Blog Post

Online, On Strike: Labor Organizing and the Limits of the Digital

As you may have heard, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign went on strike on November 16, just a couple weeks ago.  After seven months of stalled contract negotiations with the administration, the membership voted to authorize a strike, and then after more negotiations a strike was called over the issue of tuition waiver security.  As you might imagine, these moves caused quite the debate, with daily above-the-fold coverage on the front page of the campus newspaper, as well as thousands of words spent on its op-ed page.  (Even yours truly waded into the fray, with a letter to the editor.)  After two days in the freezing rain, our union secured tuition waivers in a sideletter to the contract, and the strike was suspended.  After a ratification vote, the strike ended.  As this link-heavy paragraph might suggest, digital communications and digital were absolutely vital to the organization and interpretation of the strike. 

Email was particularly powerful as an organizing tool.  I was (at least peripherally) involved in organizing a number of events over the course of the semester leading up to the strike (rallies, etc.), as well as the strike itself, and my email inbox has never seen the volume it saw in the past few months: official emails from the GEO, emails from others active in the union, emails with emerging information, emails asking for advice, emails to departments….  In many ways, the union runs on listservs, with separate lists for the general membership, the stewards council, and the coordinating committee.  As graduate employees in each department worked to organize their fellow workers, they developed lists of activists and used existing lists to contact all graduate students in their programs.  At times, this could all be overwhelming, of course, and the flood of information and conversation could actually work against collective understanding and organization.  (And there were interesting, but ultimately distracting rabbit holes down which it was easy to enter: should we use university email addresses, for example.)  But email was, I think, ultimately and fundamentally necessary to developing the organizational power necessary to demand fair negotiations and then to strike when those demands were not met. 

The union and its members were not the only ones to deploy email, however.  The university administration repeatedly used the mass email list that reaches every single person with an @illinois.edu email address to present their arguments and pit various populations against one another (graduate vs. undergraduate students, graduate employees vs. other employees, etc.--in one case, they sent such a message only to faculty and staff, leading the GEO to learn of its existence via allies and the local newspaper).  This MASSMAIL list is of course closed, requiring application and institutional approval for use, meaning the interim provost/chancellor was the only one with digital access to all of the campus community.  (Management use of closed email lists to try to bust unions has been challenged before the National Labor Relations Board, but for now remains legal.)  Kinda puts a bit of a damper on the utopian tendency to view email as the perfect organizing tool, doesn’t it?

Other digital tools were helpful, as well.  The GEO’s Facebook page was incredibly useful for centralizing information while allowing participation, discussion, and debate in a way the GEO’s massive general listserv does not.  And individuals used their own Facebook pages (by changing profile pictures and status updates) to reflect support for the union and help organize its membership.  Blogs played a role, as well, with fellow HASTAC scholar Michael Verderame’s wonderful address to the Board of Trustees not disappearing into the thin air of Springfield but rather earning a second life on the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory’s blog.  Huffingtonpost.com played host to analyses of the strike from within and outside the campus community.

Digital tools also helped process the strike once it was over.  After the strike, the Unit’s blog played host to a faculty-member’s reflections on the strike, and a Huffingtonpost.com blog post also helped shape response and recovery from the strike.   Various news reports, emails, posts, Facebook groups, and other tools linked our strike with the University of California student uprising, as well as other actions by the international student movement that occurred that same week

But none of that was enough. 

The swift results accomplished by the strike would not have been possible without hundreds of bodies on picket lines, marching in circles.  It would not have been possible without air in our lungs as we chanted—“Who are we? GEO” “Who’s university? Our university!” “Money for education, not administration!”—and sang.  It would not have been possible without so many arms banging drums, holding signs, shaking noisemakers, and pumping fists.  Blog posts and Facebook were great for getting messages out to larger audiences, for shaping the debate during and after the strike.  And email was absolutely fundamental in orchestrating the walking in circles, the chanting, the signs, the drums, the fists.  But that’s what it was: facilitation for and supplement to the person-to-person, in-the-flesh organizing and activism.  We could have sent email after email, but nothing even began to change in the bargaining room until people started to show up, en masse, to protest and loudly demand change. 

For now, at least, email is usually silent, and--embedded YouTube videos aside--blogs don’t often chant, yell, or sing.  It is necessary, then, to not put all our faith in digital communications and media, but I think it is also shortsighted to view them as merely preceding more fleshly demonstrations.  What is needed instead, it seems, is a theory and practice of a synergy between digital and in-person protest.

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3 comments

...that (if one is to believe the mythology now surrounding the bargaining sessions) that it was in fact the specific and careless wording from interim Chancelor/Presiden Easter's massmail to the campus communitry regarding our waivers (or lack thereof) that was ultimatlely used to secure said waivers in the contract.

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Ah, I'd intended to talk about that but forgot in the end.  So it was those dastardly MASSMAILs that actually helped force the administration to negotiate tuition waiver protection in the end.  I think that pretty effectively illustrates the instability and ambiguity of email in this sort of political organizing.  Ultimately, it was neither panacea nor useless nor actively harmful.  It's less the tool itself, perhaps, than the uses and the users.

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An excellent post and a good corrective for the digital utopianism that surrounds discussion of online activism.  I agree with your call for a "theory and practice of a synergy between digital and in-person protest," but I think that your examples suggest that such in-person protest will always be the more important of the two.  Email, twitter, and social networking are great tools, particularly when being used to facilitate more direct action, but they can also become an easy crutch for people who want to feel like they have made a difference but don't want to risk anything or do the work of real organizing and activism.  

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