Wave CyberUnions - or No Unions.
By Arthur B. Shostak, Ph.D.
of Sociology, Department of Psychology/Sociology/Anthropology
Drexel University, Philadelphia., PA, 19104
In his 1995
book, Navigating in Cyberspace, Frank Ogden, a leading Canadian
futurist, warns, "the next decade will make the past look
10 years, the technology that is hardly out of the starting
gate will change 90 percent of our culture and society ."
(Ogburn; 12, 3,6) We live in a New Economy - one "all about
... the ability to transform [organizations] into new entities
that yesterday couldn't be imagined and that the day after tomorrow
may be obsolete." (Tapscott; 43)
What a remarkable
New World in which Organized Labor must find its way! Imagine
how farther along all this may be just a few years from now.
By 2005 or so our insatiable appetite for information may have
a compact picture-phone and computer on our wrist and dictate
to it by voice, even as we enjoy listening to its "voice"
it to access any type of information, anywhere, at anytime;
it to stay "in the loop" and stay in touch with
significant others all the time;
it to send and receive messages in all languages, as if
it to surf the Internet and Web with the stressless help
of"smart" software that provides useful information
even before we ask for it;
feel empowered by these information aids as never before!
only half of this is realized in the next few years, the rest
is likely to be close behind, and the impact is likely to prove
information future beckons ... though some will make far more
of it than others. Labor can turn it to advantage, both for
itself as a social movement and for its individual members,
but the doing will not come easy, and the hour grows late.
challenged to renew itself once again, as not since the1930s,
when it had to "invent" large-scale industrial unionism,
and the mid-1990s, when it opted for the invigorating "New
Voice" vision of the Sweeney team. The head of that team,
after taking "the hitherto taboo step of saying that labor
is in danger of becoming 'irrelevant,'" authorized an immediate
step-up in the use of informatics. (Heckscher; xv) Accordingly,
in 1996, the AFL-CIO held its first major meeting to discuss
Labor and the Internet. In 1998, an ad hoc committee of 12 Information
Technology officers of the most progressive unions published
a White Paper on making the most of computer uses. Similarly,
a group of specialists inside the AFL-CIO were busy that year
studying how to offer an "Intelligent Agent" to unionists.
unionists, perhaps as many as 4-million, are on-line. At the
same time, however, of the 74 international unions affiliated
with the AFL-CIO, as late as the Fall of 1998 only 44 of the
largest and most progressive variety had Web sites. Nearly half
(30) were not yet participating in the biggest change in communications
in modern times.
by about 2003 or earlier the matter should be clear: The American
labor movement will either be employing computers with enviable
finesse, or it will have become an inconsequential has-been,
the organizational equivalent of "road kill on the Information
have already been won, gains of which Organized labor has much
reason to be proud: Consider this account from a very computer-savvy
Research Director of a major international union:
saved thousands of jobs, thousands! We come into bargaining
knowing more about the company than they do, by far. We've
researched everything, I mean everything - their return on
investment, their philanthropy profile, their executive profit-sharing
payout ... like, I mean, everything!"
they say they can't afford this or that, we come right back
and show them how they can - and we show them what they will
gain if they do. We give them a better analysis of their ability
to pay than they ever thought possible. And when we've got
the contract we were after, we sell it to our members, and
begin to prove to the company they were right all along to
an activist with whom I talked after I gave a workshop on union
and computer possibilities proudly explained his own situation:
it help? You bet it does! I've got my entire office in this
little machine, all of my data decks. I can help a member right
on the spot, no waiting, no fuss. They really are impressed,
and I feel good about it. Heck, I've been a computer nerd since
the 1970s, and I keep upgrading my stuff, so it's easy for me
now. I can't remember how it was before I took this way, but
it couldn't have been good enough."
Labor's record to date, put as a bumper sticker, might read
-"Extraordinary possibilities under development."
Problems persist, of course, what with only 25% of unionists
on-line, and even fewer clicking on Web sites other than that
of their local or union. As well, all too many such Web sites
are dull, static, top-down billboards, and far too many leaders
(and large numbers of members) are comfortable with that. Deep-reaching
questions abound, as in this thought from the sage head of a
very impressive computer-using local:
of what's happened is that the Labor Movement hasn't really
decided how it wants to be, or what it want to look like. And
so, it has a hard time setting up computer support systems.
Because it is not sure what it wants to be."
in short, is required if Organized Labor is to soon maximize
the potential of computer use, an adoption on which its survival
may largely hinge.
Division of the House
of unions are evident today vis-a-vis uses made of computers.
The first, which I call
CyberNaught unionism, involves a bare minimum employ of computer
potentialities. It is generally restricted to staid reliance
on a mainframe for bookkeeping of dues and benefits data. The
second, CyberDrift unionism, moves spastically first in this
direction, and then that one, lacking any rhyme or reason in
its rudderless efforts. It stands out in its combination of
aimlessness with thoughtlessness. The third, CyberGain unionism,
is a proud model to aspire to, and one which sets the stage
for the emergence soon of its 21st century successor, CyberUnionism.
unions and locals seek to preserve and persist, rather than
update or innovate. Where computers are concerned, they employ
them only or primarily to satisfy traditional business needs,
as in accounting and bookkeeping (dues and benefit records;
payroll data; etc.). They are content to use data processing
systems to keep track of things and to codify standard business
practices. Most are indifferent (the others, hostile) to what
upgrades here might otherwise do to support people, plans, and
then, is not as simple as whether or not a union or local uses
computers: Rather, the issue is why and how. Put starkly, CyberNaught
unions and locals use computers to get through the day, and
do so in as flat and uninspired a way as is possible. Officials
settle for inertia and quietism Much of the problem is rooted
in conceptual inertia: Out-dated habits of mind have far too
many of these labor leaders preferring form to function, protocol
to results, and rhetoric to risk-taking. This is not only about
failings of intellect; it is also about failings of the spirit.
For if, as Orwell warned, poverty annihilates the future, so
also in its own way does poverty of vision. CyberNaught power-holders
want the future to be like the past, only more so. They treat
unionism as if it can only be a passive institution, and they
act as a deadening hand on change. In consequence, their unions
and locals sleep-walk when they might stride, and they remain
vulnerable in ways they hardly realize.
off in All Directions.
unions or locals move aimlessly, like a cork bobbing on a turbulent
sea, though with far less likelihood than a cork of staying
afloat. Bewildered leaders look on as if in a daze, union officers
to whom things happen rather than people who make new beginnings.
Caught in this hapless course, Labor's effort to use computers
falls far short of its potential.
is persistently prolific, as it moves from stand-alone PCs to
networks, and from computer-oriented humans to human-oriented
computing. Its record affirms we are in the midst of a revolution,
not an evolution. But you would never know this from the inchoate
and directionless plight of a CyberDrift union. These unions
and their locals are seldom the adequate and inspiring organizations
they want to be thought of, much to the rue of all who really
know them and understand how much more is possible.
Best Hope - for the Moment.
with CyberNaught types, CyberGain unions and locals make much
of computer possibilities. The good news is their number appears
larger with every passing year; the bad news is their ranks
remain far too small for Labor's good. Worse yet, they are often
thought the end-all, when in fact - for labor's sake - they
must prove way stations on the way to becoming CyberUnions.
CyberGain unions and locals employ computers to support people,
plans, and progress, as well as to keep track of things (traditional
business operations). They pour new wine into new bottles. Their
use of computers can be creative (though as I shall argue later,
it still does not go far enough). Officers, staffers, and activists
alike appreciate how much can be done, and they enjoy adapting
gains made elsewhere in and outside of Labor. Much success here
can be traced to conceptual advances. Progressive habits of
mind have CyberGain labor leaders, staffers, and rank-and-file
activists preferring function to form, results to protocol,
and risk-taking to rhetoric. In consequence, their unions and
locals are dynamic operations, supple and original in ways in
which they take justifiable pride.
glowing an impression is given, it should be noted that CyberGain
unions and locals have many telling weaknesses. To begin with,
most have little or no knowledge of the existence of one another.
In keeping with the costly isolation of unions from other unions,
they are busy re-inventing the wheel instead of trading good
ideas back and forth. Despite conferences the AFL-CIO has run
to encourage cross-fertilization, workshops held regularly at
the George Meany Center, and the efforts computers specialists
of 12 or so major unions are making to stay in touch, it is
as if the organizations were ships passing at night. Second,
CyberGain unions and locals often try to do it on the cheap.
Many are reluctant to pay the annual maintenance costs required
to keep a complex, multi-machine system up and going, better
yet constantly upgrade it. In consequence, they often flounder
trying to best computer problems they should not have had in
the first place.
and most telling of all, the CyberGain unions I studied had
too little in the way of an overarching vision. Many seemed
to have lost sight of why they had started using computers to
begin with. That is, they were not asking good questions about
the desirability of this or that use with reference to the organization's
well-being, with reference to what the rank--and--file might
get from it (or lose to it). Instead, they were weighing computer
uses in small--minded, rather than in grand ways, and they were
missing transformational opportunities. More specifically, where
computer applications are concerned, CyberGain unions and locals
often remain frozen in the first generation of Internet use.
They are preoccupied with meeting straight-forward informational
needs. Their Web site typically offers their logo and basic
facts, a static display critics dismiss as "brochure ware"
or "billboards."They fail to understand, or decline
to value the fact that second generation applications are quite
different: Known as transactional, they emphasize the dynamic
participation of the parties, rather than accept passivity,
as at present in far too many CyberGain organizations. While
the CyberGain model is clearly superior to the CyberNaught and
CyberDrift options, it will not suffice. It rebuilds, but it
does not adequately renew. By failing to take the full potential
of computerization boldly into account, CyberGain organizations
do not so much deal with the future as they streamline the past.
Only a far more ambitious use of informatics in general, and
computers in particular, will do the job. I think it will be
adequate for only a few more years. The early 21stcentury requires
to a Third Wave CyberUnion F-I-S-T Model
I am persuaded
Labor's overdue use of computers, while necessary, is insufficient.
If Labor is to reinvent itself as rapidly, as thoroughly, and
as meaningfully as appears necessary, far more than CyberGain
unionism seems required. Specifically, early 21st century unions
must experiment with an ambitious and creative alternative to
the Labor status quo, one that dares to incorporates futuristics,
innovations, services, and labor traditions(F-I-S-T) - all of
which go better when they build on creative computerization.
The first such aid, futuristics, empowers as only foreknowledge
can. The second, innovations, energizes as only creativity can.
The third, services, engages as only rewards can. And the fourth,
traditions, bonds as only emotional ties can.
needs the rewards possible from reliable forecasting. And the
rewards that innovations, such as computer data-mining, uniquely
offer. And the rewards that computer-based services, such as
volume discounts on PCs, can provide. And the rewards possible
from the computer-aided modernization of traditions (as in the
production of inter-active software rich with labor history
material). Why this unusual F-I-S-T set? Because as a futurist,
a professional forecaster, I think Labor must take advantage
of this ancient, and yet also avant garde art form. Similarly,
as a labor educator, I believe innovation a resource labor urgently
needs to make more of. And like most labor educators, I champion
both the extension of union-offered services and the celebration
of Labor traditions, for goods and lore can make a powerful
combination - especially if facilitated by new-finagled computerization
aids. Together, then, these four additional items (F-I-S-T)
should provide Organized Labor with the foresight, the dynamism,
the appeal, and the heart necessary to build on its CyberGain
strengths and reverse its long-term decline.
- Labor's Best (Only?) Third Wave Hope
or local that uses its CyberGain status to pursue much more
by technophile visionaries AND pragmatic power-holders (not
always the same people). Always searching for informatics,
innovations that might make a difference. No hesitation
to try experiments. Employs a "Learning Culture."
Has a participatory bias; pro-democratic ethos. Draws on
Futuristics, Innovations, Services, andTraditions (F-I-S-T)
- via informatics.
more efficient and effective. Inspires members and prospective
dedication of time and energy. Cannot expect to succeed
with every experiment; must have comeback capacity.
Labor Digerati to the Rescue!
a new generation of Web-faring union activists are eager to
get on with it. Labor's "digerati" types have lives
steeped in Information Age technologies, and are living ever
more effectively in a networked world of union boosters. Forward-thinking
and visionary, these techno-savvy men and women have a hefty
dose of indefatigable optimism. Unlike many of their peers,
their expectations concerning the renewing of Organized Labor
are almost without limits. When such activists envision the
years ahead, they expect computers to soon secure unprecedented
access of everyone in Labor to everyone else... officers to
members, members to officers. unionists to non-unionists, and
vice versa. Rapid polling of the membership. Galvanizing of
rallies ore-mail protests.
of models worth emulating, and wrongs for the righting. Libraries
put at a unionist's beck and call, along with valuable arbitration,
grievance, and mediation material. Open chatrooms and bulletin
boards for unfettered telling and listening, for the creation
of a High Tech electronic (virtual) "community" to
bolster High Touch solidarity among real folk. As if this was
not enough, the vision of Labor's digerati includes a quantum
increase soon in the collective intelligence and consciousness
of"global village" unionists in a global International.
cooperation across national borders. The first effective counter
to transnational corporate behemoths. And, going out a year
or two further, possibly even Intelligent Agent software housed
in computer "wearables,"empowering unionists as never
before. Guided by this growing cadre, Labor can soon move more
unions and locals into computer use status. And thereby invigorate
the membership. Draw in new members. Intimidate opponents. Intrigue
vote-seekers. Meet the aspirations that union "netizens"
have for the Labor Movement. And in other valuable ways, significantly
bolster Labor's chances of moving especially advanced unions
and locals up to CyberUnion status early in the 21st Century.
of Types of Modern Unions and Locals
you don't get with it, you won't matter ("If you're
out for lunch, you are lunch!"). Ignorance here is
not bliss; it is fatal.
you don't have a clear sense of where you want your union/local
to go, you won't get there ...or any other place really
you believe your union/local has it made, and need not go
very far from the present, you are sealing a disappointing
fate. Your reach must always exceed your grasp. Informatics
means there is no status quo anymore - only ceaseless innovation
you dream a bolder dream, dare brighter moves, and take
to heart the finest values of the global labor movement,
you just might do us all honor.
sharp-edged possibility - either informatics mastery or fadeout
- is not the same thing as saying computerization can or will
save Labor. As one of the most extensive pioneering users of
computers, a federation of 403 unions in 113 countries, maintains
- "The computers are one possible medium, not the message."
(ICEM; 56) Computerization is no "silver bullet."
It is a complex, demanding, and often exasperating tool, only
as reliable and effective as the humans in charge. As well,
it is no solo star. It works best when part of a mix that includes
militancy, labor law reform, political action, and so on. It
works best when aiding such "high touch" efforts as
"one-on-one" organizing,"shoe leather" vote-getting,
"button hole" lobbying for labor law reform, and so
on. It works best when kept as an accessory and an aid, rather
than allowed to become a confining and superordinating system.
be a costly mistake of unionists to confuse computerization
with a magic remedy, almost as costly as present-day under-utilization
by Labor of its remarkable potential. Which is to say, that
while it cannot"rescue" Labor, unless Organized labor
soon makes the most creative possible use of it, as with the
F-I-S-T model, Labor probably cannot be rescued.
Labor Union Prospects?
five years from now are likely to be very different from
the present: Either their hallmark will be their irrelevance,
or they will draw handsomely on what I call CyberUnion attributes
(F-I-S-T). Either they maybe ossified relics, or they will
command respect as mature information-intensive power houses,
fully the equal (and possibly the better!) of anything the
business world boasts. Unless and until Labor makes more
creative use of computer and cyberspace possibilities, it's
long slide into irrelevance may be slowed, but it will not
be reversed. Murray Kempton, one of the most insightful
of recent writers about unionism, wistfully notes of seemingly
appealing reforms -- "One sees at once that here is
the way to get at the thing, and wonders why, with the sign
painted this plain, the road has been so seldom followed."
(Kazin) It is time to heed signs pointing toward the CyberUnion,
and move to give this Information Age labor organization
a 21st century trial.
Joseph and Jimmie. The Guru Guide: The Best Ideas of
the Top Management Thinkers. New York: Wiley, 1998.
A far-ranging synthesis of current workplace changes,
as explored by 79 top-flight consultants. Especially
valuable are essays offering 33 reasons for resistance
to change, 33 reasons for creating a learning organization;
comparisons of traditional versus high-performance organizations,
and the attributes of laudable leadership (continual
learning, courage, curiosity, daring, discernment, farsightedness,
humor, integrity, synergizing, and thinking win-win).
Edward, ed. Unions, Management, and Quality: Opportunities
for Innovation and Excellence. Chicago, IL: Irwin, 1995.
Thirteen original essays, jointly authored by union
and management"partners" in achieving outstanding
workplace cooperation. Illustrates how a labor organization
can break from old ways and construct a new and better
Gregory J. E. Slaves of the Machine: The Quickening
of Computer Technology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,
Easily one of the most engaging, informative, and provocative
explorations available of computers, artificial life,
and CyberAge possibilities. Dares to explore the possibility
that the computer is not a "toaster," but
a"kitten" -- and all the awesome implications
Arthur B. Robust Unionism: Innovations in the Labor
Movement. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1991.
An exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of over
200 major ongoing reforms, paying special attention
to their transferability. Features close-ups of remarkable
change-agents and very varied projects. Many of the
unions and locals cited warrant the honorific label
- CyberGain operation.
Danah. Reviving the Corporate Brain. San Francisco,
CA.:Berrett-Koehler, 1997.Makes a good case for transforming
organizations to thrive on uncertainty, deal creatively
with rapid change, release the full potential of leaders
and members alike.
Communications Workers of America Web site is located
It contains a section on Union Labor and Information
with links to the following: CWA Locals & Affiliates;
Unions on the Web (North America);Unions on the Web
(International); Other Labor-Related Sites; Labor &Industrial
Relations E-mail Discussion Lists; and Related Areas
on CWA's Web Site.
addition, the CWA site has on-line publications from
the CWA Research department, sites to the CWA legislative
and political Web site, links for members and the general
public to participate in on-line activism, and a large
section on industry information which includes Communications
& Media Industry: Telephone, Cable TV, Broadcast
Media, Newspaper Printing and Publishing, Public &
Health Care Workers, Higher Education, Airline Passenger
Service, and Internet Job Banks.
a fine example of a site maintained by an enthusiast,
see IBEW member James Border's Web site in Nashville,
). James, a member of IBEW Local Union 429, has developed
his own unofficial IBEW Web site wherehe displays some
labor links and basic information about the IBEW.
attention should be paid the AFL-CIO Web site, available
atwww.aflcio.org, and called Today's Unions. It offers
an "Executive Pay Watch" service that keeps
tabs on exorbitant CEO salaries. It also has a"Congressional
Page" with e-mail addresses and voting records
of all the members of Congress.
Moore, filmmaker and author, offers no-holds-barred
commentaries on Labor and almost everything else. Accessible
Charles C. The New Unionism: Employee Involvement in theChanging
Corporation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.
(International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and
General Workers' Unions). Power and Counterpoint: The Union
Response to Globalcapital. Chicago, Ill.: Pluto Press, 1996
Alfred. ""Missing Murray Kempton." New York
Times Book Review, Nov.30, 1997. p.35.
Ogden, Frank. Navigating in Cyberspace: A Guide to the Next
Millennium. Toronto: Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1995.
Don. The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril in the Age of
Networked Intelligence. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.
time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know
what to do with it." Ralph Waldo Emerson