Blog Post

Is labor embracing digital media? Recent blog entries say yes

Hey Folks,

Tonight I came across a couple of blogs that discussed the labor movement's use of social media and digital technology.  Both blogs made some interesting (and very positive) points, and both encouraged labor to take further steps to embracing new media forms.  

Here's a quick run-down on the content of both blogs:

"1000 Digital Strategists for the labor movement" suggests bringing together all of the organizers and staff members in the labor movement who use social networking and other online tools in order for them to share skills, stories, and strategies with each other and with rank and file activists.  While the author doubts that a large, one-time conference or major event would be the most effective way to go about the spread of this digital knowledge, it is the author's opinion that labor organizations could realistically hold training events in different cities every two weeks with the goal of creating 1,000 labor movement digital strategists.  The author also suggests paying for these trainings instead of sinking money into high-prices website consultants or other specialized professionals.  Essentially, developing web-savvy strategists could become a grassroots movement that would both aid the labor movement and empower people at the same time.  And what's more, it would encourage participation in the union movement in new and diverse ways.  Those folks who can't make it to an action, meeting, or event can contribute to online campaigns, communication, and promotional work.  

"The Wisconsin Protests: A Lesson in Union Communications" is a blog entry from New Labor Media: The Labor Union Guide to Social Media that discusses the central role that social media played in the recent protests against Governor Scott Walker's promotion of anti-union legislation.  According to the author, "word spread virally in large part due to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like."  I can personally attest to this observation; many activists in Eugene, Oregon, where I live, followed the events on Facebook and other sites and shared news this way, far ahead of the mainstream media.   The author proceeds to make a powerful statement that I'm going to reprint in full here because I think that it's very astute:

"Labor leaders, please learn this lesson if you haven't already. Social media is creating a much greater level of solidarity and unity among those in the labor movement, which has been sorely lacking for decades. Union leaders and members are connecting with each other from one end of the country to the other, and coming together to support the cause. From Richard Trumka down to John Smith, a first year apprentice, and everyone in between - social media has created a new mechanism for connecting and communicating with labor folks from all walks of life, at all levels - and you and your labor organization needs to be an important part of it."

It would appear that more and more union members and activists are heeding these words.  And as recent events in Tunisia and other countries indicate, social media can serve the same purpose in movements for democracy, human rights, and political change.  The technology, of course, is no substitute for face-to-face grassroots organizing.  A movement is made up of people who come together to create change, and we mustn't forget that essential fact.  However, social media helps to keep a movement informed, organized, and in the public eye.  Hopefully, as the gap between the rich and poor in the U.S. continues to widen, labor activists will use these new tools to fight for economic and social justice.    



Nathan:  As you probably know, people like Eric Lee at LabourStart have been promoting this kind of approach for a number of years, and there have been efforts here and there to coalesce the key activists (e.g., the LaborTech group: who hold periodic conferences).  Back in 2003 (I think) Andy Stern had a semi-open blog about union issues, which became much less open, then disappeared as the split between AFL-CIO and CtW manifested.  I also recalla spectacular failure (from the union perspective) of an open-comment blog by the NYC transit workers union during their last big strike.  They had to close comments after hundreds and hundreds of angry NYC commuters vented their spleens on what was to be a prounion site!  I used to use that as a cautionary tale in workshops with union people.

Two things seem to have changed.  The first technological, the second conjunctural.  More immersive social media and especially mobile media have changed the landscape quite a bit.  No more need to compose a long treatise on a blog.  Just tweet or stream video.  Videos like the one posted in the linked blog are much more emotionally resonant than mere text and image.  Two early examples:  IndyMedia and the 2006 immigrant rights marches and the WGA strike. The Writers Guild strike of 2007-8 had some great online content that "went viral":  for example, "Not the Daily Show": ), which explained their cause and shored up internal solidarity.  I can't find my links for the 2006 marches, but here's an example from Mexico: and here:

The conjunctural event is Wisconsin.  And this is instructive, too, as to the relationship between organizing bodies and organizing the net.  Key to the success of the capiol occupation was the mobilization of the graduate employees union at UW Madison (TAA).  They were already primed to fight the state, and had a highly "wired" constituency.  So they were able to quickly occupy the capitol buidling and then used Twitter to push information about the occupation (i.e., where are info tables, which bathrooms can we use, what's happening now, when do we need to call in reinforcements, etc.) via that platform.  So that took place over a weekend and by Monday the K-12 teachers union was involved big time (WEAC, also a major Twitterer).  There were a couple of key moments, as I recall in which the call for reinforcements went out and people literally came running out of their houses to join the fight.  Also, there were a number of indymedia type operations streming live footage from inside and that, I suspect, made it more difficult for the the police to do anything too nasty.  I wasn't there, but I did follow this all very closely online.

So I take away the following lesson:  the innovations are coming from the margins of the Labor Movement proper and seeping into the mainstream slowly.  The technologies work best in a distributed manner and don't work well for organizations that demand total message control. 

A final thought:  if you don't know about Al Giordano's "School for Authentic Journalism" it's a very worthy example of social movement media, although not solely (or mainly) labor oriented:



It's interesting that many of the examples I gave above show how new media works on multiple geographic scales.  Tweeting and live video from the Wisconsin capital both mobilized local people to join the struggle physically, but also alerted distant supporters to the scale of the local mobilization.  Here in Los Angeles the local labor movement was so impressed that they've labeled many of their campaigns "Wisconsin in L.A."  And then there's the famous photo of a protester in Egypt with a sign supporting Wisconsin! ( )  For the long-haul both (or all) scales are necessary.



Great comments and examples!  Thank you.  I think you make a great point that the technologies " best in a distributed manner and don't work well for organizations that demand total message control."

I too am amazed at how quickly mobile media spreads information about movements across the world.  I will definitely check out "School for Authentic Journalism."  Looks very interesting.  I haven't done a lot of research about how other movements are using digital technology, so this might be a starting point.  I do remember that internet communication was part of the larger organizing strategy of the WTO protests.  

As I am going to be in a graduate workers' union next year, I'd like to find out more about the contributions of the UW-TAA members in the Wisconsin struggles.  Have you seen any literature on this yet?




Am currently documenting and researching the role of social media in political events in Wisconsin since February 2011. Have been working with CNN iReports, YouTube, and Twitter.  Labor for sure has been utilizing social media at a high rate. The country is closely watching the events in Wisconsin, and according to my YouTube Insight analytics, the interest is high around the world. 

To see more, go to the Learning Space.



This is great, Jim.  I checked out your site and your post: Social Media in Politically Charged Environments.  Looks like a cutting-edge project!  What are your plans for this project?  Are you going to do any writing on this subject?  Please keep me informed!



Nathan et al,

Next steps are public speaking engagements, book, video, and Twitter feeds. The response has been superb.  I just came across a group called Media Action Center who is doing a tour through WI, advocating truth in journalism.  Sue Wilson, a broadcaster from L.A. is one of the lead spokespersons.  You can learn more about her through her blog:

As for me, I will continue with my own research, relying on blogs and commentary on the subject.  There is lots to understand and uncover from both sides. Somehow I think this is going to segue into the Presidential election cycle. As they say in brodcasting, stay tuned