November 1996


Unions, the Rank and File, and the Internet


How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Invasion of Privacy and Love the Information Age

by Allen Schaaf

First things first: I have a distrust of things or processes that get in the way of people communicating. Every layer in the process is one more opportunity for misinformation, misunderstanding, prejudice, or barriers to be erected to prevent the uncomfortable or unpleasant truths of daily life from intruding where they are not wanted.

So it was with great relief that I stopped my connection to Compuserve in 1979 (that's right, 1979) because of the limitations of 300 baud modems and the general thinness of the information stream available. No union that I was aware of was on Compuserve, there were no BBS's with a union focus and the whole process was painfully expensive.

Jump forward fifteen years. One union I was a member of had a dial up 800 number BBS for several years that was of some use, but it lacked something. Critical mass, personal communication, or... it wasn't clear to me what was missing. I just didn't jump on board very often. At the same time I was aware that "out there" there were BBS's that were doing good things for other unions, primarily on a local level and run by a dedicated rank and filer. On the whole, however, the computer revolution seemed to be passing unions by.

Then in 1994, IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) decided to try a great experiment. The background and membership of this union is primarily stage, motion picture, and television production--the communicating arts. So it seemed obvious that IA could be a source of innovation and drive to use the new awareness of the net and computers in the ordinary American workers's life.

But the story of that experiment has more gray clouds than silver linings for the average union member.

IA Online (IAOL) was a BBS set up on an ISP's site in Los Angeles. Los Angeles seemed a good choice because almost 30,000 of the union's 80,000 membership live and work in the greater LA Basin. Since most of the membership was not connected to the net in any way, an 800 number, client software and a password for the client/server BBS (First Class) was provided to everyone who showed proof of membership in IA. Those on the net could telnet into the site and use the client to access the graphical interface and the various resources, the rest of us could use a dial up line to connect to the same resources. All one needed was a computer and a 9600 baud modem.

Lots of things were available, email, some Usenet groups, discussion forums, chat rooms, software library, reference library, union news, industry news as well as connections to other people around the country who did what you did. For the first time the rewards of being connected online seemed fun and worth the effort involved. It appeared limited only by the limited number of members connected and that would be overcome. It was just a matter of time while the International got the word out to the membership and distributed the software.

For the first several months things seemed to be growing, there were a growing body of posts and the discussion was becoming lively. Over 750 people were signed up for the service. Then the International pulled the plug on the 800 number with only a month or so warning. In fact, the "Official Bulletin" had the number in it even after it had been pulled. There were howls of rage from the membership that it had become just a Los Angeles BBS because of the cost of long distance.

Some of the members got AOL, Compuserve or direct ISP accounts in order to maintain a connection to IAOL.

A vast chasm was suddenly visible for all on the BBS to see between the rank and file and the leadership as questions went unanswered.

After several months, the volume of posts was back up to the level it had been in the 800 number days and officially there were over 1000 registered on the BBS. But well over half of the approximately 350 posts a month were from a dozen or so union activists.

People on the BBS began to notice that things were announced and never delivered. The number of new registrations slowed to a trickle and the master list was not updated by the union sysop while rumors abounded.

Some of the rumors included the "fact" that only one person's computer in the International office was capable of connecting to the BBS, the International had stopped sending out the necessary client software and passwords, and that the International had all the posts printed out, put in a three ring binder and circulated in the office.

Then the International Convention in 1995 occurred and several delegates uploaded daily reports from the convention floor. The power of almost instant communication and feedback among the membership became very clear to all. But there were things going on in the background that we, as users of the BBS and members of the union, never became privy to. The union sysop was replaced by someone else in the International office and the reason never explained publicly. More rumors about this, the potential demise of the BBS, and what the new sysop would do, circulated. However, a few thing improved, some lists were updated, and a few minor changes were made to usenet group access. It seemed painfully slow for a union that makes communications its business, especially given the wealth of available talent among the membership that was volunteering to help.

The watershed was the negotiations for the industry wide contract in motion picture production in early 1996. For the first time people had easy access to each other's thinking on the meaning of several new clauses, the implications on wages for the membership, and this channel was not controlled within the established lines of communication from the top down. The rough and tumble fight over whether the contract would be ratified even spilled over to AOL where a lot of members of IA had accounts. The outcome, for the first time in many years, was up in the air. Even with block voting, the vote was 40% against ratification.

The plug was pulled on IAOL on April 15th, 1996, the day after the vote was final on the contract ratification, ostensibly because of the high cost of operation. It was to be replaced with a Web page in June which finally came online in August at . Prominently displayed as part of a broader disclaimer is the following:


The retreat was complete.

What next? For the rank and file, the International's involvement, then retreat, had opened the door. They helped the rank and file get their feet wet and left them with a taste for more. A few examples of what is being done includes a non-official site being developed by volunteers at IA Connect , a private listserve mailing list, a newsgroup on usenet , and Web pages various activists have put up for their friends or their locals .

Is this short history typical of all unions? Not particularly, but in general it represents the two poles that unions and their members operate at today; passive communication coming down from official sources such as a Web page, or the more scattered but two way efforts of the rank and file. But remember that this is the opinion and view of only one person, myself. Your mileage may vary depending on who you talk to.

One tidbit in closing: contrary to what one might think, it is not the unions whose members work with computers on a daily basis like AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), SEIU (Service Employees International Union), OPEIU (Office & Professional Employees International Union), or CWA (Communications Workers of America) that display the strongest connection to the internet on a local level; it is the unions and associations involved with all levels of teaching that have the most net presence. Like much of the net, this is counter-intuitive, so there is hope for increasing union involvement in the future of the internet.

To investigate for yourself the union world on the net, here are a few additional links to other resources:

Allen Schaaf ( is a production and post-production sound mixer for motion pictures and television. He is a member of IATSE Locals 16 and 695, National Association of Broadcast Engineers & Technicians - CWA Local 51, National Writers Union Local 3 as well as being a union activist who maintains a listserve mailing list for fellow union activists. He is also a member of Cinema Audio Society, a professional association of those who make talkies talk.

Copyright © 1996 by Allen Schaaf. All Rights Reserved.

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