Union contracts are voted on by the members who will work under them. Contracts, though, are complicated documents and what you know about them can greatly influence how they look. Additionally, most union members are not in the room where contracts are negotiated and can only go on the judgment of their representatives about whether the company might have been willing to bargain a better deal or was really immovable.
The New York Times‘ Nick Bunkley describes how the internet and social media are changing the information about new contracts to which union members have access, and are offering a place for them to talk, and talk back. Bunkley describes an array of new ways auto workers have had access to information as the UAW has bargained with GM and Ford: When tentative deals have been reached, workers have been able to download copies of the contract rather than relying on in-person briefings; workers have gotten email updates through the negotiation process and union staff have maintained Facebook and Twitter feeds with more limited public information.
Unions have been able to “rebut rumors […] rather than allowing them to spread unchallenged”:
Shortly after a Detroit television station reported that workers would get a signing bonus of $7,500, a message posted on Facebook from Jimmy Settles, the union’s vice president in charge of Ford negotiations, described the report as inaccurate and “designed to intentionally create false expectations.” The finished deal included a bonus of $6,000 for most workers, some of whom had begun posting on Facebook that they would vote against any contract with a bonus of less than $15,000.
“It allowed us to get to the membership quickly,” Mr. Settles said in an interview. “The one thing we always had to combat was the expectations of our members. Historically, we didn’t have the apparatus to get that information out.”
Workers and retirees have also used social media to talk to each other and to push back against what they see as problem areas in the contracts, albeit with limited success this time around. Transparency increased somewhat, but workers’ concerns seem to have been seen as something to be managed, not taken as an added voice in the negotiations. The long-term question is, will social media be another channel of top-down communication in which unions and employers are able to monitor and respond to rumors and set expectations, or will it be a way workers can actually push for more transparency and responsiveness and themselves alter the terms of negotiations?
This post originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on October 10, 2011. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.