more convenient in recruiting new members, the Internet is no more effective as a political tool than the semaphore.

A few years ago I did an informal survey of co-workers in my union (and several others) who are comfortable with the web. Everyone agreed, however reluctantly, that there was no revolution in organizing taking place. And these were people who desperately wanted to be able to say differently.

More recently, at a December 2002 conference called Networked Labour - co-sponsored by Harvard's Labor and Worklife Program, the London School of Economics and LabourStart.org - the people I spoke with seemed to be, however reluctantly, reaching the same conclusion.

Here's the problem: for most non-union workers, joining a union is an act against the status quo. Change is a scary thing, even in the most relaxed of workplaces. Scarier still if you're one of the people initiating change by signing a union card. Throw into the mix an anti-union employer, or co-workers who are likely to react badly to the thought of a union, and change is beyond scary. It's downright threatening - to the worker, their dependents, their future.

Workers in that frame of mind listen to one person and one person only when making up their minds about forming a union. That person is a co-worker who's known and trusted and respected, and who has already made a commitment to the union.

As far as I know, no labour board in this country allows for electronic or online membership cards to replace the paper cards we currently use in organizing. I do know of a couple of provinces in which unions are lobbying for changes that would allow this. But even if it were possible to register online your support for a union in your workplace, I'm pretty sure that wouldn't make a huge difference to our ability to organize, or to the rate at which workers form unions.

In Britain, a different legal basis for trade union membership means that you can join online. Unions there can act on behalf of a minority of workers in a workplace, even a minority of one. British unions found that making online registration available did substantially increase their recruitment rate. But when they looked a little further, they discovered that these new members weren't responding to e-mail and other "virtual" appeals to join. They were mostly responding to face-to-face contact - stewards and activists talking to them in the workplace.

What the availability of online registration did do was allow organizers in the workplace to react more quickly to non-members' interest in joining. Before, they would have had to return to their work station, meet up with the potential member later, get a card signed, accept dues money, make change, keep track of receipts, and do all that other stuff involved in signing up a new member. With online registration, the activist simply called up a website, walked the new member through a process that took a very few minutes, asked for payment from a credit card, and immediately registered the new member.

Still, no one reported any real change in the effort needed to convince a worker that they should join a union. There was a slight reduction in time spent getting answers to questions (policies, reports and constitutions could be accessed on the website), but that was it. The issues and arguments that non-union employees reacted to didn't change. The union's website had provided existing activists with a tool that made it possible for them to react more quickly to workplace issues and interests. It had also made the work of the activists easier. But it hadn't, in and of itself, drawn people to the union.

And even these results were generated in workplaces where the workers were used to communicating with each other by e-mail, and to trusting the web's security features. Recent organizing efforts at IBM in the U.S. have had similar, positive results. But for every success like these there are, I suspect, dozens of next to useless attempts made to organize workers by sending e-mails out into the void.

Using the Internet to test the waters about organizing may seem convenient and efficient, but it can be a huge mistake, especially in workplaces where the workers aren't likely to be Internet-friendly, or (rightly, in many cases) prepared to trust the privacy of an employer-provided e-mail account.

An organizing committee's website is a wonderful tool for communicating with workers who are comfortable with the Internet and who have already signed a card, but it doesn't generate a lot of cards by itself. It's the equivalent of a great newsletter: not everyone reads it, but it informs those who do. And keeping track of your readership is one way of tracking your support. But the most you can expect from a website as far as non-supporters go is that it will make them aware that there's a campaign going on around them, and, by providing information, will very slightly reduce the time you have to spend talking to them.

Very, very slightly. It may make it easier for people to jump on the union bandwagon, but there needs to be a bandwagon there waiting.

Similarly, e-mail has made organizing committee decision-making more flexible and inclusive. E-mail makes it easier to get decisions made quickly in response to employer actions, and makes it possible to involve workers from all shifts and widely spaced worksites in those decisions. It has also made potential members more demanding: if they can ask a question an hour of their long-distance phone company and online bookstore and get responses within eight hours, they expect to be able to do the same with the union that's trying to win their allegiance. Make an organizing committee available by e-mail (and you have to) and those are the expectations that have to be met.

The Internet still holds a great deal of promise as a means of improving union communications, of educating (it's a great tool for distance education) and organizing existing activists - who often wouldn't have "met" were it not for listserves, chatrooms and bounced e-mails - and as a potential means of improving and broadening union democracy. Today, a local union can make it possible for each and every member to be involved in its decisions.

Perhaps most spectacularly, the Internet has created a huge new potential for international solidarity actions by unions and individual members. Still, in recruiting new members, nothing beats the smiling face of a workplace-based activist, someone with as much to gain and as much to lose as you have. And as a space for organizing, the Internet has yet to get even close to the coffee shop down the street.

Derek Blackadder is the co-ordinator for LabourStart in Canada and an honourary member of the Toronto Workers' History Project’s Archive Committee. Feedback and ideas for future WebWork topics welcome. 


If you like what you're reading and want to subscribe to Our Times, please go here. Thank you!