Vol 1, No. 3
August 20, 1996

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-- by Nathan Newman, newman@garnet.berkeley.edu

From Alvin Toffler to Newt Gingrich, futurists and many political
leaders assume that labor unions are dinosaurs in the new "third wave"
economy that is emerging. There is little question that corporations have
used new information technologies to organize their factories in a more
global and decentralized way that has weakened traditional labor strength
in local labor markets. As the threat of plant shutdowns and downsizing
has increased in the United States, labor has seen its bargaining power
eroded and union members have dropped from a third of the workforce in the
1950s down to just over 11 percent of the private workforce today.
However, in the midst of this situation, there are unions
beginning to use the new technology to strengthen their power vis a vis
corporations in their regions. This use is in its infancy, but it shows
that just as corporations used the information technology to strengthen
their global reach, so too can unions reach beyond their local or even
national spaces to marshall allies in local labor struggles. Not
surprisingly, many of the initial labor innovations in use of the
technology are coming from unions who are embedded in regions like Silicon
A key feature of the new economy has been the "outsourcing" and
subcontracting of many jobs, especially those held by less skilled and
often non-white employees. This has allowed many high-tech firms to
create the illusion of being "good employers" even as large chunks of
their effective worforce, whether in subcontracted assembly plants or in
support services, work for substandard wages in awful conditions. One use
of the Internet has been to cross the social distance between the
segmented workplaces of elite core workers in Silicon Valley and
peripheral workers being organized.
Justice for Janitors, one of the most militant union campaigns
across the country by the Service Employees International Union, took on
and won a broad campaign to organize the janitorial workforce of Silicon
Valley. Using the Internet to publicize its campaigns against Apple
Computer, Oracle and Hewlett Packard, Justice for Janitors was able to
both publicize its fight globally to tarnish their images as "model"
employers but also to use electronic bulletin boards to directly inform
engineers and other staff at those companies of the work conditions of
those who cleaned their offices every night in order to put internal
pressure on those companies to recognize the union.
Oakland-based Local 2850 of the Hotel & Restaurant Employees
(HERE) International union has used the Internet even more directly in
campaigns launched to organize a chain of luxury hotels known as the
Western Lodging Group. Its initial foray onto the Internet publicized
worker firings at the Lafayette Park Hotel and generated hundreds of
letters, calls and e-mailed support letters from activists and
organizations around the country. As the campaign evolved, a key tactic
for the union became targeting corporate customers of the hotel who
regularly use it to house visiting clients.
One of the hotel's largest corporate customers had been
PeopleSoft, a computer software company, that used the hotel for employees
and corporate partners coming into town. Local 2850 took the simple step
of highlighting negative facts from the companies own legal filings and
posted this fact sheet to computer-oriented newsgroups. Within a week,
the company received a barrage of letters from worried customers and
investors--PeopleSoft claimed that their stock declined by over $63
million in value because of reactions by investors to 2850's postings.
Soon after, PeopleSoft announced it was moving its customers and other
visitors to another hotel.
Other companies have been similarly targeted. In this way, Local
2850 has managed to use the Internet to link the struggle of some of the
most peripheral workers in the Silicon Valley production system--those who
clean the rooms of clients--to the global capital investors in Bay Area
firms. Local 2850 along with a broader California network of hotel union
locals is building an on-line presence in order to target the global hotel
reservation system of travel agents and events planners to discourage them
from booking customers in local non-union hotels.
One effect of the Internet that is strengthening unions but is
less welcomed by many top union leaders is its use in increasing democracy
within the union movement. The Internet promises a large upheaval in
democratic debate as local areas gain greater voice and connection
laterally outside hierarchical structures of the organization. One case
in point is the Associated Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees
(AFSCME) where an electronic mail list called PUBLABOR has been heating up
the Internet with debates about democracy in the organization. Local
union leaders and activists who had never had a chance to talk
face-to-face have shared sharp criticisms of the national union leadership
for its failure to support their locals or for undemocratic leadership.
Others in AFSCME have staunchly defended the national leadership amidst
the raucous debate and in-depth analysis of the organization's successes
and failures.
Katie Buller, a library support staff person at the University of
Madison-Wisconsin and AFSCME member, created the list and views the
debates over democracy in the union as a reflection of members'
frustrations in a large organization. "PUBLABOR has provided an
opportunity for activists to talk to each other; before we didn't even
KNOW each other, nor did we know that we could share common problems and
success stories, learning from each other in the process."
What AFSCME is facing will no doubt become chronic across larger
organizations, ranging from unions, to the NAACP, to environmental
organizations; chunks of the "mass" membership and local leaders will get
on-line and gain the ability to initiate dialogue on the direction of
their organizations outside the often tightly controlled annual or
biannual conventions. With both greater information exchange and greater
democratic debate, the hope for many is a revitalization of both democracy
and power for regional organizations needing to call on the support of
global allies for local fights.
One of the most ambitious uses of the Internet has been by the
Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (IATP), a
co-founder of the Fair Trade Campaign against NAFTA and GATT. IATP had
historically collected information about trade issues to distribute by fax
and phone to unions and other organizational allies. "In 1988 and 1989,"
explains Executive Director Mark Ritchie, "we saw how to use the computer
information technology to summarize the information we were collecting and
distribute it cheaply to establish a common information base in a wide
area of organizations. We spawned a whole new genre of publications and
information sharing." Weekly bulletins--following trade talks and then
daily action bulletins following Congressional debates-- were sent over
the Internet to cities and countries across the world. These updates were
then refaxed locally by allies to those without Internet connections in
those areas--cutting the communication cost drastically and expanding the
reach to people who would not have otherwise heard of IATP. In addition
to the weekly bulletins, an on-line archive/electronic library was
established on PeaceNet to give organizations access to key documents at
any time. IATP also created an electronic conference on PeaceNet to
debate issues on trade policy organizing, thereby adding an interactive
element to their information strategy as well.
The most ambitious attempt to use the new information technology
to take on the global firms of the Bay Area is based in the South Bay
Central Labor Council, encompassing 110 affiliated unions representing a
membership of more than 100,000 workers covering much of Silicon Valley
and centered in the city of San Jose. Amy Dean, the head of the Labor
Council, sees the future of the labor movement in organizing the vast
array of contingent workers created in the region. The Labor Council
strongly backed the Justice for Janitors campaign in Silicon Valley but
sees that as just a beginning. ``The janitors were just the first among
the contingent workforce,'' says Dean. ``This is going to involve
everybody from janitors to technical writers to software gypsies and
testers to quality assurance engineers. When we talk about doing windows
in this valley, we're not just talking about the janitors who clean them,
but the software engineers who write them."
What this all promises is a growing struggle in the workplace as
the positive and negative trends of the information age clash. As global
companies create strategic alliances using the human resources of a
region, labor and environmental organizations are marshaling the tools of
the information age to organize the contingent workers pushed to the
fringes of economic and political power. The growth of the Information
Superhighway embodies a much broader change in the urban space where
control of time & communication will be crucial for local power. Internal
alliances within the region will matter crucially but local power is
inevitably flowing to those who can use new information technology to
deploy global power for local control of resources. That is the challenge
of unions in the new information age.

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