Last week I attended the Web 2.0 Organizing Conference in NYC. It was an incredible event packed with hundreds of online organizers from around the country.
While I think the conference was a tremendous success, I think we, in labor, have a long way to go. We have the daunting task of internal organizing so that we can actually do 1/2 of the great things we talk about with online organizing and mobilizing. We have to remember that some unions’ web sites still look they were built out by a third grader. There appears to be an underlying fear among old school unionists to do anything on the web — and most probably because they cannot control the interactivity — or they don’t think they can. This is where we become educators.
We have to educate our bosses on the technology in a way that they can understand, and this is not easy for a whole host of reasons. Some of us don’t know how to explain why some social media tools work and others don’t. We don’t know how to explain that Convio is capable of a lot more than sending a mass email, etc. We can talk about this stuff until we are blue in the face, but often times we just need a shot at doing something to prove that it works. Do it now and apologize later? Maybe.
There are two different things at play for a lot of unions. One is actual organizing and the other is outreach – they are two different things that are frequently carried out by the same individual. (I think one day this will change. I think eventually the unions will realize that they need a team of workers to carry out the online organizing, mobilizing and education and will not put the task to one or two people only. I also think we are not there yet). For now, the same person who is clicking away at Twitter a few times a day is also the person who is getting flyers on web sites and sending emails to workers to get the flyers to print and distribute. The same person should also be building out technology to mine workers’ names and information to turn over to the boots-on-ground organizers. And this is where it can get very tricky for traditional organizing models.
At the conference something was said in one of the workshops that really struck a chord with me. If a worker’s first contact with a union is through a web site form, so should the second — usually with an email. Too often unions will realize they can get a worker’s information mined by the sites but then they want someone to go house visit with the worker immediately after. It shouldn’t, in my opinion, work quite that way. (In other words, I agree with the person who said this at the conference). It should be: initial contact web site – second contact email. Sure, by the third or fourth correspondence with the worker, have them meet up with someone from the organizing committee, but they might not be ready sooner than that. This is why an online organizer needs to make assessments of the workers in the same way an organizer on ground has to.
The education and mobilization part is becoming easier and easier. We have tools like Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, YouTube. There are progressive blogs welcoming labor’s messaging, such as FireDogLake, Daily Kos and Huffington Post. Then there are labor specific blogs like UnionReview.com where we can get to the meat of things if we need to.
Of course it is important to comment on stories we see — and that is a brand of online activism the same organizer who is mining workers’ names from the sites must motivate people to do. If we see an article in the mainstream media news that is totally counter everything we believe in as working class union workers, then take ten minutes and leave a comment, sway the discussion and get yourselves heard.
If there is one thing that is clear to me after a few years of doing this stuff it is this — never before have we had the opportunity to actually be the media. I talk about this in workshops at the union I work for and wherever else I am asked to talk, it is pivotal. We have to take into consideration that once upon a time it was a talked-at media. We were talked at from places like the NY Times, CNN, etc. Now journalism is an interactive trade. We are still talked at, but now we can talk back, instantly. If we stay as apathetic online as many of us are in the shops we work at, nothing is going to change. And change is what everyone is crying for.
Finally, I think it is important to mention that some of us who are doing online mobilization and education fall into the rut of singing to the choir. I have been guilty of this also. When we have made some ground on blogs or web sites, got heard and — even better – understood, why not move on to the next site or blog? Don’t get caught up in saying the same thing over and over to the same people. It can be a challenge because sometimes we don’t know if our work is ever really done, but who doesn’t like a challenge?
Do you want to be part of the change or would you rather sit back and hope for the best?
This article originally appeared in UnionReview.com on December 12, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.
About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.