Workers of the World Connect?

Interesting talk by Richard Freeman on how the Internet might influence what unions look like and what such e-unions might play or services that they could provide.  He notes the sharp declines of private sector unions in the United States and the difficulty of getting individuals in U.K. unions to pay dues (approximately free-ride since there are no requirements of being of a union member in companies represented by unions — so they get the benefit of higher wages or services without having to pay dues).

Freeman notes that a majority (53%) in recent Harris polls in the U.S. suggest that they would join a union if there was one in their workplace, but Freeman indicates that unions have in most cases not been able to win out against intransigent employers or it uses up so much in resources that doing this repeatedly with a wide number of firms is not feasible.  It is one reason that Andy Stern (of SEIU) has tried to win union battles at the wholesale level, converting multi-site employers at the corporate level through proxy battles and adverse press.  Nevertheless, Freeman thinks that even Stern’s strategy has not been all that effective.

Freeman is doubtful that the Stalinist work structure of unions can continue, but thinks that many (although probably not all) services that unions provide can be offered more cheaply through Internet-based versions, although he has yet to see any one example that does all things optimally.

He highlighted the Working Family Network) that has 2-3 million e-mails in their network and can often mobilize tens of thousands of members to sign petitions.  They were successful at getting Enron and Worldcom employees to get severance pay when those organizations were in bankruptcy.    A weakness of them is that there is no interaction/feedback with these individuals since the e-mail directories are controlled by individual unions who are not willing to share these with  They have 1.6 million members and signed up hundreds of thousands of members in summer 2004 in 5 political battleground states (OH, FL, MO, WA, and OR) through a large door-to-door canvassing effort.  They are likely to hit 2M members this year.  The members vote online to determine priorities, although at the moment, they only get to choose among 4 priority areas of John Sweeney’s.  They are expanding to new states and have signed up a lot of non-traditional members (Republicans, evangelicals, etc.).  Their weakness is that they are run from DC and they don’t ask who the member’s employer is (since they worry that these members might fear it would get back to their employer).    They asked for $5 in voluntary membership dues but don’t actually collect it since the transaction costs are greater than the benefit. 

The third example was which is something of a UK equivalent of WorkingAmerica.  They provide information on things like childcare provision, rights of privacy, etc.  They have 5000 visitors a month and this number is fairly stable.  Their weakness is that they only provide information.  This site gives associates of prestigious law firms a chance to publicly air if they feel they have been mistreated.  Given the furious competition among law firms for top legal talent coming out of law school, this outlet had the impact of raising associates’ salaries by 20% in the year after the site become well known.  Such publicity can work in an industry with a scarcity of specific kinds of workers.  This is a site that Richard Freeman is working on at Harvard.   It currently has 5000 users who, after filling out a social science survey, get access to a Harvard expert on a range of work topics.  They are in the process of building an artificial intelligence system to answer user questions as a partnership with may bring hundreds of thousands of users.

Finally, Freeman described is a site to connect union reps (who are the frontline providers, usually elected by workers, sometimes paid by firms, who deal with disputes, organizing, training, and are the public face of the union to workers).  Freeman has done repeated cross-sectional surveys with they, monitored e-mail threads, and conducted follow-up surveys.  Their work suggested that this site was effective at disseminating information and demonstrating the wisdom of crowds.  And the site actually helped to build a community of activists:  about 20% of workers suggested that e-mail discussions started online get continued offline to resolve differences or take action on something.  And union reps surveyed confirmed that they had met offline.

Freeman concluded that there is evidence that labor can be successful at doing things online if they can combine individual successes: e.g., like WorkingAmerica’s success at signing up large numbers of individuals, or WorkingFamilies success in getting individuals to act, or’s success in building a learning community that shares expertise.  But Freeman said it was unclear what the financial model will be since these organizations will be financially small since employees will not pay much for an organization that doesn’t do collective bargaining for them.  Moreover, he wondered if these e-unions actually supported minority activists, whether firms would retaliate, which in turn would force such entities to keep the names of their supporters secret.  (He said there is historical precedent for this, with the Knights of Columbus needing to maintain the secrecy of their members.)

And Freeman thinks that in order to gain clout, such e-unions may have to ally regionally.  So even if there were not enough members in one workplace in Boston, you might have all the Boston members in a group threatening to boycott a product unless the offending company changed their policies.  (To the extent that a company sold nationwide or over the Internet, one might be able to mobilize boycotters across the country.)

Some interesting questions:

1) Rosabeth Moss Kanter said that Internet is a disintermediating tool and the unions are prime examples of intermediators.  She thinks the focus should be on achieving change not on whether one can save these organizational by-products of an earlier industrial era.  One example of Internet pushing for such change is www.walmartsucks.comto focus on Walmart’s labor abuses.  She thinks that unions are too top-down, bureaucratic and slow to move and won’t be able to thrive in this new environment.  [Freeman acknowledged that for example, the large unions could never have orchestrated the May 2006 large immigrant rallies in the U.S.]

2) another question pointed out that unlike the typical open source structure that creates a common-based peer production (see Yoachi Benkler) and is bottom up, these initiatives are largely top-down and sometimes spearheaded by the union.  Freeman seemed to agree and pointed out that there may be inherent conflicts that limit the success of these entities through this conflict.

Some observations on this:

a) these Internet-based unions (or e-unions) are largely not going to be successful at the bread and butter of organization — collective bargaining to get better wages and benefits — unless firm conditions are so bad that they are an affront to our standards of justice.  So trying to mobilize the broader community to build support for raising middle class steel workers’ pay is likely to be far less effective than trying to get basic health care for some very poor employees, putting pressure on a company not to fire employees just before they get benefits, or raising pay of janitors from minimum wage to a working wage.

b) these efforts face the challenge that the new e-unions are going to have a hard time raising funds for two reasons beyond the one Freeman mentioned (that workers will not contribute significant funds unless the e-union is providing collective bargaining).  First workers are unlikely to contribute a lot to e-unions that provide services because they get 100% of the benefits if they don’t contribute and in a low social capital era, people are more inclined to free ride.  And second, users have come to expect free content on the Internet and are loathe to pay for other things that they pay for in real space (whether it is magazines or newspapers or communication).

c) It is easy to see that unions still have a lot of resources to invest (7.5% of workers providing check-off dues in America still produces a lot of resources).  And it is easyto see how they might deploy some of these resources through efforts like WorkingAmerica to build a lot of new members.  Through the right structure, they might build a sense of commitment and community among these workers (see that would make them willing to provide funds.  But there is a fundamental conflict between the command-and-control, top-down old line unions and the more decentralized, “power to the people” approach of the new e-unions (that provide some services).  Until the old unions are willing to bend to the new models, change seems unlikely.  And like any larger entities that reap large profits from the status quo, they are reluctant to endorse a new model of doing business that generates more members but at far slimmer revenue margins, and with unsure prospects about how effectively they can collectively bargain for their workers.


One response to “Workers of the World Connect?

  1. Interesting piece.


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