The blog of Eric Lee - web design and internet consulting for the trade union movement.

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.



I agree with Eric about the potential danger of union-busters' use of the net, and that worries all of us of course, but it should not frighten us. I believe that the advantages of the net for the labour movement are higher, and a pro-labour use can be incredibly much stronger than antiunion practices. Labourstart succesful campaigns show how easy it is becoming to turn a local fight into a global issue. And this frightens bad companies much, because they cannot hide anymore. A better circulation of information about labour laws and rights, international labour standards, does make the difference for labour activists (not just unionists) and labour writers, everywhere. But a bottom-up participation of activists - through the net - is essential to raise this awareness.

Very good point. I'd like to add that we've also had problems with the media, especially the Independent Media (ie. Indymedia) taking photographs or making video of people at demonstrations without really asking about such concerns; it's assumed that if you are in public, you consent to be photographed. One union organizer I know was caught on camera at May Day and was reported on to the bosses who went nuts that he was carrying a backpack with the corporate logo. Luckily nothing came of it, except the bosses were all alerted.

Kia ora

The Indymedia network has protecting the privacy of activists as one of the key points in its Principles of Unity. Indymedia activists will usually be displaying the distinctive 'i' logo and are very approachable. Photos on Indy websites can be removed or faces blurred, all you need to do is email their editorial collective using the address found on the site.

He mihi nui ki a koutou, nga kaimahi o te ao

I agree that the internet poses dangers for organising. However, I would argue that strategically it is of great benefit to the union movement. I have posted a response to this blog at

Employers can and likely will blacklist anyone for any reason that the law allows. Because of that, prohibitions against dicrimination on the grounds of membership or activity in a labour union should be added to all International, National and territorial human rights legislation.

When I work with unions on campaign sites I always set them up so that the workers can remain anonymous. I also remind workers that an individual is permitted to organize a union in the United States, and if they are sacked for their union activism, the company will likey be slapped with an unfair labor practice (ULP).

In the case that you mentioned with Starbucks, was a ULP filed? I ask because it appears to be a blatant breaking of the current labor laws -- and while the current laws are not fantastic, they often work if they are enforced. (This is just in my personal opinion).

Thanks for this article.
-Richard Negri / Union Review

A reminder not to use our real names online