Sunday September 3 4:52 PM ET
Labor Unions Turn to Cyberspace
By GREG TOPPO, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Like their counterparts in business, labor leaders in the United States have increasingly turned to the Internet to find new customers, keep the old ones and sharpen their message.
What they've found is a much better ability to organize on a large scale with less effort. Before the widespread use of e-mail, union organizers often had to stand outside the gates of a plant handing out union literature, then track down workers at home. Now a union representative need only coax a worker's e-mail address out of him or her to get 24-hour access.
``In a way, the Internet can almost be like an electronic home visit,'' said Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers. Workers can apply for union membership online, e-mail questions and access union literature in the privacy of their homes - and with easy access to dozens of pro-union links. The American Federation of Teachers links most of its local publications, in effect creating an online wire service for teachers.
Most of the labor links are tame, but a few take aim at corporate policies and executive compensation. One site, www.allianceibm.org, reproduces the multimillion-dollar contract of IBM head Lou Gerstner under the heading, ``I've got MY contract!'' Another site, www.walmartyrs.com, skewers alleged worker abuses by Wal-Mart.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union's Web site receives about 150-200 e-mails daily from workers wanting to know more about their rights and about union organizing, said union spokesman Greg Denier. Denier said the Internet has become an essential link to rural workers and others who fear they are the only ones complaining about a boss or workplace. ``Workers are connecting with each other and finding, 'Wait a minute, it's not just me.' That's the basis for union organizing,'' Denier said.
Candice Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Communications Workers of America, said the Internet was vital as negotiations dragged on in last month's strike against Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ - news). The union posted daily bargaining updates on its Web site, with access restricted to members who typed in a password. ``It means that somebody who's home at 1 a.m. can get online and hear the latest bargaining report before going out'' to the picket lines, Johnson said. The password restrictions, common on most union sites, make it possible not only to relay sensitive information, but to solicit honest opinions, said Horwitz.
``They're having very open, honest conversations about what should go into their contract,'' he said.
Horwitz said instructors and librarians at the University of California recently created an ``online picket line,'' bombarding university regents with requests to maintain library funding.
The sites also give workers better, more current information with less fuss. A ratified contract that once took days or even weeks to duplicate and distribute can now be in members' hands in moments.
Internet postings helped the AFT organize instructors at Miami Dade Community College in 1998, enabling the union to add its spin to the message coming from school's administration, Horwitz said.
Steven Levi, a history professor at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, said the Internet has connected about 1,600 adjunct professors spread among 43 locations in a state one-fourth the size of the lower 48 states. ``It's a very, very fluid group of people,'' he said. ``We're being pulled by the technology, and pushed by the fact that we really don't have a choice.''
The University of Alaska union plans to hold its first online vote next month, when members vote on bylaws. The union plans more e-votes, for selection of officers, this fall and a vote on a new contract next July.
And the Internet is even making itself felt in negotiations. When unionized janitors in New York City marched this year for a new contract, they won not only a 10 percent pay increase over three years, but also $200 home computers.