How the Internet makes union organizing harder
Back in 1974, I was a student in Cornell University's labor relations program working during the summer for a union in New York City. The union's education director (today its president) suggested to me that I quit university and go to work in a factory where I could organize workers. That was the way to get involved in the trade union movement, he told me. I pondered the offer -- it would have involved moving to Indiana -- and eventually decided not to do it.
Thanks to the Internet, that scenario is no longer possible.
I had been a political activist for a few years by then (I started quite young) but there was really no way for a factory owner in Indiana to know who I was. I probably could have covertly entered the factory and helped unionize it.
Today, factory owners are a mouse-click from knowing everything about each of us. The old strategy of blacklisting -- employed so successfully against unions like the IWW for so many years -- has now become infinitely more effective thanks to the net.
According to a recent report, "Starbucks managers discovered that two pro-union employees in New York were graduates of a Cornell University labor program ... Managers took the names of graduates from an online Cornell discussion group and the school's Web site and cross-checked them with employee lists nationwide. They found that three employees in California, Michigan and Illinois were graduates of the program and recommended that local managers be informed."
That's pretty clever -- Starbucks was not only looking for troublemakers, but for potential troublemakers, or people who might have sat in class next to troublemakers. It was chilling to me to read that they were specifically targetting Cornell labor program graduates. That brought home to me the point that if this technology had existed in 1974, it would not have been possible to covertly insert someone like myself into a non-union factory.
Using the techniques of data-mining, human resources staff are going to be able to block the employment not only of trade union organizers, but of people who might be friends with union organizers. If I were a union-buster, the first thing I'd do is signup to Facebook (where one is actually face-less and anonymous) and "befriend" all the union activists I could. In the real world, this would be tricky, expensive and time-consuming. But not online.
Many of us, myself included, have long argued that unions should make the best use possible of the net, and that the net offers us new possibilities to organize, to campaign, to strengthen our unions. The low cost and global reach of the net, we believed, we empower unions and level the playing field in the struggle with employers.
But the net also offers new possibilities for union-busters and there is some evidence that corporations are using the net more effectively than we do.
How do we cope with the dangers of data-mining and net-based blacklisting? We need our members and especially our organizers to learn some of the basic skills of protecting their privacy online. We're hearing all the time now about how teenagers are being warned that what they're writing today on MySpace and Facebook may come up to haunt them when they apply for their first jobs. But where are the unions warning members how to behave online, how to protect their identities, encrypt their correspondence, visit websites anonymously? Which unions are creating for themselves secure areas for online discussion that are not easily data-mined by the opposition?
As the Starbucks example shows, some employers have thought this through and are way ahead of us in the game. We in the trade union movement need to begin training our officers, staff, members and potential members in the art of survival in an age when privacy is increasingly becoming a thing of the past.