The internet poses a dilemma for union officials because they are losing their monopoly control over access to their membership. As long as communication depended upon the printed word, they had no problem. They had the official union publication, printed and mailed to the whole membership at union expense, reporting on their services to humanity and on the plaques they received and bestowed for supporting worthy causes. True, most members discarded the products after a casual glance, along with all other bulk mail. Nothing to worry about, because no one else could reach the membership with a contrary message.
Independents, dissidents, critics could print their own stuff, but it was often burdensome and costly. Usually it was technically impossible and prohibitively expensive to get it into the hands of the membership, even more so as autonomous local unions were merged and reorganized from modest-sized manageable units into sprawling mega units, councils, and districts.
But the internet is changing all that. Now anyone can set up a website. E-mail can go out to a whole list at the click of a button. No postage costs, no fancy printing charges. It is economical, convenient, and even free (if necessary you can use a public library.) As more and more unionists become computer savvy and sign up for their own internet services, they cease to be passive recipients of messages; they seek out information available on websites. What they find, they share. And so union oppositionists can be partially relieved of the burden of seeking out an audience; it comes to them and spreads the word.
In response to the challenge of this new medium, most unions have established their own websites and line up their members to receive e-mail. Some unions try to limit their critics or shut them down by assorted disciplinary threat. But nothing works to eliminate the perceived danger from the independent internet.
The typical official website serves a narrow administrative purpose. Members can turn to it for technical information on meeting dates, pensions, legally required notices, and the like; but everyone knows it contains little beyond the acceptable politically correct line and puff pieces for the officers. For something exciting, or revealing, or imaginative, or even fictional, they turn to the independent sites. The reader may be outraged by some of the attacks on their leadership or may laugh off an absurdity, but they find the exchanges interesting. They pay attention, and they can participate in the discussion. The official site is no competition.
Attempts at repression by those in power are doomed to failure. Union officials bring disciplinary charges against their internet critics: libel and slander, revealing union business to the public, violating a claimed union copyright on information, failing properly to distinguish the insurgent site from the official site. The latest: a technical demand that insurgents seal off their sites from non-members by imposing a password that would require readers to identify themselves before opening the independent site. But none of this will really work. The dictatorial Chinese government, empowered by jails and police, finds it impossible to silence the internet voice. And this is the U.S.A. where leaders have only the limited power of their union office; even if they could drive the independent internet into a union underground, they could never repress it.
But some union leaders are enlightened or intelligent enough to know that something new is necessary, or shrewd enough to realize that they must become kind of union democrats despite themselves. (If you can’t eliminate them join them!) They even post on the independent sites or establish official union blogs where members are encouraged to express themselves more or less freely, to reject union policies, and even to criticize their leaders.
A blog is a special type of online journal where the blogger offers commentary. Blogs do not stand alone. They offer links to other blogs and sites. Visitors can post their own comments. Blogs form a network, encouraging discussion and exchanging information. In many cases users of websites can establish their own blogs on the site. One expert notes that these new tools are “evidence of a staggering shift [away] from an age of carefully controlled information provided by sanctioned authority.” Bloggers are creating a new community, an online community.
By encouraging free dissent under official union auspices, union blogs aim to bring members back home to an arena where their discontent can be, not only expressed, but answered under controlled conditions. To the extent that union members can find an outlet for democratic discussion under union auspices, it is hoped, they will cease to rely exclusively on the independent sites. But the turn to an official arena creates new problems for the union leadership.
The independent internet, uncontrolled, poses an outside democratic challenge to any union establishment. If to mitigate that challenge, they establish their own forum where members can speak freely, they must accept the dangers of internal union democracy. We find them confronting that dilemma in the experiences of several of our most important unions.
Matt Noyes and Herman Benson