Organizing and the Internet

Every internet-savvy labor activist I've talked to believes that there's no substitute for personal, one-on-one contact for effectively mobilizing and organizing union members and potential recruits.

That disclaimer aside, there's a myriad of great uses for e-communications, from using web pages as a mammoth informational library for union members, e-mail alerts as one part of a comprehensive action plan, to online bulletin boards as democratic discussion forums linking members across the barriers of distance and work schedules.


Getting e-mail addresses is one of the most basic steps for building internet communications with the audience you are trying to reach, whether it's unorganized workers or an established membership.

Labor organizations are still catching up to the need to request this information on membership forms, meeting sign-up sheets, in face-to-face contacts, and even on websites.

My own union, the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), does not yet have a system for e-mail communication with its members, outside of a number of unofficial lists.

This year the APWU and other postal unions began to prepare for a possible crisis, anticipating the release of anti-worker recommendations from a Bush-appointed commission on the Postal Service.

The Seattle and Wichita APWU locals passed resolutions asking the national APWU to set up a user-friendly e-mail alert system to generate e-mails or faxes to congressional leaders.


A Wichita APWU member set up a "Save Universal PostalService Campaign" through Kansas Workbeat (, which uses the GetActive software that the AFL-CIO makes available free to all affiliates. I'm using the "tell-a-friend" feature to spread the word to my e-mail lists of postal workers.

GetActive and similar programs are used by many nonprofit groups to generate e-mails and faxes on one side of an issue to Congress, the President, corporate CEO's, and other decision-makers.

To send an opinion, users must first register, entering their home address and, generally, choosing among various issues that might interest them. Users can respond to a single campaign and also sign up for future alerts.

Their responses to legislative-oriented campaigns are automatically directed to the representatives for their state and district - no need for anyone to look them up.



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The software makes it as simple as hitting "Reply" to an e-mail to generate a response. Since responses are routed back through the GetActive software, campaign organizers can tally the number of responses and where they came from.

SEIU Local 775 in Seattle, which represents 28,000 home health care workers, started using GetActive this year as part of their campaign to win raises from the Washington State legislature. The local sought $100 million in funding for raises, in a year that the state faced a $3 billion deficit.

The campaign, during the course of the six-month legislative session, generated 25,000 phone, e-mail, and in-person contacts between supporters and legislators. Ten thousand of these contacts were generated by e-mail from the local''s list of 2-3,000 members and supporters, and local officers believe it helped affect the outcome.

Funding for home healthcare worker raises became the issue that deadlocked the state budget. The 75¢ increase that finally passed was the largest one-year raise ever for these workers, requiring $35 million in funding.


Where workers use e-mail as part of their work duties, their union can negotiate to use work e-mail addresses to communicate with workers on the job.

For example, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) gets updated work e-mail addresses for its members at Boeing as part of its weekly data requests from the company.

However, work e-mail addresses have the obvious downside of being readable by the employer. In addition, they become completely worthless in a strike situation.

SPEEA had to scramble to collect home e-mail addresses while building a communications network for their strike against Boeing in 2000. In perhaps the most effective use of its database, SPEEA was able to generate a picket line of 500 people in six hours by e-mail alone, to disrupt an unannounced meeting of the Boeing board of directors in a local hotel.

Normally, of course, you would not want to rely on the internet for turnout. In this case, the union's members were in a state of mobilization for the strike, and checked their e-mail frequently for strike news.

E-mail discussion lists, developed spontaneously, played another important role for workers striking against the Seattle daily newspapers in 2000.

Columnist Paul Andrews described this in "How the Internet Sustained a Strike," written for the Seattle Union Record (the online and print newspaper the workers produced during the strike): "When nerves frayed or spirits flagged, someone always came up with an encouraging e-mail to pass around. The mailing list provided an instant, no-holds-barred forum for airing frustrations as well as testing membership sentiment.

"Strikers got to hear each other out in ways not possible even in group meetings. In the process they got to know one another better and build a communality [sic] in purpose..."