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Printed in a 2003 issue of Technological Change and Social Forecasting -


Abstract: Innovations in the use of computer power may offer the American labor movement an opportunity to reverse a 50-year decline. Progressive unions and locals have been experimenting with computer technology, and a "CyberGain" model today commands respect in and outside of Labor.  While indispensable, the model appears insufficient.  A case is made for adopting a radically new approach, a CyberUnion model, whose four components (futuristics, innovations; services; traditions) appear relevant to technological modernization efforts by labor organizations and many other types of bureaucracies.

Computer Power and Union Prospects: CyberUnions or Faux Unions?
Arthur B. Shostak
Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA 19104

ORGANIZED LABOR, DOWN NOW to only 13 percent of the American work force from 35 percent in the 1950s, confronts at least three major threats to its existence: The first, its loss of jobs sent overseas, is obvious. (1) The second, a recent rise in well-being of certain members, poses an ironic risk.  And the third, confusion about using computer power, while a threat least well-recognized in and outside of Labor, is arguably the most critical hazard of all. (2)

Threat #1: Outsourcing. As has been obvious for at least the last two decades, Organized Labor is seriously  threatened by a main strength of global businesses. Companies with branches everywhere and "deep pockets" are shifting more and more unionized jobs overseas to low-paying, little-regulated labor markets in Central America, Eastern Europe, Mainland China, and Southeast Asia.  In 2001 alone, manufacturing, a heavily-unionized sector (15 percent, versus nine percent in the private sector), lost 1,300,000 jobs, with no end in sight. (3) From 1984 to 1997, in the eight industries with the greatest job loss (autos, steel, etc.), about 80 percent of the jobs lost belonged to unionized workers. (4)

Labor leaders condemn the competition among global firms to use the cheapest possible work force as a "race to the bottom." Unions try to bargain for protections against job transfers. They seek plant-closing laws. They lobby to have labor standards included in trade agreements.  And they turn out thousands to protest multi-national trade agreements they blame for allowing offshore job losses. However, as Teamster Union economist Robert E. Lucore notes - "... to date, these efforts have not stemmed the tide toward decreasing union density ... It is virtually impossible for a union to survive, or even gain a toehold in an industry where cutthroat competition prevails." (5)

Threat #2: "Working Class Tories." Ironically, recent wage gains by many workers may undermine Labor's staying power. While little noticed by the media or the popular culture, large numbers of upwardly mobile workers did very well in the boom decade of the 1990s.  Business Week "calculates that workers received 99% of the gains from faster productivity growth in the 1990s at nonfinancial corporations ... [which] helps explain why consumer spending and the housing market stayed strong during the 2001 recession ... All told, real wages for the average private-sector worker rose by about 14% in the 1990s business cycle ...." (6)

Many well-off workers may think unionization unnecessary, at least as long as they continue to "feel" financially comfortable (a social-psychological effect known since the 1960s as the "embourgeoisification of the proletariat"). (7)  This can take the form of workers - newly indifferent to Labor - employing what is known to academics as the Exit Strategy (quitting one job to take a better one) in preference to choosing the Voice Strategy ( sticking with the union and fighting for gains). (8) Especially in a culture like that of America, where class membership is lightly and unevenly held, where it is somehow odd to seeing oneself as a beneficiary of collective representation, unions have long been buffeted by this sort of conscious drift away from collective bonds toward "Me, first!" individualism.

Threat #3: Computer Power Puzzle. Threats #1 and 2 leave Labor no choice: It must attract new members less vulnerable to having their jobs sent offshore.  And it must appeal to upwardly mobile workers, both those already within and those others still only potential members. Labor must organize outside its traditional strongholds, and it find new sorts of "glue" and fresh appeals. All of which explains threat #3: Unless Labor soon figures out how to use computer power to alleviate threats #1 and 2, it will fade into insignificance.

Response #1: Reaching Members On Line.  To help replace members whose jobs have gone offshore, unions are focusing on workers whose jobs are far less vulnerable. Many work in the public sector, which in 2001 added 485,000 posts, and in Health Care, with 300,000 new employees. (9) Both sectors boast a dedicated and proud work force with comparatively high educational attainment, specialized skills, and a very attenuated identity with the traditional blue-collar working class and its labor unions: As such these prospective members pose a difficult cultural challenge to union organizers.

Accordingly, creative efforts are underway making fresh use of computer power.  Reaching out, for example,  to such new types as doctors in HMOs and graduate assistants on campus - unions are using the Internet to establish virtual locals. Designed as incubators for full-fledged unionism down the road, these shadowy "locals" collaborate via union-operated list serves with one another around the country. They trade field-proven advice and lend precious morale support. Patiently proving the case for formal unionization, they promote a new cultural form of "electronic" solidarity - and wait for the right moment to push for formal representation (10).

To hold onto members lifted in the 1990s into the ranks of the seeming well-off, many unions are addressing their known interest in securing further schooling and new educational degrees.  Unions are busy exploring how to use the Internet to offer Distance Learning programs in cooperation with allied colleges and universities, e.g., the National Labor College of the AFL-CIO George Meany Center for Labor Studies is pioneering this innovation.

Considerable attention is also being paid to a highly-regarded effort to unionize Microsoft workers in Seattle and elsewhere: This educationally-focused campaign offers prospective members cut-rate, high-quality computer training courses at a union Training Center, a "fringe benefit" that has proven to have great appeal.  In San Jose, a comparable Labor-run program helps "temps" upgrade their skills, the better to possibly enjoy their support some day later when a unionization campaign is in play.

A second tact uses computer power to help "organizing the organized." It emphasizes creating strong social bonds among former strangers. To this end  locals are busy using their Web site as a 24/7 electronic "newspapers," rich in very current coverage of the activities of their members. Photos of participants in a union picnic or a local meeting can appear within a few hours of the event (or sooner!). Very personal and very current news of births, graduations, retirements, etc., can be proudly carried. This sort of homey "We care about you!" material used to grow stale in a once-a-month prosaic union newspaper, but can now excite and please members who appreciate the local's positive recognition.

Especially dynamic local union site also offer members a swap service, a garage sale outlet, and/or a recipe-exchange page. These and other "down home" services are designed to get members to think first of the local's Web site when seeking valuable goods, services, and information. In this way virtual bonds are being forged between Labor and its dues-payers, bonds that may yet help keep many members from drifting away, spiritually or actually.

Response #2: Reaching for a New Model. Recognition grows that as smart and promising as are the innovations above, they do not go far enough.  The hardest question Labor confronts asks if it  has the will and "smarts" to employ a radically different model, an exercise in "discontinuous" innovation with computer use at its core, rather than its periphery ... one I call the F-I-S-T model, its goal a new form of labor organization I call a CyberUnion. (11)

If Labor is to have a chance of soon meeting the challenges posed by globalization-based job loss and the embourgeosification of the working class, among many other threats, it must reinvent itself rapidly and thoroughly.  A candidate here incorporates four matters newly enhanced by computer uses - namely, futuristics, innovations, services, and labor traditions (F-I-S-T).

Futuristics would have a CyberUnion employ forecasting to learn where relevant industries are heading, why, and what Labor might do about it.  Forecasts would scrutinize demographic changes in the labor force the union and/or local draws on.  Forecasts would enable Labor to test the warring claims of antagonists who beckon for Labor's support, as in the Global Warming or Energy embroilment.  Above all, forecasts would enable Labor to better anticipate training upgrades for members, and continue thereby to distinguish its dues-payers from their less well-prepared competitors.

Innovations would have CyberUnions trying this, that, and the other thing in a responsible and earnestly assessed pursuit of ever better processes, things, services, and so on.  The union or local would gain a proud reputation for early adoption of cutting edge items, and members would look to the organization for assessments and advice when considering testing a novel option themselves.  Above all, innovations would mark the CyberUnion as forward-looking, self-confident, and thereby worth the membership of all intent on making, rather than inheriting a future.

Services refers to the ability of CyberUnions to use computer power to vastly enhance 101 old, and another 101 new services of keen value to the membership.  Typical would be arranging for the sale of computers and software at great discount, thanks to the volume buying Labor can arrange (as demonstrated already in Sweden, Norway, and elsewhere). Another service might have a local facilitate car-pooling, using a list serve of members computer-sorted by zip code.  Or arrange in cyberspace for joint boycott or picketing missions that come off more smoothly and effectively than ever before possible.

Traditions refer to the dedication of CyberUnions to honoring the history, culture, and lore of a union and/or local.  Every effort might be made to create an oral and video record of the reminiscences of older members, complete with archival storage.  Many relevant labor songs, anecdotes, and historic speeches might be added to the site, along with streaming video celebrations of special days and events in the organization's past,

Labor urgently needs rewards possible from reliable forecasting. From innovations, such as computer data mining. From computer-based services. And from the computer-aided celebration of traditions. Together, these four items (F-I-S-T) just might help provide Labor go beyond its necessary, but insufficient use of computer strengths. [12]

Response #3: Reaching for New Leadership.  Pivotal here is the possible rise to power soon of a new cadre of leaders, men and women drawn from Labor's own self-schooled computer enthusiasts, or, by their jargon title, Labor's digerati. Capable of matching the organizational flexibility and fluidity of their business management counterparts, the digerati are Labor's secret weapon.  Although weakened today by a lack of consciousness of kind, networking, and leadership, this cadre could soon prove the critical ingredient in assuring Labor's revival. (13)

Many of the digerati envision using computers that will provide unprecedented access of everyone in Labor to everyone else ... officers to members, members to officers. unionists to non-unionists, and vice versa.  Aware of the likely arrival soon of computer "wearables," empowering unionists as never before, some of the digerati are busy even now planning to make the most of this.

On the digerati agenda is promotion of the rapid polling of the membership. Spotlighting computer-use models worth emulating, in or outside of Labor's world. Putting electronic libraries at a unionist's beck and call, along with valuable arbitration, grievance, and mediation material. Offering open chat rooms and bulletin boards, and nurturing the creation of a High Tech electronic (virtual) "community" to bolster High Touch solidarity.

As if this was not enough, the vision of many of Labor's digerati includes a quantum increase soon in the collective intelligence and cooperation among "global village" unionists. They would pursue unprecedented cooperation across national borders, and expect in this way to mount effective counters to transnational corporations.

Forward thinking and visionary, these techno-savvy men and women have a hefty dose of indefatigable assurance and optimism. (14) Unlike many of their peers, their expectations concerning the renewing of Organized Labor are almost without limits. Believing that what they do matters, and graced by a strong sense of purpose, their influence may soon soar.

This cadre receives a valuable boost from a new force on the scene - one Karl Marx envisioned, but lived over a century too soon to employ - a Fourth International-of-sorts, a feasible way for workers around the globe to be in real time contact for real-time concerted industrial action. (15) With an estimated 2,700 Labor Union Web sites on-line now, and more being added weekly, the opportunities for global networking are enormous. (16) American union activists are in an unprecedented dialogue with their counterparts around the globe. (See, in this connection, http://labourstart.org and http://icem.org)

Guided, then, by a growing cadre of its own "digerati," Labor is steadily learning more about variations on the F-I-S-T model. Experiments with it may help invigorate the membership. Draw in new members. Intrigue vote-seekers. And in 101 other valuable ways, enable a new Labor Movement to provide what union "netizens" increasingly expect of 21st century Unionism. (17)

Summary: Labor Union Prospects? None of the advances possible in Labor's uses of computer hardware and software will suffice unless there are commensurate advances in "thoughtware," that is, in the quality of thinking and imagining in Labor leadership. (18) Their organizations five years from now are likely to be very different: They may have faltered badly (19). Or they may draw handsomely instead on CyberUnion attributes (F-I-S-T). (20) While computerization alone cannot "rescue" Organized Labor, and while job loss to globalization and membership recruiting will long remain trying, unless Labor soon makes bolder use of computer power, its renewal may prove impossible.


Methodology. Drawing on 48 years of formal study of unionism here and abroad, and especially on my 26 years (1975 - 2001) of adjunct teaching at the AFL-CIO George Meany Center for Labor Studies (Silver Springs, MD.), I have long tracked the complex pattern of union uses of computer power (Shostak; 1991).  Most recently, I attended LaborTech Conventions held in 1998 (San Francisco), 1999 (New York), and 2000 (Madison, WIS.), as these three-day events highlight progress and problems in an invaluable (and unofficial) way. (They are self-sponsored by grass-roots activists, and only in 2000 did the AFL-CIO send several representatives).

I have often interviewed key AFL-CIO and International Union computer specialists (Web Masters, etc.), and I have attended several workshops given for unionists eager to gain computer skills. I was an invited guest at the inauguration in 2000 of the new Teamster Union Web site, and I have guided teams of my students in close studies of the 61 Web sites of the 64 AFL-CIO union affiliates (along with hundreds of local union sites and several overseas sites).

In 1999 I authored CyberUnion: Empowering Labor through Computer Technology, and in 2002, I edited a 49-person collection, The CyberUnion Handbook: Transforming Labor through Computer Technology. (Shostak; 1999; 2002). In 2000 I co-produced a 30-minute VHS film, "Labor Computes: Union People, Computer Power," made up of pithy interviews with Labor digerati types (copies available on request). Naturally, I participate in various Labor-oriented list serves, maintain one of my own (www.cyberunions.net), and avidly "surf" both the literature and the Internet (with its estimated six billion pages) for relevant material.


Note:   I am devoting a sabbatical year (Winter,2001, to Fall, 2002) to studying in the field new uses unionists are making of information technology in general, and computer power in particular. In this connection, I welcome leads to sites I should visit and people I should interview (shostaka@drexel.edu).


1. Hirsch, B. and Schumacher, E.J.:Private Sector Union Density and the Wage Premium: Past, Present, and Famine. Journal of Labor Research, 22; 487-518 (2001)

2. Invaluable is a unique six-essay symposium, E-Voice: Information technology and Unions, in Journal of Labor Research, Spring, XXlll, 2 (2002)

3. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of labor Statistics. Union members in 2000. Washington, DC: Department of Labor; 17 (2001).  See also Birnbaum, J.:No Recovery Without Jobs.America@Work, March; 13 (2002)

4. Greenhouse, S. Union Leaders See grim News in Labor Study. New York Times, October 13; 21 (1999)

5. Lucore, R.E. Challenges and Opportunities: Unions Confront the New Information Technologies. Journal of Labor Research, XXlll, 2; 202 (2002)

6. Mandel. M.J. Restating the '90s. Business Week, April 1; 53-54 (2002)

7. Goldthorpe, J.H., et. al. The Affluent Worker in the Class Structure. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press (1969)

8. Freeman, R. and J.L. Medoff. What Do Unions Do? New York: Basic Books (1984)

9. Birnbaum, op. cit.

10. Freeman, R. and Diamond, W., as quoted in R. Taylor: Trade Unions: Workers Unite on the Internet, Financial Times, May 11; 1 (2001)

11. Shostak, A. B.:CyberUnion: Empowering Labor Through Computer Technology. Armonk, NY: M.E.Sharpe. (1999)

12. Shostak, A.B.: Tomorrow's CyberUnions: A New Path to Renewal and growth. Working USA, Fall; 82-105 (2001)

13. Greer, C.R.: E-Voice: How Information Technology Is Shaping Life Within Unions. Journal of Labor Research, XXlll, 2, Spring; 215-236 (2002)

14. Katz, J.: Geeks. New York: Villard (2000) 15. Lee, E.:The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New Internationalism. Chicago: Pluto Press (1997)

16. Townsend, A., Demarie, S.M., , and Hendrickson, A.R.: Information Technology, Unions, and New Organization: Challenges and Opportunities for Union Survival. Journal of Labor Research XXII, Spring; 275-286 (2001)

17. Fiorito, J., Jarley, P., Delaney, J.T., and Kolodinsky, R.W.: Unions and Information technology: From Luddites to CyberUnions? Labor Studies Journal, 24; Winter; 3-34 (2000)

18. Lazarovici, L. :Cyber Drives: Organizing, Bargaining, and Mobilizing. America@Work, March; 9  (2001)

19. Chaison, G.: Information Technology: The Threat to Unions. Journal of Labor Research XXII, Spring; 249-256 (2001)

20. Shostak, A B.:The CyberUnion Handbook: Transforming Labor through Computer Technology. Armonk,NY: M.E.Sharpe (2002)  See also Shostak, A. B. : Robust Unionism: Innovations in the Labor Movement. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press (1991)

ARTHUR B. SHOSTAK is a professor in the Department of Culture and Communications, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA. 19041. Ph: (610) 668-2727; Fax: (610) 668-2727; E-mail: shostaka@drexel.edu

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