November 1996



Being Online

by Amelia DeLoach

In many ways, the Web sites of labor unions are shrouded with irony. On the one hand, they give the appearance of establishing Web sites to keep up with current technology. But, on the other hand, their audience is made up of workers whose budgets are so tight that they could hardly afford a computer and access to the Internet. This disparity raises three important questions: Why are unions on the Web in the first place? How are unions effectively using the Web? and How will unions benefit from having a Web site?

To answer to the first question, look at the educational and sometimes subversive content on labor sites. A close analysis reveals that union Webs are used as a means of disseminating information to a wide and sometimes unknown audience. The content of each site is dependent upon an organization's current concerns.

Is it possible for unions to effectively using the Web when a large percentage of their members don't even own computers? The answer to this second question is yes because Web-savvy unionists find the Web a good arena for fueling rhetorical battles. The ICEM-USWA developed a site that aids both union and non-union protesters by providing pages that list the phone and fax numbers for some of the Bridgestone management. This list was used in the "Days of Outrage" action in July of 1996. Unionists credit this action with the recall of a large number of union workers who were still without jobs. Clearly, this effort on the Internet had the desired effect of creating an undesirable ethos for Bridgestone management.

In addition, Web sites can also serve as libraries containing links to strike tactics and subversive actions as does the IWW site which provides its readers with information on such topics as Managing Social Dissent and How to Fire Your Boss. Less radical sites geared towards servicing members' information needs such as the UAW provide news-style articles and tips on handling finances in their News You Can Use section. I would also venture that the UAW site gets more repeat traffic because of it's diverse information offerings.

Because Web's users self-select what they view, wide-scale online protest efforts can product unintended results. The creators of the Mersey Docker's Lockout site initially set up a Web site to publicize their strike efforts and to establish an online location where larger trade unions could read about the strike. What they discovered was that even though only a handful of their Mersey's union members know about the Internet, stewards in other shops around the world were accessing the site. But this alone wasn't enough to solidify support. Instead, they communicate with one of their biggest supporters in Gothenburg, Sweden via Fax.

As the [] Mersey Docker's experience suggests, the Web can serve as a useful tool, but it cannot serve as the only communication tool. Most members of traditional unions don't have a computer or Internet access. This raises the question, How can an online medium effectively benefit groups whose members can't access information?

I believe that Web sites are effective tools for labor unions if they allow people with Internet access to share that information with those without access. Because much of the information contained in these Webs clearly comes from paper documents, the bulk of the online text won't loose its context if printed on a paper and handed out or posted in the locker room. For instance, imagine that you're a union member without Web access but you're handed a list of AFL-CIO sanctioned boycotts. The fact that another member pulled this off the Web from his home computer is incidental. What is of primary importance is whether or not you're less likely to buy Bridgestone, Firestone, or Michelin tires after reading the list.

Given the successes, failures and unknowns of the effectiveness of unions' use of the Web, what can we surmise about how unions will benefit from the Web in the future? The ICEM-USWA "Days of Rage" indicates that companies sensitive about their corporate image will closely watch what is being said about them on the Web and will often concede to union pressure. Labor unions will most likely adopt the Mersey Docker communication model. Hence, the Web won't be viewed as a panacea, but simply a means of reaching another audience. But given that most union members don't own a computer or have Internet access, the greatest gauge of the Web's success, ironically, will be how union members use it to disseminate information to those members who don't have Internet access.

Amelia DeLoach ( earns a living as a technical writer while serving as a Contributing Editor for CMC Magazine. Her grandfather was fired from the Southern Railroad during the Depression because he took it upon himself to help organize a local union. Her father taught her to never to cross a picket line. Because she works in the computer industry, she probably will never have the opportunity.

Copyright © 1996 by Amelia DeLoach. All Rights Reserved.

Contents Archive Sponsors Studies Contact