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The Internet vs. the Labor Movement: Why Unions Are Late-Comers to Digital Organizing

Over the past decade, the importance of digital organizing has soared in electoral and issue based campaigns on the left. The idea that an electoral field organizer need not be a capable database user is patently ridiculous at this point. Political campaigns understand that they need to invest in staff with expertise in digital organizing—whether those are people who can write e-mail subject lines that will be opened by hundreds of thousands of people, data managers who can refine an entire state’s voter rolls to target the handful that can swing an election, or people who know how to create content to be shared on social media, that may go viral. Capable campaign managers do not see field and digital organizing as competing interests, but complementary ones that help campaigns move forward most effectively.

The traditional labor movement has been a late adopter of most of these technologies, if they have adopted them at all. It is not un-common to hear older union leaders complaining about social networks like Twitter, or why unions need to invest money in setting up and maintaining decent databases, instead of investigating how they might use those tools to reach the next generation of workers. Staff running union organizing drives and contract fights are sometimes known to say things such as, “we just need to keep house visiting, that other stuff doesn’t matter.” That fact has led some of us to ask, “Why haven’t unions adopted more new technologies in organizing campaigns or to mobilize current members?”

The difference between how traditional labor unions use data for organizing, versus how political campaigns (whether electoral or legislative) do, is based on the differences in how both approach data and targeting. A campaign that is working on a statewide or national issue will almost never have the ability to reach every single voter or constituent in their state. It is always the job of political organizers to winnow down the list of voter targets to people the campaign will most likely succeed in moving or persuading. A union organizer working on a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election, however, rarely has the ability to “write off” voters in the way an electoral organizer must—because the universe of voters is so much smaller than in even most city council races. In a union election, every single voter must be targeted for conversation, assessment, and repeated follow-up

Having spent a good chunk of my work life straddling the intersection of the labor movement and the electoral world, I have seen enormous improvement in data management tools on the political side—and almost none on the labor side. In my early life as an elections field manager, I would routinely have to call a computer vendor and walk through the complicated search terms that were required to set up our walk lists for the next week. Staff would come back from their nightly canvassing with reams of paper walk sheets that sometimes got wet, lost, or torn. The paper had to get shipped back to the data vendor, who needed full-time staff to enter it into their proprietary system. The Internet did not exist, in the way we know it now—and the idea that we might someday have cloud-based access to that information was un-thinkable.

In 2006, when I first saw the VAN (Voter Activation Network1 ), I almost cried for joy. Back then, we still needed to use paper maps and turf—but the ability to see the entire state’s voter file made for much more informed targeting. I could create walk lists or direct mail universes in real time—and could see immediately what ramifications it would have if I changed a demographic field (like expanding the age range of targeted voters, to include more young people, for example). Catalist (the company that provides voter data to the VAN) gets updates from the secretary of state in Pennsylvania at least twice per year, so although the data are not perfect (because people will move or become newly eligible to vote as they turn 18), they are reliable for the vast majority of voters.2

Today, when my canvass goes out to knock doors, they have an entire walk list on their phone through the MiniVAN app, which contains both the walk list and a list of questions that they are to ask voters, in a structured conversation. They sync their phones to the main database when they come back to the office—eliminating the need for much in the way of data entry—and I can see immediate results on how voters are reacting to a new script, and know when we need to make changes. Efficiency and productivity have increased enormously for those of us running massive voter contact programs.

Contrast that to the database my union used to track workers in new organizing campaigns, and in already-represented shops. Of course, a major difference is that there is no one statewide source for the data—for represented shops, the data comes every month from the employers— and employer-data quality ran the gamut of really good to godawful. If I wanted to use my member data for routine political organizing— to, say, send a group of members to lobby their legislator on a particular bill—I needed to export the data from the union’s main database (which lacks political sub-division geocoding), and put it into a system like the VAN that can tell me which legislative districts each member lives in. When the work is over, if I have updated anything (say—added a new cell phone number that a member gave me), I need to export those data out of the VAN and back into the union’s database. Clunky much?

For new organizing drives, the employers are not required to give contact information for workers until ten days before an election—but a union must, of course, find workers before that to generate the signature cards necessary to even trigger an election. Those lists are hard to create and must usually be created by worker organizing committees (although a few unions are using very creative ways of finding workers through social media connections, where workers have self-identified their employer—the OUR Walmart campaign is a good example of this).

In addition to data management, political organizers have been key in the development and use of social media to advance electoral and issue-based campaigns. While sometimes defamed as “hashtag activism” or “slacktivism,” the reality is that Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook have all played significant roles in amplifying movements3 —and in helping to bring about real change. President Obama’s 2008 campaign used Facebook to identify potential voters—and donors—both by connecting current supporters to their friends who were not regular voters and by giving people ways to show support for the campaign by constantly pushing out shareable social media content. State Senator Wendy Davis trended with #standwithwendy, during her nowfamous filibuster of abortion restrictions in the Texas state legislature. The #blacklivesmatter hashtag has brought national attention to instances of local police violence that were rarely covered by the media, in years gone by.

There have been some examples of U.S. labor organizers using hashtags to successfully bring attention to their campaigns—the #fightfor15, #caringacrossgenerations and #ourwalmart are three good examples in the United States, while the #zerohours has done well for U.K. campaigners—but these have mostly been launched as parts of efforts that are not seen as traditional labor organizing or representational campaigns (in that the main demand is not limited to an exclusive group of workers who are employed by one specific employer). The use of social media by younger organizers, or those who are in the alt-labor movement, belies the idea that is put forward by some older trade unionists that millennials and younger adults do not care about economic justice organizing.

But it is not just the tactical differences between movements that have left labor struggling to catch up in the digital organizing sphere. There are significant cultural challenges within some parts of the labor movement that keep us from adapting to new methods of doing the work. For years, the labor movement has prioritized seniority—both as a contract benefit for represented members that protects more expensive, older workers, who might otherwise be the first to go when employers are looking to cut costs, and (informally) as a determining factor in who gets to make decisions within the union. In 2014, the Harvard Business Review found that the average age for start-up founders of thirty-five of tech’s “Billion Dollar Club” was thirty-one.4 Thirty-one-year-olds are rarely found heading national unions (or even local ones). While older organizers can be early adopters of new technologies (I’m certainly one), young organizers who are digital natives are much more likely to understand the possibilities inherent in apps like Snapchat or What’s App for organizing in different communities.

In addition to seniority, some unions are devoted to hiring from within their own rank and file—a noble practice, when it comes to ensuring that business agents and organizers are deeply in touch with the concerns of the members—but a potentially limiting one, where expertise in use of technology is required. It should not surprise us that a person who has spent her life learning to be the best kindergarten teacher possible, for example, is not also an expert in programming SQL5 databases. And while we are great about training members to perform important internal union functions such as grievance handling and health and safety enforcement, we sometimes fall down on the job of preparing them to carry out those functions using digital tools.

Digital technologies have been usefully employed in organizing non-union workers. Coworker.org,6 for example, developed by two SEIU alums, allows non-union workers to organize petition campaigns to seek workplace changes. This model, which has existed in the political space for years through platforms such as MoveOn.org and Change.org, has been an effective strategy for low-paid workers who otherwise lack the ability to organize collectively for change. An example is the Tupelo Honey campaign, launched when the restaurant chain cut workers’ wages from $5.15/hour to $2.13 (the legal wage for tipped workers). Over 1,200 people signed the workers’ petition, and in 2015, the company restored wages at three of their locations to $5.15/hour.7 In fact, it just announced that, as of April 2016, it will pay a “total wage” of at least $11/hour at all of their locations and create a paid leave accrual policy (for workers who have completed training).8

Another effort to inject technological and sustainability solutions from the social enterprise field into worker organizations is the Workers’ Lab. Launched in 2015, the initiative has been described as a venture capital fund for the worker organizing movement. Current projects are split into two categories—Accelerator projects (which inject additional funds into existing technical projects) and Enterprise projects (which help non-traditional worker organizations develop financially stable business models, similar to the way that employer duescheckoff provides stability to traditional unions). At a moment when many of our duescheckoff models are under both legislative and legal attack (at least for public sector workers), it is possible that the work they are funding with the alt-labor movement will eventually end up aiding more traditional unions as well.

Union leaders could take a lesson from these examples. We know that happy members are hungry to promote the benefits of their union and to talk about what makes it great. Years ago, I represented a group of women cafeteria workers at a high school district in California. Every time I would walk into their worksite, one of them would sing the jingle from the old International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union “look for the union label” ad9 —and this was twenty years after it went off the air. I cannot count the number of times I have been in meetings with members who wanted the union to buy advertising—because they felt the union was something worth promoting. We should be embracing the fact that members can now promote the benefits of their union through social media channels, since most unions no longer have the resources to advertise on television.

Build it into your budget. Digital organizing does not have to cost a lot of money, but it will cost some. You do not have to break the bank to make a shareable graphic per month, but you will want to invest in design. Most unions do not have the capacity to hire a full-time designer, but there are many talented freelancers in the world. Hire them. Pay them appropriately (and on time!). But please, stop using Microsoft Word clip art.

Make cleaning up your database the job of everyone in the union, every day. If your field reps or business agents are not routinely collecting new addresses, e-mails, and cell phone numbers from your members, you will never have decent data. Do not rely on employer data above all else—members often do not WANT their employers to have their personal cell phone numbers or e-mail addresses. Employer data are great for tracking dues and making sure members’ seniority rights are protected. It is not always great for finding actual members. If you are in a union that is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, send your member data to your national union monthly, so that they can be crossmatched against things like the National Change of Address database. Use the local area network (LAN) for ongoing political organizing work—not just during election years—so that your staff get used to its interface and are comfortable entering data themselves.

Experiment with new platforms. Are your members part of a large national chain? Have one of them launch a petition to change a company policy on Coworker.org to see if you can find unorganized workers in other markets who are experiencing the same issues. Do you represent workers who have lots of family overseas who use WhatsApp to communicate with cheaply? Set up a group chat so that people do not have to use up their text messages to talk to you and to each other.

• Support staff and members who want to try something new. The joy of digital tools is that they can expand your reach to communicate with members, and part of the way they do that is by allowing more people to become organizers.

More and more people have employers that are global in nature, and for them, the days of simply throwing up a picket line and an inflatable are largely over. When so many employers have simply become cogs in the wheel of a larger corporate parent, it makes sense for organizers to use all the tools that can help effect brand damage on a national scale.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


1. https://www.ngpvan.com/content/voter-contactand-volunteer-management.
2. Unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO may use a similar software program—the local area network (LAN)—for their voter contact; https:// prezi.com/x8uxk3ftyuf7/the-labor-action-network-lan-the-efficiency-of-member-targeting/.
3. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article? id=10.1371/journal.pone.0143611.
4. https://hbr.org/2014/04/how-old-are-siliconvalleys-top-founders-heres-the-data/.
5. A standard language for accessing databases.
6. https://www.coworker.org/.
7. https://medium.com/@USDOL/a-sweet-victoryfor-tupelo-honey-workers-3d30f9bfc132# .4qhy2w7ba.
8. http://tupelohoneycafe.com/transparency-2/.
9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Lg4gGk5 3iY&feature=youtu.be.





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