Online to Organize, Communicate, and Strike. Workers On The Net,
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By Montieth M. Illingworth
labor is going online. Don't believe it? Just ask Marc Belanger,
who runs SoliNet, the only nationwide computer network owned and
operated by a labor union.
Computer Conferencing Network) is the computer conferencing network
of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Canada's largest
union. The network has 1,500 users drawn from the ranks of CUPE
and 20 other unions. But Belanger, CUPE's technology coordinator,
dreams of someday giving a password to every union member in the
country, or 14 million people. "To benefit from the information
highway, we have to build some of it," says Belanger from
his office in Ottawa. "Otherwise, we'll be left behind."
has lots of company. In both the U.S. and Canada, several unions
are reaching similar conclusions about the Networked Age. In the
past, many unions viewed information technology (IT) mainly as
a threat to their members' jobs. While that mind-set persists,
unions also see power in computer networks, and they're determined
to gain their share. Some labor leaders also believe technologies
could stop, or at least slow, the loss of union membership.
of IT is taking several forms. The AFL-CIO operates a private
online conference on the CompuServe network that lets its members
communicate electronically. The Communications Workers of America
(CWA) uses a computer network to plan a possible strike. And the
United Food and Commercial Workers Union is raising tough questions
about the rights of workers who use company computers at home.
Also, as labor
moves online, white-collar workers join it. Historically, unions
have represented electricians, factory hands, and other blue-collar
workers, while white-collar employees were typically considered
changed. Today, some white-collar employees at troubled computer
makers, IBM and Digital Equipment Corp., use labor-sponsored networks
to share information. "When hard times hit, it all comes
down to information--who has it, and when you get it," says
Rand Wilson, a labor organizer working with Digital employees.
building SoliNet in 1986, originally for the 450,000 teachers
and hospital, municipal, and university workers who make up CUPE's
membership. He is unique in that he, not a telephone or telecommunications
company, created the first national computer communications network
a lot was riding on who would be first. "If we didn't do
it," he says, "management would have, and that could
put labor at a disadvantage. It's important for labor to have
the power of technology."
time to build, mostly because Belanger had to raise enough money
to buy a central Digital VAX minicomputer, but also because networking
hundreds of union locals all over Canada is a complex job. SoliNet
has proved its value, Belanger says, many times over.
In 1989, for
instance, when a caretaker local at the Hope, British Columbia,
school system went on strike, SoliNet helped win the day. CUPE
officials, learning that the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang was
coming to Hope for a meeting, invited the notorious bikers to
picket with the caretakers. When the gang accepted the invitation,
the news went out over SoliNet. The word spread fast and soon
leaked to the other side in the strike talks. The result? "They
settled," says Belanger.
creates a sense of community among CUPE locals by providing them
with news, information, and support. The net--which now connects
with the Internet-- has more than 100 online conferences covering
topics of interest to its member unions. Special month-long conferences
deal with hot-button issues such as free trade and work-force
diversity. Local union officers also download stories from the
newsline and incorporate them into newsletters. SoliNet will even
be used as an online classroom, linking teachers and students
in a labor-degree program offered by the University of Athabaska
SoliNet will link unionized employees of Pizza Pizza Ltd., a Canadian
fast-food delivery company that last year was embroiled in a strike
after it wanted to replace union members with non-union workers.
The union members won the right to keep their jobs--except that
they had to work at home (see story, p. 34). "If you take
people out of a social work setting, then you should have a cyberspace
setting so they can interact," says Belanger. But more than
that, he adds, it's about empowerment, or what he calls "Learning."
That is, learning more enables workers to earn more.
boards, popularized by computer hobbyists in the '80s and now
the playthings of the Internet, are also proving to be useful
tools for organized labor. While a handful of U.S. union locals
have quietly operated bulletin board services for at least eight
years, now one of the most powerful union federations in the country--the
AFL- CIO, with 14 million members--has a budding national computer
conferencing network on CompuServe called LaborNet.
of LaborNet users is small--only 360 people-- and the AFL-CIO
has decided for now to limit use to union leaders. But that may
soon change. In late July, the CWA, a 700,000-member union that's
affiliated with the AFL-CIO, held a private conference for 60
locals in the South involved in a contract dispute with communications
and manufacturing giant GTE Corp. That's also a test-run for much
bigger plans. The CWA intends to link up 500 other locals next
year, either on LaborNet or on an independent network--when negotiations
begin with AT&T and the seven regional Bell companies. "We
want to share information with the rank and file," says Marcia
Devaney, a public relations coordinator with the CWA. "That's
other labor nets, too. The Institute for Global Communications
(IGC), a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, has since
May 1992 operated a network that's also called LaborNet (the name
isn't copyrighted). It has about 300 users representing 150 unions,
including the Service Employees Industrial Union and the United
Farm Workers, plus labor lawyers, educators, and labor activists.
This LaborNet comprises 32 online conferences, such as the one
conducted by the 2,000-member National Employment Lawyers' Association
to discuss labor law and litigation. More