Issue 2 - Spring 1995
Labor Goes Online to Organize, Communicate, and Strike. Workers On The Net, Unite! (page 1 of 2)

By Montieth M. Illingworth
Information Week

Organized 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.

SoliNet (Solidarity 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."

Belanger suddenly 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.

Labor's embrace 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 management.

Times have 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.

Belanger started 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 in Canada.

Belanger believed 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."

SoliNet took 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.

Sense Of Solidarity

SoliNet also 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 in Alberta.

Belanger hopes 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.

Budding Network

Online bulletin 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.

The number 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 the point."

There are 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 >>


WELCOME! You are visitor number

Designed by ByteSized Productions © 2003-2006