You've Got Mail: Union Organizing in Cyberspace

By Kershner, William F.; Abbott, Natalie S. | Industrial Management, September/October 2001 | Go to article overview

You've Got Mail: Union Organizing in Cyberspace


Kershner, William F., Abbott, Natalie S., Industrial Management


Executive Summary

Just as businesses have embraced electronic communication for its effectiveness, so have unions. Before you take action or write policies that address the use of your company's computers for union activities, familiarize yourself with the National Labor Relations Board's analysis of employee and employer rights.

Joe Employee arrives at work for Any Co. on Monday morning. He logs onto his computer and opens an e-mail from Bob, a friend-of-a-friend he met at a party over the weekend. Joe had complained to Bob over a drink that he was unhappy with a recent pay raise. Bob is a local union organizer and the e-mail is an "electronic handbill" urging Joe to print and sign an attached authorization card. Joe forwards the e-mail to several co-workers who he knows are likewise dissatisfied with their raises and posts a link to the union's Web site on the company's online bulletin board, accessible to all employees. Within minutes, and without the telltale sign of insignia-wearing organizers distributing handbills at the company's gates, Any Co. is facing a full-blown union organizing drive.

Just as businesses have embraced the Internet and other new technologies to improve production and performance, so have unions. For years, employers took comfort in the perception that the golden era of unions was coming to an end. However, to a degree, unions are experiencing a rebirth, using new technology and tactics to organize new bargaining units and strengthen existing units. Bulletin boards and face-to-face contact remain standard tactics in organizing campaigns, but unions have changed with the times. Union organizing and protected speech has turned into e-organizing and union Web sites.

Today, an e-mail to targeted employees may be the first salvo of an organizing drive, rather than the appearance of organizers in the lunchroom or in the parking lot. The Internet is only going to grow more popular in organizing campaigns due to its efficiency in disseminating information to a wide audience. Many sites let users post messages in chat rooms and even download informal union authorization cards. Web sites offer employees instant on-the-job access to union organizing material - often without the knowledge of the employer. Savvy use of such technology is helping organized labor continue to break out from its traditional blue-collar, manufacturing base to faster-growing segments of the workforce: women and white-collar professionals working in high-technology and service industries.

Non-union employers must be prepared to review and analyze their e-mail policies and procedures in light of the changing law of how e-mail intersects with the National Labor Relations Act. They should also be cognizant of the increasing use of the Internet by unions to organize workers. Employers must be aware of these powerful new union organizing tactics and be prepared to respond swiftly to a union's effort to mobilize employees through e-mail and the Internet.

Powerful tools

E-mail and the Internet are indeed powerful tools in the organizing efforts of unions. Within moments, a message can be sent to countless potential voters within and outside the facility where employees work. The sheer bulk of e-mail and easy access to the Web in many businesses makes it difficult for management to monitor and counter union messages. But the use of these communications tools for union organizing raises interesting legal questions.

Union Web sites in particular are effective methods of communicating union propaganda. For example, the content of the AFL-CIO's Web site is not limited to organizing issues. The site includes a page titled "Executive Pay Watch" that lists executive salaries for many companies, allows employees to calculate their salaries if they had been given pay increases proportionate to the average CEO, and includes a game called "Greed: The Executive Pay Watch Board Game. …

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